Ninja Gaiden Hands-On Impressions

Ryu Hayabusa stopped by our offices today and made quite an impression indeed.


Ninja Gaiden (2004)

The final version of Ninja Gaiden landed in our eager hands this morning, and after a few minutes with Team Ninja's highly anticipated follow-up to the classic arcade and NES action games of yore, we're duly impressed by the aesthetic and mechanical feats that director Tomonobu Itagaki and crew have managed to pull off. Though it bears much further exploration, Ninja Gaiden has so far given us more slashing, more high-flying acrobatics, and more blood--lots more of exactly what you'd want in a ninja action game.

After a relatively brief CG preamble, Ninja Gaiden puts you in control of Ryu and lets you get acclimated to the controls in a canyon area before you breach and explore a ninja compound. Even in this first basic area, the extreme elegance of the game's control scheme is apparent. Ryu can run along or straight up walls, wall-jump gracefully to greater heights, and swing from extended poles to cross gaps. Sure, all of this sounds par for a ninja action game, but stop and consider that doing these moves requires virtually no input on your part. If you want to run up a wall, you do just that--jump at the wall and move forward--and Ryu will do the rest. The game streamlines your ninja acrobatics to the point that, once you've got a feel for the movement controls and mechanics, you'll be able to get where you're going with lots of panache and little effort.

Once you get inside the ninja fortress, you'll get your first taste of Ninja Gaiden's exceptionally bloody combat, which has the same sort of hands-off feel as the movement. That's not to say that you won't feel like you're playing the game; every button press definitely has a directly corresponding move on the screen. But as you slash your way through the groups of ninja enemies, you'll find yourself performing astounding feats without a clear idea of how you did them. Mechanically, the game is pretty simple. You've got a light and hard melee attack and a projectile attack, and you can jump, block, and roll. The action is extremely frenetic; once you encounter a group of enemies you'll have no chance to get your bearings before they move in on you. So if you end up desperately flailing on the buttons in your first encounter, as we did, you may be pleasantly surprised at how nimbly and stylishly Ryu can dispatch his foes. Tap a few buttons, watch him throw a flurry of shurikens from the air before deftly slicing off an opponent's head, and wonder exactly how you made your character do such cool moves.

There seem to be a fair number of adventure game elements in Ninja Gaiden as well, which is a mechanical aspect in stark contrast to the straight-ahead, side-scrolling action games of the NES days. At one point, we had to find a jaw piece to insert into a samurai statue in order to make the statue unclasp its hand and release a needed key. You'll find a number of disposable items scattered around the game as well that will restore some of your health, extend your overall health capacity, or bring you back from the dead. Finally, though the game is effectively divided into levels, with boss characters and score tallies, there seems to be a good amount of backtracking through previous areas in a rather nonlinear fashion. Whether the game continues like this or simply has us move from one new area to the next remains to be seen.

It may go without saying if you've seen previous screenshots or movies, but Ninja Gaiden is an absolutely beautiful game--perhaps one of the best-looking on the Xbox. Though the environments we've seen so far--including the canyon, ninja fortress, and a village--have been sparsely detailed, they've got an extremely cohesive design and a lot of subtle texture. The character models are also among the most solidly crafted we've seen in any game, and Ryu's animation is really a sight to behold when he's pulling off his high-flying ninja tricks.

We've just barely scratched the surface of Ninja Gaiden, and already the game has us pretty well floored. There seems to be a lot more to the game than what we've described here, as there are slots in the game's menu screen for new melee and projectile weapons (and already we've gotten a bow and arrow to replace our shurikens), as well as a "ninpo" section that contains new special, mystical attack techniques that you'll acquire. We're excited by what we've seen of this extremely stylish action game so far, and we'll bring you more on it very soon. Ninja Gaiden is scheduled for release on the Xbox in the first week of March.

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