Remarkably enough, the best just got better with Ninja Gaiden Black, an updated version of last year's absolutely amazing Xbox action game. Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox didn't leave a lot of room for improvement, thanks to its astonishingly good presentation and fantastic action, which combined the depth and precision of a great fighting game with the settings and situations of a first-rate action adventure game. But this new installment seems bent on achieving nothing less than perfection by using last year's game as a starting point and fine-tuning its few issues, while also adding lots of new options and content, such as a lengthy series of stand-alone missions that emphasize the game's unbelievably intense, brutal, lighting-fast combat. The core game is still the same as before, but it's just as exciting today as it was last year.
If you're unfamiliar with Ninja Gaiden, skip to the next page to find out what makes the core game so special. If you have played Ninja Gaiden, though, let's go over what's changed. Ninja Gaiden Black contains the original game in its entirety, including the content of the two downloadable Hurricane Packs that were made available on Xbox Live some months after the game's release. There are multiple new difficulty levels on top of that, plus the new mission mode (featuring dozens of different missions), and even the original arcade Ninja Gaiden game. Multiple difficulty modes are pretty standard in most games, but here the differences are much more substantial and compelling than usual. Enemies and item placements change from one difficulty mode to the next, so the challenge heightens, but there's still an element of excitement and discovery. Don't expect to be able to just dive into all the content from the beginning, though. You need to finish the game's story mode before the missions and the hard difficulty mode are unlocked, and most of the missions are initially locked, too. Tougher difficulty modes are unlocked as you finish the campaign or missions on the previous difficulty settings.
When it was released last year, Ninja Gaiden earned widespread acclaim, though a couple of common criticisms did stick out. Ninja Gaiden Black directly addresses both of these by introducing a new easier difficulty mode, as well as an option for manual control of the camera perspective. The easier difficulty mode seems almost like a begrudging addition, since you can't select it from the get-go. You must instead get killed several times early on, at which point you'll be invited to "abandon the ninja way." If you choose to, then, you'll proceed to play on the easier "ninja dog" difficulty, albeit with less pride. Those who found Ninja Gaiden to be too difficult might not appreciate the condescension, but they'll soon get over their hurt feelings as they get into this outstanding game at their own pace. As for the manual camera control, it was introduced in the first downloadable Hurricane Pack, and it lets you use the right analog stick to rotate your vantage point. Ninja Gaiden's default camera still works very well in most instances, but the option is certainly helpful.
The mission mode is a great new part of Ninja Gaiden Black, since it strips away the game's action adventure elements and focuses on pure combat--truly the best part of the game. The missions tend to be variations on scenes from the story mode but will often pit you against more and different enemies than you're used to. Some of them are obscenely tough just on normal difficulty, but if you can work your way up through "master ninja" difficulty, you'll feel a real sense of accomplishment. (Or if you want bragging rights, you can compare your best scores against others on Xbox Live.) Just wait until you get to the mirror-image matches. Many of Ninja Gaiden's enemies were really nasty already, but having to fight against a doppelgänger (or two!) makes for some of the most frantic and fun battles the game has to offer. One of the great things about the missions is that they arm you with different weapons, inviting you to master all of Ninja Gaiden's arsenal, whereas it's tempting to stick with just the trusty Dragon Sword throughout story mode. Since each weapon has totally different moves, this helps add lots of variety. And if you haven't already seen it in the first Hurricane Pack, you'll notice there's one new weapon in Ninja Gaiden Black, a powerful fighting staff that's got a long reach and plenty of speed. The staff has been added to the game at all difficulty levels.
The presence of the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden is the icing on the cake. Much like the new Ninja Gaiden, it's a classic. It's still plenty of fun to this day, and it retains the arcade version's two-player-simultaneous feature, so you can play it with a friend. The game emulates the arcade original pretty much perfectly, but unlocking it is no easy task. Still, it's a suitable reward for finishing the story mode on hard difficulty. You'll notice that this old arcade beat-'em-up directly influenced the new game. Unfortunately, the old console Ninja Gaiden trilogy, which was present in the original Xbox release, was removed for some reason.
All the new content in Ninja Gaiden Black means this is definitely the version to get. Available at a reduced price, it's a tempting purchase even for those who've played the original and the two Hurricane Packs to death, since there's still a lot that's new, in addition to that stuff. Though this is essentially the same game as before, a laserlike focus on pure, relentless action makes Ninja Gaiden Black a terrific game in its own right. The story and adventure portions of last year's game weren't necessarily its strongest suits, so they take a backseat in Black. The result is that this is perfect for quick hits of fantastic, pulse-pounding gameplay. But of course, there's the full story mode there too. As for the presentation of Ninja Gaiden Black, it remains unchanged from last year's game, notwithstanding the new weapon and enemies. And that's just fine, since this is still easily one of the best-looking, best-sounding games available.
If you're new to Ninja Gaiden, don't worry. Black is a perfect place to start. The storyline is completely self-contained, so no previous experience is expected from you. When Ryu Hayabusa's village is attacked and the evil Dark Dragon Blade is stolen from its centuries-old resting place, the young master ninja brandishes his family's legendary Dragon Sword and sets off on the trail of the villains responsible.
The entire game looks beautiful and runs at a perfectly smooth frame rate, despite the amount of dynamic action and detail that's onscreen at any given moment. The controls are complex and take some getting used to, but they're as responsive as possible, and they result in gameplay that has a surprising amount of depth. The enemies you'll face throughout Ryu's adventure are quite diverse, great-looking, surprisingly smart, and mostly very dangerous. Yet Ryu himself has such an impressive variety of effective moves that defeating them all, as intimidating as it may seem, never is impossible, nor does it seem implausible. The look and feel of the action is outstanding. Ryu's slashes seem to pack a tremendous wallop and leave enemies bloodied or even decapitated. Enemy attacks appear even more punishing, and indeed, they'll often bring Ryu to death's door.
Make no mistake, Ninja Gaiden Black is difficult. There are no weak enemies to be found, and you'll usually face several of them at once, or else you'll face a very tough (usually very large) boss opponent of some sort. Pattern recognition alone won't get you through this game, since most enemies don't follow obvious patterns in the first place, which means you'll need good reflexes and clever tactics besides. None of the fighting is unfair. It's just that this game requires and rewards skillful play. It truly feels like it was made in the spirit of its predecessors--classic action games that, above all, were meant to provide a fun challenge.
Ninja Gaiden is a full-fledged action adventure game in which you don't just keep fighting, you gradually acquire new moves and abilities, you constantly find valuable items (many of them cleverly hidden), you occasionally shop for useful goods, and you slowly gain access to larger and larger portions of the gameworld. While the game is structured as a series of more than 15 chapters, most of it is completely seamless--you'll encounter only a few very brief loading times between chapters and between large portions of the world--so the further in you get, the more territory you're free to explore. However, the game maintains its focus and keeps you on track.
Judged purely as an adventure game (in which exploration and puzzle-solving take precedence over combat), Ninja Gaiden works very well. Ryu is an acrobat who's capable of reaching places the average human couldn't. He is so agile that he can run straight up vertical surfaces and can run horizontally along them for a short while. Both techniques are intuitively and automatically performed just by jumping toward a wall from an appropriate angle. While running along a wall, he may even leap toward another wall that's perpendicular to him, thus gaining altitude and momentum to continue his sprint. Using this cool-looking and important technique, he's able to climb up and out of pits as though there were a spiral staircase there to let him walk right on out of it.
As he fights, Ryu will gather shiny yellow essence orbs from slain enemies. Consider these orbs gold because he can use them to purchase upgrades for his weapons, or he can purchase useful potions and other things from various storefronts that are found throughout the game (all of which belong to the same shopkeeper). Though the shopping portion of the game isn't very fleshed out, insofar as there aren't too many different kinds of things to buy, it does give you a good incentive to keep taking out enemies and to keep racking up more money, since you'll always want to have enough yellow essence on hand to stock up on spiritual elixirs (also known as healing potions). Ryu will also be able to go out of his way to find numerous hidden items, such as ones that increase his maximum health or ones that increase the maximum number of times he can use his powerful ninja magic. Ryu should be on the lookout for golden scarab statuettes as well. He can give these to the shopkeeper, who rewards Ryu with special goods after every so many scarabs he receives.
While navigating strange streets, spelunking in ancient caverns, and buying potions and things is all well and good, Ninja Gaiden's action and fighting mechanics lie at the heart of its exceptionally good gameplay. In general, you're able to move Ryu with a remarkable fluidity and precision, the likes of which are unmatched by most other games. Tecmo's internal development group, Team Ninja, obviously brought its considerable experience in making fighting games to bear while making Ninja Gaiden, as this game not only features a remarkably extensive variety of combat moves and abilities for its main character, but also it lets you perform them intuitively so that the results are incredibly satisfying.
In other words, Ryu Hayabusa is a total badass. Consider just about everything cool you've ever seen a ninja character do in a video game, in an anime, or in a movie. Now, try to understand that Ryu probably has all these moves in his repertoire--and then some.
Granted, he starts off with just a few basic but effective slashing combos--one of which sends his opponent flying into the air so that Ryu can continue his assault while off of the ground. However, Ryu will gradually learn a few new abilities; he'll unlock others by upgrading his weapon; and he'll gain access to plenty more by finding completely different weapons to use. Toward the end of the game, you'll literally have access to more weapons and moves than you'll know what to do with. The good news is that you'll have long since discovered combos and special techniques that you'll find to be extremely effective. And then there's plenty of room left over to practice all the other moves on the game's harder difficulty levels.
The key to the dynamic nature of the action is that Ryu is so mobile. When in doubt, you can always make him leap away from a combat situation, or you can make him leap straight into one. Plus, Ryu's defenses are surprisingly good, so even when he's being mobbed by several enemies, you'll often be able to block all of their attacks just by pressing and holding the left shoulder button. Better yet, you can tumble out of the way by moving the left thumbstick while holding the block button. Beware, though, because if you spend too much time defending, you'll likely end up on the receiving end of a powerful unblockable attack of some sort, so you really need to stay on your toes. Ultimately, the basic key to survival in Ninja Gaiden is to balance your offense and defense, which sounds simple enough but ends up being a constantly intriguing challenge when squaring off against the game's tough bad guys.
Camera controls in the game, like all aspects of Ninja Gaiden, are very slick. At any time, you can tap the right shoulder button to reset the perspective behind Ryu's back. The camera generally does a good job of keeping pace with Ryu's fast motions while giving you a useful vantage point of the situation. With the default camera setting, moving the right analog stick automatically switches to a first-person-perspective view mode, which is used for looking around and becomes particularly useful when a lot of vertical maneuvering is required. It's true that sometimes the camera will move in such a way that you won't see some of the enemies in the vicinity. Even in these cases, though, the game offers a useful option. There's a special kind of jump, performed by pressing two buttons simultaneously, which makes Ryu home in on his nearest enemy. There is no clunky lock-on targeting system in Ninja Gaiden (or any targeting system), because it's unnecessary to have one. Ryu automatically attacks the enemy who's closest to where you happen to be guiding him, and this system works flawlessly.
For what it's worth, there are a few ways in which the story mode could have been a bit better. The story isn't that great (though a few new cutscenes in Black help move it along), and the pacing of some of Ryu's adventures is a little off. This is a lengthy game that will take a good 20 hours your first time through, and it features a considerable amount of variety. But some sequences, such as a rather difficult level set in the aqueducts beneath the city, seem to drag when compared to others. You'll also fight several of the game's bosses more than once, probably much to the delight of old-school gamers who are accustomed to seeing repeats of tough battles in games. Yet this boss-battle déjà vu will probably come much to the chagrin of those who are expecting the game to just keep throwing more and more new stuff at them. And, along the same lines, the game's difficulty is a bit haphazard. As mentioned, Ninja Gaiden Black is generally tough-but-fair. However, certain sequences and boss battles are substantially harder than others--seemingly at random rather than at a gradual pace. For instance, some of the later bosses are complete pushovers compared to some of the earlier ones, and in fact, the early goings-on in Black are generally tougher than a lot of the latter goings-on. Still, these types of issues mostly just add flavor to the game rather than detract from it in any meaningful way.
Ninja Gaiden Black is an extremely good-looking game. It's easily one of the best looking Xbox games, and by extension, it's one of the best-looking games ever. You could spot a few weaknesses in the visuals if you tried. Maybe a couple of Ryu's animations, such as when he shimmies across a ledge, don't look as good as when he does everything else. Also, the environments generally aren't very interactive, so don't expect to leave destruction in your wake, in addition to death. Enemies only appear in groups of about three or four at a time, and their corpses all vanish in pools of blood rather than pile up. The perfectly smooth frame rate, on extremely rare occasion, drops to just plain smooth. These are nitpicky issues about a gorgeous-looking game, which supports widescreen progressive-scan displays for the best possible visual fidelity. Ninja Gaiden boasts imaginative scenery and great-looking character design, as well as a few of Team Ninja's signature graphical touches--if you know what we mean.
The game sounds wonderful, too. Options for English or Japanese voice-over are available. The English dialogue may seem a bit corny at times, but it actually fits very well in the context of a comic-book-style, over-the-top game. The sounds of combat in Ninja Gaiden are terrific, especially Ryu's ferocious battle cries--which make him sound about as strong as he is--and the anime-style sound of steel cleaving flesh. Sure enough, the game features a fantastic soundtrack too, with unique music for all the different chapters and many of the boss battles. Some of the tracks loop fairly frequently, but the compositions are catchy and generally excellent, thus effectively fitting the overall tone of both the gameplay sequence in particular and the entire game in general. Those with Dolby Digital 5.1-equipped home-theater setups will relish the audio experience all the better. It bears mention that the sound presentation in Ninja Gaiden Black hasn't aged quite as well as the rest of the game, and you'll inevitably hear the same sound effects over and over and over as you fight. But as a whole, this game has great audio.
Ninja Gaiden Black fulfills the last bits of untapped potential in what already was a truly extraordinary game and an instant classic. Though the underlying gameplay is mostly unchanged, by presenting so many more modes and options, Ninja Gaiden Black unleashes the absolute best this gameplay has to offer. With the launch of the Xbox 360 now just weeks away, you have to wonder exactly how the next generation of games could possibly improve on something like this.
Editor's note 09/26/05: The original review incorrectly stated that the three NES games in the series were included as unlockables. GameSpot regrets the error.