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.
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.
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.