It calls you. It owns you. It slaps you down, kicks your ass and makes you its dog (its Ninja Dog) and does it in the most unapologetic and matter-of-fact fashion imaginable. It is also the most exciting, frenetic, and rewarding gaming experience in recent memory; the kind that comes along so rarely and keeps you coming back to it time and again for one relentless beating after another. Ninja Gaiden was released in March of 2004 to widespread acclaim, and managed to turn even the most hardcore of gamers into quivering, dribbling piles of hydracubus slime. Its “normal” skill level was considered masochistic to some, and its hardest level was considered to be “impossible.” Ever the perfectionists, Tomonobu Itagaki and Team Ninja decided to improve on their amazing title by releasing Ninja Gaiden: Black. This was their “black label” version of Ninja Gaiden replete with both Hurricane Packs (originally offered for download over Xbox Live) and a wealth of tweaks and features for a bargain price of thirty bucks. Team Ninja’s swan song on the first Xbox is, poetically, the most satisfying action gaming experience of this entire console generation. Face your fear… find the skills… you will be glad you did.
Historically speaking, “director’s cut” versions of hit games have been a mixed bag. More often than not they come across as thinly-veiled attempts to wring more money out of a game whose sales have long passed their zenith. A couple of “improved” titles in recent years have seemed quite “off” in their new incarnations, mostly due to over zealous developers fixing what wasn’t broken. Not so with Black. For starters, there is the Mission mode. This mode delivers fifty down and dirty battle scenarios, pitting our hero, Ryu Hayabusa, against an onslaught of various fiends and, most of the time, in a very under-equipped state. This mode is a pure adrenaline rush for the skilled player and a beat-down of epic proportions for everyone else. Mission mode is not unlocked until the main story mode is defeated on (at least) normal difficulty, and this seems very logical when it becomes clear that if you possess no skills the challenges of this mode will bring you no enjoyment and will, quite frankly, make you look silly.
If you have a previous completion save on your Xbox hard disc from the original Ninja Gaiden, the game offers you the chance to go straight to “Hard” mode without having to unlock it first. Team Ninja did listen to the cries of the endless stream of players that had been thoroughly housed by the game’s difficulty and included an easier mode called “Ninja Dog.” Like everything else in Ninja Gaiden, your satisfaction must be earned. You cannot just select this easy level from the menu screen; you have to earn it by showing your lack of skills on level one and dying three consecutive times. The character Ayane will make you renounce the way of the Ninja and basically become her dog. From that point on she will assist you in the game as you progress but make you wear a pretty purple ribbon to display to the world exactly how pathetic you are. If you haven’t got the skills, earn the skills… buy the skills… but don’t go to the dogs.
For the chosen ones whose skill levels had risen enough to beat Ninja Gaiden on its higher or highest difficulty level comes the second new (and fifth in total) difficulty setting for Ninja Gaiden: Black, “Master Ninja.” Itagaki himself was quoted as saying that this mode was created specifically for those who had participated in the Master Ninja Tournament, and he believed only about five people in all of Tokyo could complete the game at this setting. At the time only one of Team Ninja’s testers had been able to pull it off. Can you?
The main story mission in NGB has not been changed much, if at all. A few more cut scenes with Ayane have been added to the storyline, but that seems to be a cosmetic thing rather than an addition to the story. The Lunar staff from the Hurricane Pack is available early on in the game (Hayabusa Village on normal, in Murai’s compound on harder levels), and is as much fun to use as before. The “Golden Scarabs” are all in the same place they were in the original game, but the rewards for collecting them have changed. Collect all fifty scarabs and Muramasa will give you a disc of the original arcade version of Ninja Gaiden. Go to Han’s bar and place it in the standup machine to play. The two Nintendo versions of NG that were unlockable in the first version have been removed entirely, as well as the “intercept” scroll first seen in the Hurricane pack. This brings up one of the only complaints with Ninja Gaiden: Black… the removal of the continuous play feature. Should you complete the game but miss a few scarabs, you’ll have to get all of them over again on a subsequent play. You also cannot carry over any other achievements from a previous play-through and that ability was considered a very cool feature of the original release.
A major hurdle re-releases tend to face is the excitement factor. When a game’s original run causes as much fervor as Ninja Gaiden’s did, it can be very difficult to come even close to that on a re-release. Team Ninja must have known this, because this is the kind of title that will not only re-invigorate fan’s enthusiasm, but will also prompt many of them to trade in their original versions for Black. The graphics show a slight improvement over the original, but considering the game is so damned gorgeous to begin with this is largely irrelevant. Many people consider the game’s beauty as a standard to hold all other titles of this generation up against.
The slightly problematic camera has been tweaked as well, now allowing players two types of camera control (original and full) by toggling the feature on and off with the right thumbstick. The sound design remains as brilliant as before, with real mood-setting music and jarring sound effects. Everything sounds exactly the way one imagines it should, and the fiend’s screeching and roaring will leave you breathless. One can only imagine what Team Ninja has in store for Gaiden on the next generation equipment, and, quite frankly, topping themselves is not going to be as hard as the Master Ninja difficulty level.
Rarely does a game come along that makes you want to plunge headfirst back into a challenge this difficult a year after you have defeated it, and then keep you in a sweaty, pacing state of panic as you attempt it. Due to the game’s unbelievably deep combat system, the player that is truly committed will become unstoppable and end up convinced that they made the game easier when in fact the opposite is true. This subtle type of player reward is a hallmark of exceptional game design and something actually delivered very, very rarely these days. Many have stated that they are excited to actually play Black on the Xbox 360 so that they may strut, pace, and jump around while playing with the new wireless controller.
Ninja Gaiden: Black is an improvement on a masterpiece. It is the defining title of this console generation and one that every gamer owes to themselves to play, even when considering the frustrating difficulty levels. Do yourself a favor and find both the skills and thirty bucks to buy this title. It will go down in gaming history as a classic that defined its generation.