The videogame ever-presents of ‘Game Over’ and ‘Continue?’ pretty much sum up both sides of Ninja Gaiden II – and your instinctive response to the latter will say a lot about how much you’ll enjoy it. While playing this game, you will die an awful lot. More than hundreds of times. If you’re going to play it on hard, possibly thousands. The game will eventually teach you how to not die, but it’ll take a huge investment of time.
You won’t mind. Because Ninja Gaiden II’s core is an almost perfect realization of its concept – its combat system tuned to a fine balance of attack and defence; its enemies aggressive and wary of your cheap tricks; its plentiful weapons differentiated to extremes. The fighting engine is quite without equal in the genre, to the extent that it makes DMC4 feel like a wasted opportunity and God of War an over-bloated spectacle. It is fast, it is vicious, it looks fantastic, and it’s very rewarding to master.
Ryu’s seven weapons all have their particular strengths and significantly different effects on your movement. Rather than this meaning scythes are slow and swords fast, it’s more about how each weapon can be used in the midst of a group. Whirling the Lunar Staff, for example, will hit enemies in a 180º arc in front of you, but leaves your back exposed; whereas the Kusari-gama (a scythe and a weight connected by a chain) will cause serious damage to anything in the vicinity when whirled around, but requires some skilful positioning and smaller hits to be wound up and unleashed effectively.
The weapons and their variations may be impressive, but the enemies are more than worthy of them. While their moves are learned relatively quickly, there is no fixed pattern to how, where or when they will use their abilities – and each one requires a different countermeasure. This makes combat sound like a super-quick variant of rock/paper/scissors, and that’s not altogether inaccurate, but the early levels are really about teaching you to work independently of enemies rather than responding to them.
Your first encounter is with four ninjas, which is as simple as NGII gets; your second with eight; your third with eight in an enclosed space, and so on. It’s not a progression that’s entirely about numbers so much as forcing the player to learn about the enemies and environments: how the former manoeuvre in differently sized groups, how injury affects their actions, and how the latter change the priorities for Ryu’s movement.
This aspect of NGII will be much overlooked. It is one of the hardest mainstream videogames available, and it’s too easy for first-timers to die in the first battle. But beyond that the game takes great care to introduce the committed player to the complexities of its combat system gradually. By the end of the first level – a long and highly varied series of fights that flits from wooden huts to skyscrapers via metal walkways and courtyards – you’ve fought the three basic types of ninja in combinations of both size and variety, and are fully prepared to move through the next 13 levels of brilliant and bizarre foes. You’ll still die lots, of course, but patience and some thought about how to circumvent a foe’s abilities will always win out.
There’s lots of variation in both the enemies and environments throughout. From the common-or-garden sword and claw ninjas all the way up to fireball-spewing dragons, bludgeoning hulks and scorpion-like warriors with glaives for hands, no enemy is a pushover and very few even tempt comparison with each other (the cycloptic drones, eight feet tall, with a cannon for one arm and a chainsaw for the other, are a particular highlight). The levels move from feudal castles to fetid swamps, from the top of skyscrapers down to the depths of the underworld, and somehow manage to hang together as a world – albeit a ridiculous one – rather than a directionless grab-bag. Only one green underground tunnel shows a lack of imagination – and an abundance of PS2-style textures.
So is Ninja Gaiden II the king of all fighting games? No, because some of the more basic features let the amazing combat down. The camera lamented in our last look at the game isn’t improved: it often loses sight of Ryu, gets stuck behind walls, obscures enemies and very occasionally goes into a frenzy of flicking back and forth. There are blind spots in the game, particularly on slopes and around poles, where the combat system seems to be unable to function tightly. There are pointless ‘puzzles’ involving door cards and stone tablets. There’s one boss moment involving an explosion that is unfathomably bad design. And, really, let’s not get started on the narrative.
Taken as a whole these issues obviously add up, but it’s important to emphasize that they never wholly detract from the greatness of the combat. Rightly or wrongly they’re part of the experience – there are even ways to fight that negate the camera’s worst habits. None of this excuses a fundamental fault in design, of course – and one for which Team Ninja, well versed in the Ninja Gaiden franchise, really has no excuse.
To end on a negative note would be to do the game a disservice, however. Ninja Gaiden II is a fascinating and hugely replayable game that shows Team Ninja has a gift beyond the vast majority of developers in the genre. And it shows something wider: in terms of mainstream videogames, and for all that Microsoft needs the support and attach rates of so-called ‘hardcore’ gamers, the truth is that hardcore gamers need Microsoft more. Much more.