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Review – Ninja Gaiden II

posted on June 23rd, 2008 by wesley
Now Playing: Crackdown

Ninja Gaiden 2 is not an earth-shattering masterpiece. As much as the fan in me wants to spout absurd levels of hyperbole that put recent GTA4 and MGS4 reviews to shame, and devote five paragraphs to how this game’s Oscar-worthy story made me regret having even existed before its release date, I feel it’s more relevant to discuss why games like this are so important in the current landscape of the video game industry.

The game represents what I consider to be the “Nintendo Legacy.” Back in the Sega & Nintendo days, games were short. A combination of small development groups, limited resources, and hardware abilities of the time meant that games of the era were around 2-5 hours long. So how do you give a player lasting value to justify the price tag for such a short experience? You make your game balls-to-the-wall punishing, and force them to master the game mechanics simply to see the next level or boss fight.

However, something changed around the PS1 era. Suddenly people were playing 40 hour long JRPG’s just to see the FMV sequences, or marveling over Half Life because “that one thing explodes and kills that dude when you enter the room”. High scores became obsolete. Spectacle took priority over replayability and depth. All of this has escalated in magnitude with each succeeding generation.

Fucking awesome.

Fast forward to modern times…playing games like Call of Duty 4, it’s obvious the developers were much more concerned with making the spectacle of having a helicopter crash right next to you in a “super cool action packed cinematic sequence”, than spending that time coming up with an alternative to spawn wave closets and Quake 2 era AI. Playing Wii Sports, it’s obvious the focus was on the novelty of having a motion controller to play Wii Tennis than having any form of tactical depth to the game, making it little more than a super flashy version of Pong. More time is spent on writing dialogue and motion capturing for Metal Gear Solid’s cutscenes than is spent on refining the controls, AI, and game balancing. Spectacle has become so important that games like Bioshock and Prey don’t even let you see a game over screen, because that would impede your progress through the narrative.

Along comes Ninja Gaiden 2, a breath of fresh air in a world of grey and brown filters and military fetishism. Similar to how Serious Sam & Painkiller showed up and laughed in the face of all the piss-easy, cinematic, shallow shooters, Ninja Gaiden 2 kicks down the door, slits the throat of all these action “games,” then nonchalantly flings the blood off its blades into a glorious splatter on the walls.

The game is about timing…quick, precise, meticulous, clockwork movements through wave after wave of brutally intelligent enemies. You must constantly be on guard, paying attention, reacting to every subtle enemy movement, able to spot if a werewolf is going to do a grab or a sudden aerial attack, knowing that a centipede’s aerial dive can only be avoided by dashing forwards or jumping backwards, knowing the last two hits of an XXYY Kusari-gama combo make you invincible…these are the thoughts you need to be focused on to even think of succeeding in this game on anything above Easy. The moment you start thinking about what you had for lunch, you die.

The entire game is designed around the exploitation of the invincibility windows granted by certain moves, to an even greater degree than its predecessor. You need to pull off that OT right before the rocket barrage hits you to survive the entire thing without a scratch. You need to launch that UT quickly before those exploding kunai you’ve been stuck with explode. You need to aim those Piercing Void shots so they plow through as many giant spider fiends as possible at once, and you only have 3 seconds to line up that shot.

So awesome.

In this game, the spectacle is what you can do in the game with the proper amount of time and skill invested. All those incredibly choreographed fight scenes with Dante and Solid Snake that you wish you could pull off in-game…well with a bit of time and a lot of patience, you’ll be pulling off sequences of moves in Ninja Gaiden 2 that far surpass those of any cutscene. A few properly timed button presses and you’ll be piledriving a ninja mage over and down a three story high ledge and smirking as he explodes in a gorenado on the stone below.

This game is not for people who just want to make it to the end. Sure, you can play Path of the Acolyte like it’s God of War, and just light-light-light-heavy your way to the end credits. If you do this, though, you are only doing yourself a disservice. The satisfaction in this game doesn’t come from knowing Ryu saved the big boobed chick from the evil demon and lived happily ever after. No, if that’s why you play games, you’re missing the point entirely. This game is there for the true gamers, the ones who want to climb the ranks of difficulties and leaderboards; the ones who want to try weapon runs, speed runs, no item runs, and projectile only runs; the ones who would rather play games than watch them.

If you’re a fan of action games in any capacity, and especially if you’re looking for a rewarding challenge, Ninja Gaiden 2 will welcome you with open arms, lovingly embrace you, then snap your neck. That is the mantra of the old Nintendo Legacy, before they started making games for the people who watch Oprah. That is why this game is so important.

19 Comments

  1. Christian said on June 23, 2008:

    How does the game compare to the original in the following aspects?

    Difficulty, camera, and level design.

  2. GlennFinito said on June 23, 2008:

    Christian:
    same camera, but since it is faster it requires more micromanagement.
    Difficulty: the auto healing and frequent save points allows for more intense encounters.on higher difficulties the amount of explosion gradually increase and taking advantage of invincibility frames becomes paramount, as stated in the review.

    Level Design: more hit than miss, there are frustrating segments (first half of ch 8 and 9. But for the most part, it’s an awesome twisting corridor teeming with monsters, it’s very apparent where to go and easy to see where you’ve been because removed limbs make for excellent breadcrumbs.

    The stairs in chapter 10 are awesome and worth the price alone. Think of it as one long slow motion interactive fighting cinematic.

    Game tries to poke you in the eye and kick you in the nuts at the same time, it takes a while to develop the hand eye coordination to avoid both.

    Wesley:
    Excellent review, I agree for the most part about the whole “experience focused vs. gameplay focused” dichotomy. They can be seen as polar opposites and most people have different criteria as to what the right mix is so they “gel”.

    I like NG2, I am sure others will dislike it for the exact same reasons I like it.

  3. Christian said on June 23, 2008:

    Thanks for the information. My concerns stemmed from wanting to know how the game compares to NG1, which I found problematic but played through multiple times because of an excellent combat system that overshadowed other issues.

  4. wesley said on June 23, 2008:

    Level 8 is pure awesome from start to finish. ;) I found that once I learned to run circles around rocket spam ninjas, it was quite fun.

    The camera…at first I was really frustrated by it, but it recently clicked this weekend while I was plowing through chapters 7-12 on Mentor, and now gives me barely any trouble at all. You pretty much have to work the camera adjustments into your combos to survive. The only other option I could think of is if they pulled the camera back farther for each encounter, but that would make it damn near impossible to distinguish grabs and regular combos from each other. So much of it depends on carefully reading the enemies in your immediate surroundings. As a result, I found myself largely memorizing the audio cues for the projectile enemies offscreen. It may sound complex all typed out like that, but it all becomes second nature after a while, just like it did in the first game.

  5. Stefan said on June 23, 2008:

    I’m not sure it’s invalid, but I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever heard wii sports faulted for being caught up in the same rush for spectacle that drives final fantasy games.

  6. GlennFinito said on June 23, 2008:

    “Level 8 is pure awesome from start to finish. ;)

    I found that once I learned to run circles around rocket spam ninjas, it was quite fun.”

    The key phrase here is ‘I found that once I learned to..’. This phrase is important for understanding NG’s appeal. There’s a trial and error concept that mimics the better aspects of old school arcade gaming while mixing it with an enourmous toolbox and it is all the better for it.
    I never said I didn’t like ch 8
    I don’t mind cluster rocket spam, or incendiary shuriken spam or boss fireball spam anymore. But it can be a insurmountable brick wall to some, because it is a dificulty spike. I mean mecha-fiends + cluster rocket spam after the first minute of ch 8? That is some spiky stuff! I love it!

    I noticed how you subtly avoided mentioning the swamp of ‘not-so-fun mine shooting’.

    Doing a dragon sword run on mentor btw. Lots and lots of trial and error, it must be strange for some that I enjoy it so much!

    Again, even more so than the previous one, NG2′s combat will make you forgive flaws that would normally be unacceptable in any other game. I think that speaks to just how strong this is as a GAME.

  7. jay said on June 23, 2008:

    I should probably get a game in this series since I pretend to enjoy hard games.

  8. wesley said on June 23, 2008:

    I hear you. I think it took me several hours just to beat the first segment of chapter 8 on Mentor. Without the ability to backtrack and save your game after every skirmish, it gets pretty brutal. The funny thing is, every time, without fail, I would shout “Damn it! Fuck this game!”, set the controller down, stare at the game over screen for 10 or 20 seconds, then say “No way, I can do this.” and start all over again.

    The mine shooting in the swamp wasn’t bad at all. It’s easy essence farming. What was bad was the hidden mines in the lava after Zedonius fight 2. I couldn’t help but laugh when I died at that.

    I will say, it’s certainly more fun than beating CoD4 on veteran. That wasn’t even close to being fair in any way.

  9. dmauro said on June 23, 2008:

    Nice review, but there are two major cons that need to be mentioned. While the fighting system certainly deserves the kind of attention the game requires on mentor (and above, right now I can’t believe it gets harder than mentor) the slow game over screen and “wait for the text to slowly fade in even though it’s done loading” chapter being screen that bring the respawn time upwards of 20 seconds are very much not in line with the brutally difficult, but mostly fair games of the 80s. The other problem is the camera. It’s not always an issue, but sometimes you will inadvertently piss the cameraman off and he will make sure to get you killed immediately. Consider the way everything is on the screen at once in the original NES Ninja Gaiden boss fights and you’ll wonder why the damn NGII camera doesn’t just pan out to show you all of the action (I’m not convinced you’ll be unable to see what the enemies are doing, Wesley).

    So right now I’m trying to clear the first test of valor on mentor difficulty and I’m wondering if this game is worth it. Are the aggravations of the respawn time and camera enough to keep me from mastering the game? Probably :/

  10. GlennFinito said on June 23, 2008:

    Dmauro: Passing the first test of valor on mentor took me a hundred deaths. It is all about strategy.

    Control the fight. It seems impossble at first, but it is entirely doable.
    (hint: ninjas withs limbs missing can’t run very fast)

    As for the camera, you get one chance, one. Use it. If you watch enough of your own ninja cinema you will see that your incredibly unfair and cruel death was due to you making a mistake a few moments prior. recognizing what that mistake was is what can take a while.

  11. fapfap said on June 24, 2008:

    Hey, way to steal “gorenado” from GiantBomb, ass.

  12. jay said on June 24, 2008:

    My grand father first used the term “fap fap” and he wants royalties.

  13. Christian said on June 24, 2008:

    Because clever phrases like that will surely convince me to visit GiantBomb.

    Wait, who coined “sandbox”? I need to take a shovel to that chump’s head so we’re all free.

  14. Wesley said on June 24, 2008:

    Nobody owns gorenado. Gorenado belongs to everybody.

  15. Stefan said on June 24, 2008:

    My guess is that the term “sandbox game” came over from the computer security usage of the term “sandbox”, meaning a safe area for software to play where it can’t harm the outside world. The use of sandbox in that sense was popularized by Java with their JDK 1.0, when they used it as the name for their security measures which prevented applets from modifying the executing system without explicit permission. Unfortunately I can’t pinpoint the date that sandbox crossed over into gaming, and it seems to be a term that very few etymologists focus on, since its most common usage “a box with sand in it” has a pretty self-explanatory origin.

  16. Wesley said on June 24, 2008:

    I think the popularity of the term sandbox arose out of need for such a term. “Emergent gameplay driven title” doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.

  17. Grimo7 said on June 24, 2008:

    Mr Vaxadrin
    a fantastic review makes me want to go buy the game
    and we have go to have another session of texas chilli dog!!!
    all my love Grimo xxx

  18. TrueTallus said on June 26, 2008:

    Is that the real explanation, Stefan? I had no idea. Even if it isn’t, it sure sounds plausible enough to satisfy the ignorant :)

    Good review, Wesley. I picked up my preorder of NG 2 on launch day and while I’ve tried it on several occasions since then, I’ve had the peculiar sensation of feeling sort of distractedly irritated when I saw the game over screen, rather than the burning motivation that accompanied each of Ryu’s deaths when I played the Xbox original. Reading through your take on team ninja’s latest makes me wonder weather playing through the DS iteration has dulled some of my appreciation for the series in its true form. I never felt like I had to learn anything at all to beat Dragon Sword (admittedly on normal difficulty), I just kept moving the stylus to the side when bad guys showed up and looked at all the pretty scenery until the game ended. Somehow a residue of that experience is still holding me back from appreciating all the awesomely punishing ninja action that lies in store for me now. I find myself actually wasting time wondering if they removed Ayane from series cannon or getting annoyed that I have to pay attention to what the eniemies are actually doing when I play. NINJA GAIDEN, of all things, threatens to have become a relaxing, mindless experience. Hopefully reading such a determinedly retro-appreciative look at the game will rekindle my fine tuned, fiend butchering spirit.

  19. Berg said on January 12, 2010:

    I’m laid off from work now. So i been reading blogs all day and found yours. I found a lot of good info here. Thank you!

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