Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox was a true modern classic. It featured smooth, challenging gameplay and amazing production values. It was, in short, one of the finest games of its generation. In 2005, its gameplay was reworked and expanded for a second release, Ninja Gaiden Black. And incredibly enough, the third time's the charm. No, Ninja Gaiden Sigma isn't a true next-gen sequel, nor is it a simple port of the Xbox release. But it does add a good deal of new content, both subtle and obvious. If you're a Ninja Gaiden enthusiast, you'll want to see the new chapters, reworked levels, and slicker graphics. And if for some reason you missed it before, this is a must-play game. The action is intense, focused, and certainly not for the faint of heart. It's also among the most satisfying in all of gaming and remains as awe-inspiring as ever, three years after its original release.
So what's changed? The biggest addition is that Rachel the fiend hunter is a new playable character. She's a badass buxom babe who gets three chapters of her own, and a few levels in mission mode, too. She may be top-heavy, but she still manages a good number of terrific moves. Her minicampaign isn't as expansive as Ryu's: She's limited to using the warhammer and has only a single magic attack (called sorcery, rather than ninpo). The chapters are remarkably refreshing though, particularly because Rachel isn't as agile as Ryu--though a swing of her hammer does a huge amount of damage. Playing her requires you to adjust because her levels are interspersed among the others, so as the game's groove shifts, so must yours. Along with her chapters come new cutscenes, new bosses, and even a few feminine touches that humanize a story that was (and still is) more summer blockbuster than art house drama.
Her chapters aren't just disconnected additions, however. Ryu's chapters are shifted and reworked to give greater context to Rachel's. In fact, every level offers unexpected surprises, both big and small. In some cases, it's as simple as different items found in treasure chests. In others, the significance of the adjustments will catch you off guard, but pleasantly so. For example, one of the central chapters of the original Ninja Gaiden featured a straightforward puzzle to end the sequence. Now, a replica of an earlier boss returns, complete with a few new attacks to round out the surprise. Throughout the game, you'll find new enemies to uncover, such as glowing spirits and soldiers on motorcycles. You'll even get to play with a new set of weapons: Dual swords called Dragon's Claw and Tiger's Fang.
The changes are great, and they do more than throw in stuff for the sake of stuff. In some cases, they refine the pace and address frustrations of the original to make for an even tighter, more centered experience. One such change is the addition of a shop near the final save point before a major, difficult boss fight. It sounds insignificant, but it soothes a large frustration from the original and keeps the difficulty level steady without removing any real challenge from the boss encounter itself. Needless to say, there are countless additions, subtractions, and modifications, and they run the gamut from superficial to substantial. For the most part, all of them are for the better. The only questionable one is the ability to shake the Sixaxis controller to give more power to your ninpo skills. It feels needlessly tacked on, and shaking the controller doesn't really jibe with the general slickness of the other controls. Thankfully, it's the only element that stands out as unneeded among legions of improvements.
And if you haven't played Ninja Gaiden? Well, there's no better time than the present, and you won't need any previous experience with the series to understand what makes it excellent. Ninja extraordinaire Ryu Hyabusa is on a quest to recover the legendary Dark Dragon Blade and avenge the destruction of his peaceful village. Along the way, he meets Rachel, who is on a vision quest of her own. Their two stories mesh nicely in a single-player campaign that may take you 25 or more hours the first time through, depending on your skill level and prior experience with Ninja Gaiden Xbox.
The story never takes center stage, though it has the proper over-the-top sensibilities to frame what the game is really about: kick-ass action in the form of throws, slashes, wall-running, and acrobatic tumbling. If you think a ninja should be able to do it, you can do it in Ninja Gaiden Sigma. The controls for doing so are smooth and seamless, and aside from a few camera angle issues, at no point will you feel you have to struggle with the controller to pull any of these moves off. They result in astounding sequences of somersaulting, swordplay, offensive magic (called ninpo), and countermoves that are as gratifying as anything found in gaming. And as you progress through the game, you can upgrade your weapons, add new attacks, and earn other enhancements.
As you may have heard, Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox was a difficult game, and it's no different here. That isn't to say it's as tough as Ninja Gaiden Black, nor does it ever reach punishing levels. But it is no walk in the park, and newcomers may find it initially intimidating. If you've already cut your teeth on the series, you may be inclined to think that Sigma is a little easier, though that is due more to certain level design tweaks than it is to a reduction in challenge. In particular, Rachel's first chapter may strike fans as a little too easy thanks to a nice smattering of health potions, but the impression won't last once you reach her later appearances. As it is, you'll encounter armies of strong, agile opponents of all sorts, both human and, well, not so human--and you'll fight them in a variety of environments, from winding city streets to subterranean caverns.
Some of the most touted improvements in Ninja Gaiden Sigma over the original release are in the visual department. That isn't to say that it looks exactly next-gen, because there are signs of porting in the form of some bland textures and a few other blemishes. But it looks great, and a side-by-side comparison reveals a lot of nice enhancements in elements like shadows and color saturation. Animations are particularly spectacular, and Rachel's movements are as sleek as any of Ryu's. The sound effects and soundtrack remain the same as before. Still, as with the visuals, the audio additions are beautifully woven into the rest of the design, so nothing seems out of place or glued on.
And once you're done with the tour de force the first time around, you've got new difficulty levels to try out, stand-alone combat missions to play, and in-game leaderboards to peruse. There's simply a lot of game here, and the fact that this is a retooling of a three-year-old title for a new audience shouldn't dissuade you from playing it. Whether you're a series veteran or a newcomer, the in-your-face action of Ninja Gaiden Sigma is as exhilarating now as it ever was, and the new, slickly embedded content is surprisingly meaty. Play this game.