Conference Call - Ninja Gaiden (Xbox)
Ninja Gaiden has already been highly praised and generally slobbered over by a number of reviews. It seems one can't swing a reanimated fossilized dragon these days without hitting a near giddy flow of gleeful analysis on the topic. Devoted to the art of slicing bad guys with swords, Ninja Gaiden has developed a near universal image of being a violent, high-quality, and tremendously difficult game, all adjectives which adroitly describe the experience, though tremendously difficult might be a bit understated. So naturally, with the gaming media virtually unanimous in declaring Ninja Gaiden as some kind of old-school second coming, one would have to be a fool to take any sort of exception.
With that kind of daunting journalistic gauntlet thrown down before us, neither Certis nor I felt entirely confident in expressing what we perceived to be a more genuine interpretation of the Ninja Gaiden experience, which brings us to this latest effort in tag-team reviewing. For those who've not enjoyed a Conference Call before, the idea is rather simple – as befits us – both Certis and I take turns giving you a clever, entertaining, and occasionally insightful commentary on the game at hand. Failing all that, we'll perhaps just make fun of each other for your amusement. We have no pride.Let's get started...
Certis: I don't know if I can do this, you said we were clever and entertaining. That's a lot of pressure.
Elysium: Don't worry. As usual, you come up with some mildly literate things to say, and then I'll make you look good. You ought to be getting comfortable riding my coattails by now!
Certis: Mildly literate"… mildly. Ok. Better start simple then. How's your hand?
Elysium: A little sore. My war wound has been acting up lately.
Certis: I didn't know throwing a hissy-fit like a belligerent five year old was considered a "war wound". Do you get a purple heart for punching your controller like that when a video game pisses you off?
Elysium: Just because you didn't connect emotionally with Ninja Gaiden to the same depths as I doesn't make me a belligerent five year-old! I was so deeply invested in game, that to not punch my controller would have been an insult to the designers who were obviously trying to crush my will to live. For the record I have no shame for my outburst; it was a pure expression of emotion, and if this game has "… oh who am I kidding?!
However, the controller punching incident makes a nice opening for talking about what must be Ninja Gaiden's defining characteristic. That being that the game is more difficult than understanding advanced mathematic principles of quantum physics. In fact, it might actually be easier to become a demon fighting ninja, than to play one on TV.
Certis: In Canada, we take quantum physics in kindergarten. The thing about Ninja Gaiden's difficulty isn't that it's a hard game to master. There are plenty of controls and combos to learn but the fact of the matter is the camera system and the way Team Ninja uses it to abuse the player is heart (and hand) breaking.
Elysium: And, let's not forget, a point I intend to beat to death with a club, the evil that is the Ninja Gaiden save system! The game, particularly when you encounter a boss, is already difficult on its own, but what becomes really annoying is how that difficulty is magnified by what I can only call design flaws. Certis is (unusually) right, the camera system is the worst culprit. Throughout my time playing, I rarely felt that the camera was adequate for the battle I was in. At pretty much every turn (literally, every time I turned my character in a new direction) I'd have to fight the unresponsive camera as I would a stalled plane with wing damage. For as much time as I spent jumping, dodging, swinging, and being killed I spent even more trying to figure out where I was in relation to the battalion of people poking me with swords. I still have nightmares about horse riding soldiers appearing out of nowhere, skewering me, and then disappearing. It was really quite frustrating, and I have the bloody scabs to prove it!
Certis: Yes, and don't send your scabs to me in the mail this time, I don't need proof, I believe you! When you're simply running down the street the camera is fine, it floats behind you and life is good. If you encounter an enemy the camera does its own thing, sometimes swinging around if you run into a wall, sometimes staying where you left it while you slice and dice. The only real control you have is pressing the trigger button and snapping the camera behind you again. This means there is no way to see what's coming around the corner and no option to push yourself against the wall and take a peak.
Hence the camera-imposed difficulty. Often you'll hit a corner and be blind-sided by a ninja or gun wielding soldier without any way of dealing with him until you recover from the first blow. In the thick of the action there are also many times when almost all of your enemies are off-screen because the camera is too stupid and unwieldy to orientate. Some bosses even seem to have attacks that specifically throw the camera out of whack so you can't retaliate.
So why is Ninja Gaiden getting all these awesome reviews? I think there are two reasons. One, reviewers are afraid to admit they suck at a game even if it's the game's fault. The second being when everything does work, it can be really satisfying.
Elysium: That's a good point, because I agree when not struggling with the controls, worrying about your saves, or fighting the camera, when you can just sit and fight your enemy as honorable soldier versus iron-clad gun toting goliath, Ninja Gaiden shines. I really don't take much issue with a game being difficult, but what does bother me is when it masks its own failings in the guise of gameplay. I'm so tired of hearing, for example, how the Spartan save system heightens the feeling of tension. Screw you! The gameplay and plot are supposed to heighten the feeling of tension, not anachronistic design features that should be banished to one of the higher numbered circles of hell. Aaaargh.
Oops. I'm bleeding again. Maybe you should talk for a moment.
Certis: It just wouldn't be a review without a little bloodshed. I think the base design decision behind Ninja Gaiden is that they wanted it to feel as "old school" as possible. Inconsistently placed save-points that are either two minutes apart or twenty, frequent boss fights that require repetition to beat once you learn the tricks, and enemies throwing flaming ninja stars that blow up in your face and totally piss you off are all par for the course. You can't reach back into the 80's for basic game design guys, just because it's "classic" doesn't mean it's good!
Elysium: I guess the old school aspect would explain why the three-dimensional camera is so woefully incompetent. I think we should admit that a lot of our frustration with Ninja Gaiden rests in the fact that ultimately it kicked our ass. I looked it up, by the way, and Ninja Gaiden translates to Ninjas Will Beat You Down Like a Flaccid Sack of Meat. Isn't that interesting?!
Certis: Yeah, we can justify it all we want but the bottom line is that there are plenty of thirteen year olds out there with lots of time on their hands willing to play the same sequence over and over again until they whip it. Whip it good. Do do do dooo do.
Elysium: Well, of course they have more time what with all the sex they're not having! So, let's talk about some of the good things about Ninja Gaiden. Like, for example, its stellar visual presentation. Putting aside for the moment the issue of Rachel the demon huntress' fleshy bulbs of what I assume to be some kind of advanced chest plating, the gameplay and CG cutscenes are absolutely gorgeous! The animation for Ryu, and his enemies is smooth, and the framerate even in the heat of pitched battle is always fast. The furious action feels smooth, at least when you can get a good look at it, and the levels are highly detailed and immersive.
Certis: If you had any doubt about the fiend in Rachel those breasts should have sealed the deal for you. My god. In terms of graphics I also want to point out that the enemies were many and varied throughout the game. It wasn't simply a matter of fighting the red/blue/grey ninja over and over again which was nice. The music you'll find in Gaiden is the expected twangy sort of Ninja techno one might hear while flipping out at tanks. I enjoyed it fine and never turned it off completely (which is what I usually do) so points for music. The grunts, blood gushing squelches and explosions all sounded just like my nights in the mean streets of Winnipeg back when I was a punk teenager.
Elysium: Rough place that Winnipeg?
Certis: Oh yeah, polar bear gangs are a big problem when they get mixed up with the Eskimos in the north end of town.
Elysium: I started off really enjoying Ninja Gaiden, and the difficulty of the fights I was presented with never really bothered me when I wasn't hampered by issues like the camera. Unfortunately the more I played, the less I liked the game. I know that won't be a popular opinion, and I'm sure someone will show up soon to tell me how their four year old brother beat the game during an epileptic seizure, but I'm sticking by my assessment. The game is good, but it's not necessarily as good as it's been portrayed.
Aside from the issues with the camera, the old school difficulty, the execrable save system, and my stunted capacity for emotional restraint, eventually I just started to get bored. The game began to feel repetitive. The combat devolved into a trial and error exercise of intuiting specific patterns of attacks for the endless cadre of enemies, and it felt like the developers placed a priority on trying to irritate the player above genuinely challenging them. When I finally stopped playing it wasn't out of frustration, but out of disinterest. I just didn't feel compelled to keep moving forward. It's an often beautiful game with an admittedly deep well of combat moves, but it is too often frustrating and rarely rewarding enough to inspire.
Maybe I'm just not that hardcore anymore, but knowing what it takes to be hardcore leaves me without any desire to return to that status.
Certis: Execrable? I just looked that up in the dictionary and it specifically states that I should punch anyone who uses it in a sentence. I'm REALLY looking forward to E3 now! Anyways, I have to agree with everything you just said there, it pretty much matches my feelings to the letter. Eventually I went from "I'll beat you yet, you little rascal!" to complete frustration and a surprising level of boredom considering the frantic sort of gameplay contained within. As I got to around Chapter Ten I realized that half of my time was spent playing the same areas over and over again which got bad enough to negate any warm and tingly sense of accomplishment I may have had after beating an especially tough boss fight. If you've got a good threshold for pain and you remember to wrap your knuckles before playing I highly recommend giving Ninja Gaiden a rent before you consider a buy. I think I had a good three days worth of fun with it before the faults really piled up and killed it for me. Perfect rental!
Elysium: I too would recommend a rental before a buy. I have to admit that I feel like the rave reviews lavished on Ninja Gaiden have been a little starry eyed, and don't fully address some of the issues. If I take some heat for that, so be it. I think for the gamer that Ninja Gaiden is trying to appeal to, namely those fearless gaming prodigies who can dominate any game as an ill-tempered German Shepherd would dominate a timid kitten, this is their digital dream, but for most of the rest of us it's a frequent exercise in frustration.
- Certis & Elysium