Nowadays, any time a game is difficult it becomes a “Dark Souls clone”. Or, if it’s a different genre, it becomes “the Dark Souls of X”. But what many are quick to forget is that Ninja Gaiden did it first.
I’m not talking about the original 2D Ninja Gaiden outings, although they were nails in their own right. No, I instead refer to Team Ninja’s 2004 “reboot” that took the gaming world by storm. Renowned for being difficult, it spawned several different versions and sequels down the line. Then, when the third game shit the proverbial bed, the series went quiet.
But now, between that FromSoftware lull, Ryu Hayabusa’s back, baby. Bringing that fast paced, difficult combat and fiddly platforming back, is it a welcome return or has time not been kind to the master ninja? Prepare yourself for words of praise, rage and nostalgia as we find out…
No School Like The Old School
The inherent problem with reviewing a trilogy is how to break it down. Do I pick apart every game on its merits and faults, or just generalise it as the advertised package?
Rather, let’s do a little retrospective on why Ninja Gaiden was so revered back in the early noughties. As stated, it is hard, and much like the unsubtle Dark Souls comparison, gamers lapped it up. Well, when they weren’t destroying controllers.
Yet rather than the platforming challenges that the original Ninja Gaiden’s brought, Team Ninja’s iteration(s) favoured difficult combat. It wasn’t new, as Devil May Cry had been out and had a sequel at this point. But it was a different kind of hard.
Less aerial gunplay, more slick swordfighting, Ninja Gaiden was all about the timings and opportunity. When it worked, it was fantastic. When you got it wrong, however, you felt it.
Of course, I’m only talking about the first version of Ninja Gaiden. For you see, there’s a cabal of gamers that like punishment. Those that seek challenge in the insane difficulties, if only for bragging rights and a sense of accomplishment. They probably like self-flagellation for breakfast too, the weirdos.
So not content with being initially bastard hard, Ninja Gaiden saw further releases in Black and Sigma. Whilst the Black version was an “update” of the original, Sigma was the PS3 iteration. More modes, new weapons and bosses, and even other playable characters, it was a more refined (and equally nails) experience.
This is the version we’re getting here, along with Sigma 2 for the sequel. Oh, and Ninja Gaiden 3’s in there too, just for posterity, I presume.
Flip Out Like a Ninja
So, if you’ve made it this far and haven’t played a Ninja Gaiden, you may be wondering what kind of games they are. Are they grounded, serious showdowns like Bushido Blade, or crazy, acrobatic affairs like Bayonetta? Well, it was given away with the Devil May Cry comparison earlier, but now I should quantify it. Ninja Gaiden is third person, chock full of swordplay and violence, and features platforming that can be as annoying as the combat.
Each game is mostly linear, following a set path of tricky platforms to get to the next battle area. More often than not, Ryu (or other) will be confined to an area until everything dies. Master ninja Hayabusa can block, roll and counterattack, all of which must be utilised efficiently to avoid death. Health potions are your friend, as are resurrection scrolls should you die. Enemies occasionally drop health, prompting you to finish fights in desperation if you’re running low.
It sounds simple and lazy, but it is anything but. Enemies aren’t hitting you with bokken, and they’re not there to train you. They can and will make mincemeat of players if they’re not quick on the reflexes. Imagine it as a precursor to Sekiro, if you will. Your posture can also get broken, so staying vigilant and making that choice to block or roll is as critical as striking.
Strike Hard, Strike Fast. Oh, and Make It Look Cool
Like any game, the more you stick at it, the easier it [hopefully] becomes. Ninja Gaiden is no different. It’s bastard hard to begin with, and makes no bones about it, but when it clicks it’s almost balletic.
The challenge is there if players want it, or if not, there’s Hero Mode… err, mode. This drops the difficulty, lowers the cost of magic and caters to those that don’t have lightning-fast thumbs. For the gluttons, there’s your Normal and Hard difficulties, which then give way to Very Hard and Master Ninja modes. This is the meat, the real challenge. What separates men from boys, etc.
Thankfully, to make the spectacle more of one, Sigma 1 & 2 restores the cut content from the OG versions. Namely the gore and dismemberment, which may sound puerile to some, but to the masochists it adds the visual, and visceral, satisfaction of doing it right. Landing a sweet, thirty-hit combo and watching limbs fly off like a Lone Wolf and Cub film is something I’ll never tire of, anyway.
The Sigma versions also come with all previous DLC, such as the aforementioned Master Ninja difficulties, costumes, gore and extra modes. Nothing wacky, like dockside car breaking minigames, but a cadre of mission modes and extra challenges. Again, these are the real tests of mettle and reflex. As a warning, they should only be attempted if you’re that good at Ninja Gaiden.
All Razzle, No Dazzle
Somewhat disappointingly, the Master Collection is missing one vital upgrade to make it truly a spectacle. It has the polish but not a lot of spit, if you get me.
The Ninja Gaiden Master Collection boasts that it’s in 4K. However, this is slightly misleading. The rendering is at 4K/60fps, meaning that it runs silky smooth without any screen tearing or any input delay. What it isn’t, though, is upscaled character models or backgrounds.
In layman’s terms, it looks very shiny. They all did when they first came out, to be fair. But don’t go in expecting any upscaling similar to Bayonetta or Vanquish’s treatment last year. It runs fast, it runs fluid, but don’t expect to see each interwoven fibre of Ryu’s cowl, if you get me.
It’s a shame, and it feels somewhat sneaky if you had any of these on backwards compatibility that they were recently removed from. It feels like you’re getting the same game, if you’re not a stickler for the absolute best of framerates and minor differences. Also, bear in mind that I’m reviewing this on a base Xbox One 1TB model, not an X/S. I’m not getting 4K, just a shiny looking game. I hear the PC port isn’t fairing well, so be mindful if that’s your chosen platform.
Yet if you missed them the first time around, or back when they were on Xbox Live Gold/Game Pass, don’t worry too much. Going in blind now knowing that these are old, barely polished games won’t tarnish the experience. The bosses will do that for you.
Demons, Clans, The Whole Nine Evil Yards
Usually with a trilogy, or at least a sequel, you’d expect there to be an encompassing, overarching story to go alongside it. And it that regard, Ninja Gaiden has you covered. It just may not seem like it with the focus on the action.
The first game itself boasts a massive sixteen missions, bookended by cutscenes. Sigma 2 has about a similar length in story and missions, whereas NG3… exists. Much like the Star Wars Christmas Special: we acknowledge it, but I think most people would rather forget it.
This ain’t no Wikipedia though, so don’t expect a full story breakdown across three games here. Suffice to say that it’s very cliched and ninja-y, but also quite cool in a “fourteen year old boy’s fantasy” kind of way. Mystical swords, clans tasked with the protection thereof, warring forces and such. Big, nasty legions of rivals ninjas in droves and even bigger, controller-breaking bosses to fight along the way.
Usually one or more buxom lady vying for Ryu’s sword and technique, occasionally needing to be saved and the age-old story of… well, age-old stories and prophecies. Don’t take my generalisation as a negative, though. It’s actually a very cool story, if you want some sweet action to bookend the sweet gameplay action you’re dishing out. There’s more than enough in the first two games to keep you entertained for a good while.
Dropping a Third
And now, the negatives. First and foremost, Ninja Gaiden 3 and why it gets ragged on so much. Why is treated like Mass Effect 3, Spider-Man 3 and Blade: Trinity? Brace yourselves, because this is going to sound petty as hell.
It’s because it was too easy. That’s right, a game being derided for being easier than its predecessors. Sounds dumb, right? In any other context, yes. But when the pedigree it follows set the bar for difficult action adventure gaming, to water it down in its simplest form did it no favours, and that its inclusion here can only be seen as a way to round it up to a “collection” rather than a double pack for monetary value.
Thing of it as analogous to Star Wars: the first is A New Hope, setting the scene and treading water. Sigma 2 is arguably The Empire Strikes Back, with its refined palette and gameplay. Three is Return of the Jedi, with the whole game being one big ball of Ewok crap.
In terms of general niggles, all three games share one major failing across the board: the camera. Whilst it’s great that the camera attempts to keep track of the action in bigger areas, it suffers in corridors. Pair being blindsided by enemies from all angles with a camera that can’t centre in a tight hallway, and you’re in for a bad time. Especially on difficulties higher than Easy, where baddies will take a good chunk out of your health or leave you open for a devastating combo.
While it is easy to fall back on the “this is a game for the hardcore, what do you expect?” argument, it’s not very welcoming to new players. The achievement rate on various trophy/achievement trackers is low, and for good reason. I knew what to expect and the game still got on my tits. In one respect, it’s a good thing that the core game hasn’t been tainted. But to some, I can see why it would frustrate when, at times, the game itself is against you.
No Dragon Your Feet, Grab That Sword and Shuriken
What this is all boiling down to, though, is whether the Ninja Gaiden Master Collection is worth it. Not whether I recommend it, because I wholeheartedly am. No, you’re going to want to know if it’s worth investing in something that in layman’s terms is going to kick your ass.
And I get that, I do. Why would you want to drop some thirty-odd quid on something that requires a massive time investment to “get good” at. That, ultimately, is up to you. I can tell you from a personal and opinionated level, I’m having fun. I never finished the first Ninja Gaiden seventeen years ago. Chances are, I probably won’t now. My preference is Ninja Gaiden 2, which I’ve had to restart as the Game Pass version was the emulated 360 version.
Will I touch Ninja Gaiden 3? Nah, probably not. Nor will I unlock anywhere near half the achievements across all three games. I’m happy to accept I will never hit Master rank on any mission on Master Ninja mode. But what I will have is fun. Fun at the cost of the odd bout of frustration, but fun nonetheless.
And in that regard, Ninja Gaiden Master Collection delivers. There’s enough weapons, combat techniques and combos and characters to keep me going. Sure, it lacks the true shine of a remaster or upscaled title, but if you’re not bothered about that, then you won’t go wrong here.
The grandmaster of difficult action games is back. The Ninja Gaiden Master Collection pulls no punches, nor does it change or cater to modern sensibilities. It’s as classic as it was in 2004, with some crow’s feet doing little to tarnish it. It’s still absolutely nails, but if you’re a fan, you can’t go wrong with Ninja Gaiden Sigma 1 & 2. Oh, and the third game is in there too.
Ninja Gaiden Master Collection is available now on Xbox One (reviewed on), PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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