It was only about a week ago that we had our first opportunity to lay hands on Ninja Gaiden Black, the updated version of last year's outstanding action adventure game for the Xbox. As you've probably heard, Ninja Gaiden Black is essentially a special edition of its predecessor, featuring a brand-new mission mode, multiple levels of difficulty, new enemies, and--this might be our favorite part of the package--the original arcade version of Ninja Gaiden. We've just gotten our greedy hands on a working version of the game, so we've since had time to dig a little deeper into some aspects of it, and more importantly, to bring you lots of new screens and high-definition gameplay movies. But why not read on for more details?
Let's talk about the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden first, since it tends to get glossed over in discussions about this series. Before it became a hit series of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Ninja Gaiden was an arcade hit--a two-player beat-'em-up featuring lots of different combat moves, weird enemies, varied level design, and destructible environments. Predating classics like Sega's Golden Axe and Capcom's Final Fight, Ninja Gaiden was easily the best game of its kind for the time. Now it's finally come home, as an arcade-perfect version of it is available from the main menu of Ninja Gaiden Black.
Just like the arcade version, the game supports one or two players, so you and a friend can fight your way through the side-scrolling stages if you like. You have unlimited continues with which to finish the game, but you'll notice that this old version of Ninja Gaiden surely must have inspired the new game's challenging gameplay. Specifically, a number of Ryu Hayabusa's modern moves actually come from this 1988 game. The most noticeable of these is the guillotine throw, where Ryu vaults over an opponent, grabs him by the neck, and hurls the enemy to the turf. In short, the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden, much like last year's Xbox game, is a classic, so it remains fun to play to this day.
As for the main gameplay modes of Ninja Gaiden Black, we were certainly alarmed to find many aspects of the game even more difficult than we remembered. It's as if Team Ninja, Tecmo's internal development team responsible for this painful experience, is deliberately going out of its way to push the bar farther and farther toward the realm of impossibility. As mentioned, there's a new mission mode that features numerous stand-alone encounters, like updated boss fights and arena battles. We got a chance to sample a whole bunch of these in random order, and managed to finish only two of them (presumably you'll need to conquer them successively in the final version of the game).
Some were just obscenely tough, such as one of the later missions in which Ryu Hayabusa must face off against two doppelgangers...enemy ninjas with all of Ryu's moves and abilities, from wall jumps to ninja magic. These battles showcase the game's incredible enemy artificial intelligence, and really drive home how Ninja Gaiden accomplished an incredible feat--combining the freedom of 3D movement and exploration from a typical action adventure game with the depth, complexity, and intensity of a fighting game.
Of course, Ninja Gaiden Black isn't designed purely to punish egotistical fans of the previous game. Its main mode of play now includes multiple difficulty levels, including a new "ninja dog" mode that makes the gameplay easier than the notoriously hard default difficulty of last year's Xbox game. So now, those who couldn't handle the challenge of Ninja Gaiden should be able to crack it. They'll just have to suffer a bit of humiliation along the way.
Ninja Gaiden still looks terrific and plays fantastically well overall, and all the new missions in this version of the game help to distill the gameplay down to its very best parts. What's cool about a lot of the missions is that, not only do they put you up against combinations of some of the toughest opponents in the game, but they also equip you with a variety of different weapons. In the previous version of Ninja Gaiden, you earned all sorts of different weapons, but there wasn't always a clear incentive to use them over Ryu's trusty dragon sword. Here, though, you'll get to spend much more quality time with weapons like the lunar and the unlabored flawlessness.
Fans of the previous game will find a few other new touches this time around, such as how all the hint notes left by Ayame during the course of the adventure are now narrated in full speech. Indeed, Ninja Gaiden Black--despite its sadistic aim to kill you in 1,001 horrible ways--comes across as a labor of love and a thank-you to all the fans who helped make last year's game such a success. We do think the game will have what it takes to pull a few more true believers into the fold, but above all, those who enjoyed Ninja Gaiden will definitely want to be on the lookout for this next installment when it ships for the Xbox early this fall.