Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden: Sigma were both hard; the diamond-coated disc kind of hard that made me snap controllers due to utter frustration at my own lack of skill. I knew, though, that I was the weak link. Practise makes perfect, as twitch gamers well know, timing is everything, and there’s a lot to be said for repetitive tasks in terms of building muscle memory. (Also, to paraphrase my patron saint Neal Stephenson, I knew that if I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard, I could still become the baddest motherfucker in the video-gaming world.)
Ninja Gaiden II, though, is a different sort of hard; the kind that kicks players in the teeth for no good reason. It’s ironic, I suppose, because the actual fighting is much easier than it has been in previous games – scroll techniques are easier to pick up and chain together, enemies seem to have more obvious weaknesses and it’s almost a joy to run through the environments. ‘Almost’ being the operative word here – the game’s graphics, while pretty in that overly smooth current-gen way, aren’t a huge step forward from previous titles, combat can freeze for a second or so when enemies are engaged in close-quarters and projectile combat at the same time, and the game’s camera actively discourages players from continuing. So we’re back to gaming’s version of the camera obscura. Le sigh.
Also obscuring the prospect of a fun experience is the game’s plot, although that’s never been the highest selling point of the series. This episode, set one year after the events of Ninja Gaiden, sees ninja Ryu Hayabusa jet around the world, trying to stop the Black Spider Ninjas from summoning the ancient Archfiend Vazdah. Of course, the Black Spider clan need the Demon Statue kept in the Dragon Ninja village – Ryu’s hometown. What follows is more an attempt to juggle the disparate plot elements than any logical progression of events, but as long as it ends with a climactic battle on top of an erupting Mt Fuji, the fanboys will still be happy. More discerning ludonarrative critics would probably disagree, but said critics are unlikely to have got past the first couple of hours of gameplay, marred as it is by the indelibly poor camera control.
A lack of options to change the control scheme really compound the matter – depending on where Ryu is in a level, the camera will swing wildly to show him at his most ‘cinematic’ angle, with no apparent thought given to the shocking disconnect this shift in viewpoint engenders in the player. As a result, the camera restricts player movement and combat equally. To be fair, there is a button to centre the viewpoint behind Ryu’s head, but I’d hazard a guess that most people would be too busy dealing with hordes of lookalike evil ninjas to spare a regular button press to centre the camera.
Although frenetic and actually enjoyable at times, Ninja Gaiden II will likely be remembered as one more casualty of the shift towards cinematic games (or interactive cinema?) – one more flagstone on the road towards that golden future of gaming. (Which should kick in at any point now, right?)
[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]