With the announcement of Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus coming to Playstation Vita on launch, and with Ninja Gaiden 3 releasing soon on PS3 and Xbox 360, now seems like a better time than any to go back and look at what kicked off this newest generation of the Ninja Gaiden games. Now we’re not talking about the original Ninja Gaiden released back in arcades, or on the Nintendo Entertainment System over 20 years ago, instead we’re taking a look at the somewhat newer revival of the series on the original Xbox back in 2004.
Set before the events that you follow in the NES games, Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox followed the story of Ryu Hayabusa and his journey to retrieve the stolen and sacred Dragon Blade from his clan’s village. However it isn’t as plain and simple as that, Ryu’s journey is one of vengeance and betrayal, it was Team Ninja’s foray into a brilliant sparking narrative, and action oriented gameplay, that has continued on through the series. Set in the fictional location of the more industrial and futuristic Vigoor Empire and what appears to be a feudal era Japan, the juxtaposition between the two environments leads to vastly different styles in how you deal with each level; with battles in the former taking place in wider open environments, whilst in the latter seem to happen in smaller tighter spaces.
So what really made Ninja Gaiden into the brilliant game it became? Well for starters it was built and geared towards a more western market, yet it still contained all the traditional gameplay you’d expect from a Japanese hack ‘n’ slash game. Oh, and it was unrelentingly hard. Its incredible difficulty curve saw those who couldn’t deal with the combo and evading systems losing out before they had even encountered the first boss, and from then on in it just got even harder. Like Dark Souls, and Demon’s Souls before it, Ninja Gaiden was a game entirely about skill, nerves of steel, and dying over and over again. The great moment of satisfaction comes when you begin to play the game near instinctively, you know exactly how to surmount each enemy, you can destroy and defile anything that gets in your way, no longer do you feel powerless and wildly hack away at your foes. No, now you deftly dealt with whatever Team Ninja threw in your way.
As Ninja Gaiden had many fans in the west, Tomonobu Itagaki, head of Team Ninja, was keen to keep fans on side for a game that was essentially completely different to previous Ninja Gaiden games. To do this, he decided that the major selling point for the west was the games violence, and so he kept it in, in fact he ramped it up! Take one look at Ninja Gaiden II and you’ll see Itagaki taking it one stage further, and Ninja Gaiden III sees new Team Ninja head, Yosuke Hayashi, expanding to make that intense level of violence into a deeper gameplay experience. Of course this high level of violence also meant that upon its launch it met the hands of censorship restrictions, with beheadings being removed from PAL versions of the game (although it was re-introduced for Ninja Gaiden Black a year later).
The final part to Ninja Gaiden that made it the killer game the Xbox needed was its integration to Xbox Live. At the time the service was not the powerhouse of online gaming that it is now, but it was on its way up to the top, and arguably Ninja Gaiden helped get the service even more members. Via Xbox Live, players could enter the Master Ninja Tournament. This tournament entry took place across the main game and its online distributed game packs (the Hurricane Packs), where players would have 14 to 24 days to gain a high score and submit it on the online leaderboards. Those who got through to the finals got to travel to the Tokyo Game Show where they played against finalists from around the world. The Master Ninja Tournament was so fierce in its competition that it broke all Xbox Live participation records for the time!
The true measure of how great a game is, is usually the reception it gets upon release; however in Japan the game sold in meagre amounts, and in the west it faired a little better, so in terms of sales it was slow. When it came to critical acclaim though, critics everywhere were in love with this new adventure that Tecmo and Team Ninja threw at them. Many heralded it as one of the most difficult games around, and one publication even said that no Xbox should go without it! It’s true too, this is one of the most amazing games from Microsofts fledgeling console, and now with a new master at the helm of Team Ninja, and the combined forces of Tecmo Koei, Ryu Hayabusa’s journey through Ninja Gaiden III will be one of the most exciting yet.