Ninja Gaiden Black Hands-On

We bust out the katana with Tecmo's new and improved modern Xbox classic.

When all is said and done, a great game always has an air of magic to it. While there will always be aspects that can be singled out as exceptional, whether it's control, graphics, audio, or some combination, there is always that unidentifiable something that ties everything together into a grand package that is more than the sum of its parts. This careful alchemy is something that developers always try to re-create in subsequent games. One thing that's rare to see, though, is a developer going back and tweaking an existing hit. Unfortunately, messing with one of the finest Xbox titles ever made has the potential for a debacle of Star Wars: Special Edition proportions.

Itagaki flexes his sadistic streak with Ninja Gaiden Black, an update that adds incredibly difficult new modes to the superb action game.

However, this doesn't appear to be the case with Ninja Gaiden Black, a director's cut-style follow-up to 2004's reinvention of the classic 2D franchise. The game is both a love letter to hardcore Gaiden fans who have honed their action gaming skills to perfection on the challenging original game, as well as a gentle encouragement to those who were intimidated by the Xbox game's widow-making difficulty. We recently had the opportunity to get our hands on the upcoming game, along with a guided look at it by Team Ninja's head ninja, Tomonobu Itagaki.

One of the main reasons Ninja Gaiden Black came about was because of the user feedback that was received from the original Ninja Gaiden. Amid all the critical acclaim and diehard adoration from fans, Team Ninja caught wind of two very distinct schools of thought on the game. The first was a very strong call for more of the game from fans who eagerly tore into the downloadable content that was made available in the months after its release. The second was word of some folks feeling intimidated by the game's level of challenge and being unable to finish it. In order to satisfy diehard fans and help players of all skill levels enjoy its masterpiece, Team Ninja cooked up Ninja Gaiden Black. The game features the original Ninja Gaiden, as well as all the downloadable content found in the various packs that have hit since the game's release. In addition, there will be new difficulty levels and a slew of unlockable content.

The new difficulty levels will likely be of the most interest to both casual and hardcore players. You'll now find normal, hard, very hard, and master ninja difficulties. For those keeping score at home, normal will be equivalent to the default difficulty of the original Ninja Gaiden; hard will be as challenging as the harder levels in Gaiden; while very hard and master ninja are taking pain and humiliation to a whole new level with brutal challenges that are exponentially more difficult. Itagaki noted that very few individuals will be able to get through the master ninja difficulty, as it will offer a generally impossible challenge to the average gamer.

If all of the above difficulties prove too overwhelming for you, Black will also offer a special, easier "ninja dog" difficulty. The mode will be accessible in much the same way that Devil May Cry 3's easier settings are accessible--you'll get the option to select it if you die a certain amount of times on the first stage. Once that happens, you'll be able to opt for ninja dog. The only catch is, since this is a Team Ninja game, the difficulty isn't quite the free ride you might think. A mildly humiliating cinematic with Ayane dissing on you is followed up with a running gag in this mode.

Easier difficulty modes will be available, but you'll suffer some serious humiliation for them.

Once you return to the game after the cinematic, you'll gain an accessory, the band of power, which you'll be able to equip. The good news is that the wristband will enhance your melee attacks. However, the bad news is that it's an oh-so-cute shade of bright purple and looks more than a little out of place on a badass ninja. As you progress, you'll gain other bands, which sound as though they'll run through a rainbow of humiliating colors (which seems like a more than ample excuse to grow a pair and get better at the game). From the sound of it, the enemy artificial intelligence hasn't been tuned down in the ninja dog mode. Hayabusa is just a little more powerful, so you're still going to have to do some work.

As far as the unlockable content in the game goes, Ninja Gaiden Black offers deep, layered experiences of onionlike proportions. You'll be able to unlock Ryu's assorted costumes, a movie theater that lets you view all the cinematics from Ninja Gaiden, and a coming-attractions option that houses the E3 Dead or Alive 4 trailer. The biggest chunk of unlockable content comes in the form of a mission mode and the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden. The mission mode is a massive, and potentially soul-crushing, collection of challenges that have sprung from the minds of Itagaki and Team Ninja. When you initially unlock the mode you'll have access to two levels: Path of the Master Ninja and Descent of the Fiends. Each level will have one mission for you to play. As you clear the missions, you'll open others, which will equal a total of five missions for each level. Once you've cleared those, you'll open new levels with such charming monikers as Fateful Confrontation, Military Destruction, Battlefield of the Abyss, and Legend.

Hack and Slash

All told, you'll find 10 levels in mission mode. The first nine will each feature five missions for you to clear, while the final one, Legend, will require you to play through all the content from the Hurricane Pack 2 download, an epic two-hour-plus experience, which will basically bring the mission count to roughly 50. The mode will let you earn karma points, as well as the ability to track them as you complete the various missions. You'll be able to upload your karma scores to an online leaderboard to see how you stack up against the masses, which will either be an exhilarating recognition of your mad skills or a humbling experience. The missions will offer brutal challenges that will require you to be in full ninja form to make it through. Some were actually pretty fun and displayed Team Ninja's sly sense of humor. Others were like a kick to the groin, while some were a blend of all three.

The new mission mode will offer a boatload of new content, with around 50 missions in all.

Case in point: One of the missions in the Captivating Goddess level requires you to save Rachel, the buxom blonde hottie who aids Hayabusa. The curvy lass is in quite the tough spot when the mission starts, as she's chained atop a pyramid and being fired on by bow-wielding demons. Your goal is to stop them before her health dwindles to nothing. You're hampered by the hated ghost fish that stop you in your tracks for a few seconds by latching on to you--but the challenge seems, for the most part, to be doable. Of course, just as you get the knack of multitasking by taking out the demons and fending off the ghostly critters, the level changes things up and throws large club-wielding behemoths at you. Then, just as you've sorted out the best way to deal with the giants while still taking out the arrow-shooting demons, those demons are replaced by rocket launcher-wielding military personnel who cause buckets more damage to poor Rachel.

If you want an example of how painful things can get, we'll offer up any of the missions on the Fateful Confrontation level, which pit you against not one but two versions of Hayabusa, who come packing an arsenal of weapons and the skills to use them. Just about any of these missions guarantee a stomping of Godzilla-like proportions and are sure to humble many a player. The control in Black incorporates the various enhancements added by the second Hurricane Pack download. So you can plan on performing the mighty intercept move and Ryu's ultimate attack with impunity. Mastering both of these moves, as well as his new staff, Lunar, is vital to your success.

Thankfully, if you need to build up the old self-esteem, the unlockable arcade version of Ninja Gaiden is on hand. For those who might have missed it back in the day, the game was a 2D side-scrolling beat-'em-up in the Double Dragon, Final Fight vein whose most significant feature was Ryu's ability to grab nearby poles and hang from them so he could kick oncoming enemies.

The visuals in Ninja Gaiden Black are outstanding and sport the various improvements introduced in the last Hurricane Pack download. The most significant of these is the new camera system, which you can use to adjust your view on the fly. Despite the years that have passed, the game still stands as one of the most impressive-looking Xbox games around, especially when played in 480p. The new stages and foes seen in the mission mode all feature fresh designs that are in line with its predecessor's high standards. Some of the visual elements have been polished up some, such as special effects, but the game maintains its solid frame rate.

Black's audio remains basically unchanged and features a visceral mix of audio samples, weapon fire, and music that all suits the action. There have been a few tweaks over the original game's sound that we saw, namely the addition of speech. Ayame is the most significant addition to the mix we've seen so far, as she narrates the shuriken-delivered tips you'll come across as you play.

You'll even get the old classic Ninja Gaiden arcade game in the already extensive Black package (but this isn't it).

Based on what we've played, Ninja Gaiden Black appears to be treading the fine line between appealing to two distinct audiences quite deftly. Hardcore fans will dig opening up the wealth of missions and extras in the game, while newcomers will be able to ease into the challenge and even improve their gaming skills after putting in some time. If you own an Xbox and haven't gotten around to getting Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Gaiden Black will help you rectify that horrible omission in your software library, and then some. At the same time, if you're a hardcore Gaiden and think highly of your skills, prepare to rethink your strategies and work even harder, as Black's higher level difficulties are tough as nails. All told, the game is a great value for new players, as well as for Xbox owners who are starting to worry that, with the Xbox 360 on the horizon, their platform of choice is being left out in the cold.

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