Ninja Gaiden Updated Impressions

We slip on our tabi socks and try out Tecmo's upcoming Xbox game.

Tecmo stopped by today and let us try out a work-in-progress build of Ninja Gaiden, the highly anticipated update of one its beloved old-school classics. The game was first announced at E3 2002 and has been seen only sporadically since. E3 2003 was probably the game's lengthiest showing, with Team Ninja executive officer and general manager Tomonobu Itagaki demonstrating the game at the Microsoft booth.

We were able to try our hand at two levels, tentatively titled Ninja Fortress and Monastery Underground Base. The first level we tried, Ninja Fortress, will also serve as the first level of the game. As such, the level's main purpose is to introduce you to the controls and the basics of combat. You'll move Ryu Hayabusa with the left analog stick, and you'll have four basic ways to attack your foes: X will trigger a quick attack, Y will trigger as a slower, more-powerful attack, B will trigger your secondary weapons such as shuriken, and Y and B together will trigger your selected ninja magic. The A button will let you perform a single jump. The left trigger will block, and the right trigger will center the camera behind Hayabusa. The right analog stick will call up a first-person look mode. While the controls sound pretty basic, we soon discovered they're merely a solid foundation for a satisfying combat system.

You'll start the Ninja Fortress level in a pretty innocuous cave. After taking a few steps, you'll hit a dead end in an alcove. However, if you use the look function, you'll see there's a way out directly above you. Simply jumping doesn't do much, as Hayabusa can't get enough air. But thanks to a handy update of his wall-grab ability, as you jump, you'll be able to ricochet off the walls to your left and right, moving upward until you reach the exit. Once outside, you'll be greeted by a view of a mountainside to your left, and the entrance to a building, marked by breakable torches, to your right. If you look around, you'll notice the birds heard in the background circling high above.

Upon entering the building, you'll be greeted by some enemies. If you've played an action game in the past 15 years or so, you'll likely have two basic reactions when you first encounter the enemies: "kill" and "mash buttons." These will initially serve you pretty well. The X- and Y-button attacks are easy to pull off, and getting a flashy combo or two out is really not much work. But there's quite a bit more to combat once you start working the jump and the secondary weapon into the mix. More importantly, the game's context-sensitive system offers a great deal of combat options once you start to get comfortable. Jumping and hitting an attack button near an enemy will let you perform throws and different types of flashy attacks. If you feel daring, you can hold down the Y button to charge up your power attack--a devastating slice that doles out considerable damage. The only drawback to the move is that you'll be vulnerable as Hayabusa charges up his sword. If that isn't enough in the way of death-dealing options, you'll be able to use your environment to your advantage by performing attacks by jumping off walls. You'll even be able to run on walls, which opens up some other attacking options. Granted, some of these attacks aren't useful everywhere--wall running, for example, is probably not a very bright idea when you're in a small room--but you'll have plenty of options regardless. The combat system's flexibility more than compensates for the lack of a dedicated lock-on button, which has become de rigueur in 3D action games these days. The combination of context-sensitive moves and responsive controls makes killing the early enemies a breeze. Best of all, you'll also be able to strike back at enemies when blocking attacks via a counter system. At the moment, the system is in its infancy and is pretty forgiving, but Itagaki was quick to note it will be polished considerably to ensure it is suitably challenging.

The other gameplay element showcased in the Ninja Fortress level is puzzle solving. The initial "puzzles" weren't exactly hard-core IQ tests. The first brain teaser was just a room that appeared to have no exit. A quick investigation and slashing of an innocuous wall scroll revealed a way out. Later on, we came to a locked door that required a specific key. The challenge was basic, requiring a bit of item collection and swapping to release the key, which was held by a suit of armor. The level ended with a real-time cinematic sequence once we went through the door. We were left wanting significantly more, as the sequence showed off a nunchaku-waving badass who was just asking for a whupping.

However, while the Ninja Fortress level did a good job of lulling us into a sense of confidence, the Monastery Underground Base did a thorough job of breaking us down. The level offered samples of the advanced combat, exploration, and puzzle solving in the game. The enemy AI was considerably stronger, with foes actively avoiding your attacks and attacking aggressively. We entered a cathedral area that featured some vicious clawed foes that were quite good at staying just out of sword range, forcing us to rely on shuriken and leaping attacks. As you'd expect, blocking was key to survival. Another area showcased a more-challenging puzzle, a locked safe. A bit of exploration in the room revealed a book with some cryptic hints on the combination. Yet another area showcased an even more-annoying enemy, a ghostly reaper-like creature that was best dealt with by jumping off the walls and attacking. The level also showed off other uses for Hayabusa's secondary weapons, notably the explosive shuriken he can carry. Upon encountering a cracked wall, we pitched one of the handy little shuriken at it and were rewarded with a new path to explore.

The graphics in the game are still coming together, but they're already looking quite good. Hayabusa's character model looks quite fetching and animates very smoothly. The enemies showcased a broad range of designs. We encountered generic ninjas, as well as demonic and animal hybrids that were just asking to be hacked to bits. The two main environments we saw featured a nice bit of variety. The Ninja Fortress level featured a natural look that incorporated elements such as caves and wood. The Monastery level, on the other hand, showcased more man-made structures. The cathedral area in the monastery was massive and featured ornate stained-glass windows and rooms filled with little touches such as books. The game's presentation was further enhanced by a number of different special effects used for when Hayabusa busts out with his ninja moves, such as ghostly afterimages and motion blur on his sword. The most notable bit of eye candy in the game at the moment are the effects for the various types of ninja magic Hayabusa will be able to use. We were able to see a concussive fire spell, as well as an update of a spell from the first game, the art of the fire wheel, which surrounded Ryu with a pair of rotating fireballs that damaged anything they hit.

While what we've seen of the game gives us a good idea of what to expect from it, there's still quite a bit more to it. For example, as you may have gathered, Hayabusa's weapons will be broken up into primary and secondary categories. At the moment, the game is slated to feature roughly 10 primary weapons, and we saw nunchaku, a war hammer, and a massive sword. As for secondary weapons, the team is planning on roughly six. We were able to see shuriken, explosive shuriken, and a bow and arrow in action. As mentioned, you'll also be able to wield ninja magic. While the exact details are still being ironed out, Ryu should be able to make use of four or five magic attacks, some of which will be upgradeable. Finally, the game's Xbox Live features, while still not officially revealed, are certainly on track for inclusion. While Itagaki wouldn't give up the goods on exactly what they would be, he mentioned that development on Gaiden's online features, as well as on DOA Online, was going well. He also mentioned that Tecmo is working hard to ensure that the localization of the game is weirdness-free.

Based on what we've seen so far, Ninja Gaiden is looking very promising. The game looks good and features a very impressive sense of scale. More importantly, Team Ninja has nailed a very solid feel for the controls in terms of responsiveness. There are still a few issues with the camera, but nothing that can't be fixed. As far as the gameplay is concerned, the puzzle elements we've seen are a little bland, but the combat is fast and fun, which is a good thing. All told, Ninja Gaiden is shaping up nicely and should definitely be a game to keep an eye out for. As for when exactly it will ship, the game is presently slated for release sometime this year, but Itagaki would only say that it will ship when everyone involved is satisfied with it. The good news is that the game is slated to ship in the US first, so there'll be no painful waiting. Look for more on the game in the coming months.

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