Team Ninja solidified themselves as an iconoclaustic, singular minded developer back in the early-mid 2000’s ( during the sixth generation of consoles). They made the games that they wanted to make, how they wanted to make it and whichever console they wanted on. While a lot of developers would not imagine their games to not be on the Playstation 2 those days (due to the console’s formidable install base), Team Ninja chose a different path. They openly declared that console to be an inferior piece of hardware, and under the formidable leadership of their enigmatic, charismatic and famously headstrong leader Tomonobu Itagaki – committed themselves 100% to making games under the original Xbox (Though they did port the Dreamcast Dead or Alive to the PS2, with stellar results)
This was considered a risky, bold move at the time but the company stuck to its guns. By the end of the generation, the proof was in the pudding—the company had made some of the most polished, advanced and mechanically sound games of its generation. With the Dead or Alive series, it had continuously delivered groundbreaking visuals that were not only leagues ahead of the competition, but were on par with some of the high end PC’s at the time.
This kind of drive and purist mentality becomes an object of scorn and contempt for most people, but it is the only thing that creates singular, iconoclaustic work that makes a genuine mark on the world. Case in point, the company’s 2004 Ninja Gaiden reboot, which was instantly hailed as one of the (if not the) greatest, most polished, most refined, deepest and most incredible action games ever created. This was back then when statements like there carried a lot of genuine weight—and games weren’t being given ‘10’s’ and declared ‘Masterpieces’ left and right.
And in this case, all the hype was well and fully deserved. The game set industry standards in well—just about everything when it came out. Most gamers simply hadn’t played a game that was this deep, this gratifying, this long, this beautiful and moved this fast. There was some skepticism before its release, but when gamers saw this thing running at 60fps on the original Xbox on launch, those that weren’t lew slack-jawed , were probably left baffled and confused. It seemed truly like the next generation of gaming was upon us (in the true definition of the term). The game simply did not look like it was from that era.
There was simply nothing like it at the time, and if I’m allowed to make a bold statement—there still isn’t. Ninja Gaiden’s combat loop is just a pure masterpiece that is designed to reward your skills, quick thinking, reflex and adaptability. Ryu Hayabusa is simply one of the most responsive video game characters to ever have graced the medium. He literally moves as fast as you think. Everytime you enter an input of commands, chances are (through the magic of game design), chances are that he will already be a couple of notches ahead of you in responding to them. The amazing sense of fluidity and the almost zen-like connection with the player that the game provides is less akin to action games, and more similar to old school FPS’s—in which you and the avatar literally become one – in both pixel and spirit.
This is all a good thing. Because you will need that. Enemies in Ninja Gaiden are no joke. They are as lethal as they come. They hit like truck, move like lightening and can just as easily block, dodge, interrupt, jump—and go into offense and defense whenever they choose. In short, they behave like you. There’s adaptive AI, and then there’s the one that Team Ninja’s designers magically programmed into the game.
Letting your guard down for even one second means that you’re in for a world of punishment. And the back-and-forth, offense- and –defense , you-hit-me and I-hit-you gameplay feels like a dazzling combat dance – the feel of which just has not been replicated anywhere to date. There are a lot of amazing action games on the market with their own feel—but there is none that feels as white knuckle intense as Ninja Gaiden. Sweaty palms and faster heartbeats are 100% guaranteed after almost each and every encounter. You have been warned. When it comes to methodical, intense, reflex-based combat—the series simply has no equal.
Of course, Ninja Gaiden wasn’t just about the combat. The game was a full-born action-adventure game, with a large amount of multi-tiered exploration, its own Metroid-esque overworld with different flavored areas, a healthy amount of puzzles and key collection. To team Ninja’s credit, they nailed this one as well. The ‘adventure’ aspects of Ninja Gaiden are just as top-of-the-line as the action part. While none of the puzzles are too difficult, they’re all a blast (especially one regarding a candleflame and a mirror. No spoiler) and the way the game makes you navigate/ re-navigate certain areas (flooded catacombs for one) is just genius and inspires multiple moments of awe. Tairon feels like a living, breathing place and by the time the end credits roll around, you will know it like the back of your hand.
All of that is of course helped by the stunning mood, atmosphere and mind-blowing soundtrack. Each location (be it the Hayabusa Village or the Tairon Military Fortress) has its own set of music tracks (sometimes multiple ones) and the way the tracks switch as you move from one area to the next, also seem very fluid and act as signifiers. It’s just a superb touch that displays how subtly Team Ninja is ‘directing’ the game and setting the mood for what is in store for next. Techno often blares during high-octane action setpieces, ambient music during underground and isolated treks and there is plenty of orchestral Japanese flavoured music during the Hayabusa village sequences to give it a flair of authenticity.
But forget the music for a second and let’s talk about the visuals. My god did this game look great (and still does). Ninja Gaiden on the XBOX not only did not look leagues ahead of any console game at the time, it did not look like a console game at all. Moving at a blistering fast 60fps, with each and every hyper-detailed pixel, otherworldly lighting and textures and nary a slowdown, it looked more like a high end PC game –that too one that ran on monster rigs. Team Ninja were always known for pushing the limits of every console they worked on. Here, they seemed to have stepped onto the future accidentally. The game looked like a seventh generation console game that somehow accidentally fluked its way onto the Xbox. It is no doubt one of the biggest technical achievements in gaming history—and for Team Ninja, it’s their most proud work. Even they never again pushed technology as hard as they did since (Why is that I wonder?)
But hey enough of that. As impressive and (almost) perfect each and every aspect of Ninja Gaiden is, none of that matters compared to its truly most remarkable aspect : Unison. Throghout its lengthy 25-30 hour campaign, the way your ‘player’ persona slowly dissolves into the Ryu character is perhaps the game’s single-greatest achievement. As you first clumsily fiddle around with Ryu and struggle against initial enemies, the game perhaps dosen’t seem to be all that—but as you gradually put in time to nail the controls, the techniques and the various moves—along with learning to bounce around the 3D space both vertically and on ground, you do begin to feel the zen like magic of being in Ryu’s shoes. The game requires you not to play as, but become Ryu Hayabusa.
The more you play, the more you seem to be in control—and with its meticulous pacing and progression throughout its lengthy, masterful campaign, you begin to see each and every intimidating challenge as but a mere obstacle. Not to mention, some of the game’s most deadly enemies as mere cannon fodder. It’s that sense of oneness an accomplishment that this game provides, is what sets it just a class apart from every other action game ever made. You’re not participating. You’re living it. From struggling initially, to getting to a point where you can instinctively outmaneuver a small army of some of the games’ toughest enemies like a piece of cake, and laugh at their corpses…. It’s hard to know where Ryu ends and you begin.