This week, Yahtzee unravels the mystery of the Ninja. Well, at least the mystery of Ninja Gaiden 2.
Ninja Gaiden II is another graduate from the Resident Evil school of sequel numbering, in the latest in a series of similarly titled games stretching all the way back to the NES, which boldly depict ninjas with superlative historical accuracy as simple peasant spies mainly concerned with undercover espionage and guerrilla warfare. Also, the Wii totally has lasting appeal, Atari have released some good games, and Cliff Bleszinski isn’t an extremely sexy man! Har har har. . .sorry. Ninja Gaiden II is actually about a bloke in pajamas flipping out and jumping around in ways you wouldn't expect such tight leather pants to comfortably allow.
Team Ninja are thankfully now getting out of their ugly habit of re-releasing Ninja Gaiden 1 umpteen times like they're channeling LucasFilm or something - oh, blimey, I have been ripping on George Lucas a lot lately, haven't I? - and finally decided to do some actual bloody work and make a sequel. Exactly how much work they've done is a matter for debate, since not much has changed in terms of gameplay, except for the fact that they hired Eli Roth and a small team of convicted murderers to come up with new damage physics.
The evil ninja clan, it seems, is now suffering from a widespread epidemic of leprosy, which causes their arms and legs to fly off if you so much as brush by them in a narrow corridor. And there's more than a few cases of hemophilia popping up, too. So the gore's been ramped out, and, as always, hand in hand with gore comes titties, his lovely wife and business partner.
As the game begins, we're introduced to a delightful young lady whose skimpy leather top looks like it's trying (and failing) to contain some kind of watermelon landslide. And within literally one minute, she's been arousedly chained up by baddies just in time for the hero, Ryu Hayabusa (or however you pronounce that), to leap in and rescue her giant boobs and, consequently, the rest of her. Turns out that the boobs belong to the CIA, though I'm fairly certain that dressing like you were ambushed by a lawnmower on your way to the S & M club isn't the sort of thing the dress code would allow at the CIA. Maybe the T & A, ba dum tish.
Anyway, this all kicks of a story of some kind, along the lines of an evil ninja clan unleashing demons upon the Earth and the CIA deciding that one solitary ninja is a much more hopeful prospect than, say, a tactical nuclear strike. But frankly, fuck you if you want a story. Here's your story: demons over there, kill they ass.
Among Japanese games, Ninja Gaiden II is almost unique in its immediacy. There's none of that Metal Gear Solid bullshit of cutscene dialogues that could fill a modest paperback, none of that Devil May Cry cockpiddle where the cinematics selfishly hog all the fun, none of that Zelda, erm, applesauce where you spend the first six hours on a starting island learning the subtle arts of waving a sharp stick around going "Yah!" What they do is briefly set the scene, then hand you a sword and go off to sit on the sidelines, patiently drumming their fingers on their knees while a legion of superpower lepers pull your ringpiece out through your throat.
And I respect that, to a point. It's like the Painkiller thing of focusing on relentless gameplay but lacking the aesthetic appeal that compensates for the story deficiency, being set mostly in a series of corridors full with twitchy blokes with increasingly bullshitty attacks.
Of course, this is very much a game for the hardcore crowd, with the emphasis on hard (suggestive tone of voice optional). The combat feels like one of those improbable bullet-time sequences from a wire-fu movie, only sped up to normal speed, then sped up a bit more. It's all about getting in sync with the enemy, finding the right rhythm of attacking, blocking, and dodging, and if you lose that rhythm they'll chop off three-quarters of your health bar before you can say Hattori Hanzō. And even if you do find the rhythm, there's always a chance you'll get hit by an unavoidable exploding shuriken thrown by some dick you couldn't see because the camera's pointing a dustbin or whatever.
But it presents an interesting critical dilemma. Can a game that's supposed - and, indeed, expected by its target audience - to be aggressively difficult be accused of bad design? After all, the platforming/wall-running sections are incredibly fiddly and unintuitive, and the camera's a giant piece of shit and a side of bacon, but maybe that's part of the challenge. You get loaded down with unnecessary numbers of only slightly different weapons, but maybe the developers intended for us to be flummoxed by indecision for a few moment before just getting the claws out again because everything else is shit.
Some things can't be defended this way, though: the graphical glitches, the level design being full of invisible walls, the occasional bewilderingly easy boss fight, and the fact that most of your magic spells make significantly less impact than turning around and breaking wind.
But Ninja Gaiden II is part of a dying breed, so I'm inclined to be nice towards it, as I would towards anyone else with a terminal illness. In this new age of mainstream and casual gaming, many linear games seem to be becoming more about the spectacle, with no further ambition than taking the player by the hand and holding their attention long enough to reach the end and get a perfunctory peck from distressed damsel du jour. Or, more likely, the cocktease cliffhanger designed to set up a sequel that only exists in some designer's miserable and unfulfilled creative ambition.
Ninja Gaiden II is very much a game for the old-school crowd, in that it actually poses the kind of challenge that leaves your voice hoarse with incoherent swearing and your thumbs paralysed with wanker's cramp. But on the other hand, the bugs and gameplay issues make it feel unfinished, and its immature obsession with blood and titties make me almost insulted to be its target audience. Ultimately, it's the gaming equivalent of a fat, epileptic kid hopping up and down on his ThunderCats bedspread popping Ritalin with one stubby hand and shakily masturbating with the other.
Watashi wa kawaii desu ne ^_^ etc: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Fun fact: Ninja Gaiden was specifically designed by Japanese developers to appeal to Western audiences, and I'm not sure if that says more about them or us
Everyone knows pirates are best anyway