As a series, Ninja Gaiden has mostly lay dormant for the last decade or so. It’s been so long that it’s easy to forget that, at one point, it was the pinnacle of the Character Action genre. Where Devil May Cry had a quantifiable style and a mouthy protagonist, Ninja Gaiden brought speed, grace, and nut-busting difficulty. Thanks to the Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection, players of all ages can finally experience Ninja Gaiden Sigma HD – an HD remaster of a 14-year-old PS3 remix, of a 16-year-old directors cut, of the 17-year-old Xbox original…with additional features from the 9-year-old Vita port.
Enter The Dragon
You play as the endlessly stoic, hard-as-nails dragon ninja, Ryu Hyabusa. The game opens up with a seemingly-true-but-actually-fake-but-still-lethal invasion of your home village. Ninjas are running amok, a dude with nunchucks tries to kill you, and tea and biscuits are had shortly after. Things start getting crazy when a mysterious band of samurai-looking dudes backed by fiery demons and wizards actually invade your village; kickstarting the rest of the game.
Things go from bad to worse, but a couple of fatal stab wounds aren’t enough to keep Ryu down. So, he goes off on a grand adventure through futuristic sky fortresses, city streets, Egyptian tombs, and hell itself to uncover the mystery of a plot that I forgot about roughly 10 minutes in. Ninja Gaiden Sigma doesn’t take itself seriously. At all. The game has a world, it has excuses to travel around said world, and it populates itself with all manner of gribblies to keep it interesting. That’s about it. What’s here is tongue-in-cheek over-the-top cheese.
Whilst the story is forgettable and nonsensical, the gameplay that exists within that thin plot is top-notch – age be damned. Combat is where the majority of the Ninja Gaiden Sigma’s appeal comes from. Ryu has access to a basic light attack and heavy attack, as well as a handy-dandy jump and a multi-purpose ranged attack that defaults as the ‘shuriken button’. Individually this is pretty standard. Mash the light attack to perform a basic combo. Combine light and heavy attacks to get a fancier combo. As the game goes on, more combos unlock allowing for even cooler feats of ninja-ism. Ryu also has access to Ninpo, making him temporarily invulnerable and allowing him to unleash powerful magic attacks in a pinch.
Speed, Difficulty, and Depth
What makes it so good, however, is the speed of it all, the depth of the mechanics, and the difficulty and aggression of your enemies. Attacks come out lightning fast, can be delayed – or even canceled – similar to a fighting game. Your enemies will be running around, jumping off walls, and attacking you from all angles. You are a skilled combatant, sure, but so are all of your human foes. Mashing buttons will only get you so far, so mastering not only Ryu’s intricate combo game but his unique mobility options is vital for success.
Ryu’s jump is not just for show. Jumping towards a wall will have him run up it, backflip off and allow for some sweet aerial dunking. Jump at a wall from an angle, and he will run across the wall, opening up more combat options. A simple guard button turns into a multi-directional dodge roll or flips too, making Ryu one of the most mobile action protagonists in video gaming. He even has access to several incredibly potent aerial attacks, such as the Flying Swallow, or the legendarily satisfying Izuna Drop, letting Ryu take to the skies and deal damage from any position.
What this all amounts to is a hyperactive game of cat and mouse. Your enemies relentlessly pursue you, and you go down like a sack of potatoes. Dipping in and out of combat, using your environment to your advantage, and engaging when it is safe to do so. It’s oodles of fun and incredibly addictive. This is only augmented by the sheer variety of enemies. Ryu will go toe-to-toe with ninja, samurai, soldiers, demons, dragons, helicopters, tanks, and almost-literally-Satan. Almost all enemies are dangerous from every distance thanks to robust melee and ranged options, making every encounter feel different. If you lose focus for even a second, you will be combo’d by the most basic of enemies, and probably blown up for good measure. Even a slight change in environment, as this impacts your mobility options, changes the game substantially keeping everything fresh over the game’s 12-hour runtime.
One aspect of the combat I found more tedious than fun, however, was the boss battles. The game starts incredibly strong with Mr. Nunchucks who is the quintessential skill checker. Other than that initial brawl the rest of the bosses fell a bit flat – often feeling cheap rather than difficult. They often nailed the spectacle but failed the execution. Seeing a giant skeleton demon/dinosaur in an Egyptian tomb under a European town is cool, but killing him wasn’t. Some bosses also force you to use the badly implemented bow. Ryu’s bow dragons you into a clunky first-person view – leaving you completely exposed. Fighting a tank with this restriction was an exercise in frustration more than anything else.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma is notorious for being a hard-as-nails experience, and back in 2004, some reviewers struggled to get beyond the first level. Ryu is a paper towel and his enemies are the human equivalents of living scissors – sometimes with high explosives for good measure. Ninja Gaiden Sigma does come with a few difficulty options to ease new players in. Normal will likely be a good starting point for your average gamer, whilst Hero will be great for anyone looking for a power trip. People looking to take a right-good beating can boot up Hard. They can enjoy a swift defeat before dialing it back down. Beating the game also unlocks harder difficulties if you really wanted to put your skills to the test.
As is commonplace with games in this genre, Ryu can use various consumables to keep himself alive and kicking. These come in the form of elixirs which can be found scattered across the land, as well as in Muramasa’s shop (more on him in a bit). Whilst it is possible to complete Ninja Gaiden Sigma with 0 damage taken, it’s pretty unlikely. Chugging a potion to brute force through difficult sections isn’t penalized mechanically, so pop the cork whenever you feel like it.
Nobody Is Asking For Perfection
Whilst taking a quick swig provides Ryu with a hearty dose of HP, and it doesn’t impact your overall ranking, it does heavily affect your finances. Money, or yellow essence, is gathered from defeating enemies and can be redeemed at Muramasa’s for various tidbits and upgrades. Spending this essence on elixirs that grow more expensive over time, means less money for weapon upgrades, equipment, and technique scrolls.
It also feeds into Ryu’s most powerful, and easily his most interesting attack – his Ultimate Technique. Holding the Heavy Attack button allows Ryu to charge up an insanely powerful combo. This attack can decimate practically every enemy in the game. It takes a really long time to charge up, however, making it almost unusable in a combat scenario. Almost. Killed enemies drop essence, usually yellow. If Ryu activates his charge, he draws in nearby essence dropping the charge time to 0. The downside? The essence absorbed in this manner provides no other benefit. You expend potential money, for immediate damage. If you are interrupted, that money is lost. If you kill a handful of enemies with it, they drop more essence than you expended. Risk-reward gameplay at its finest.
This is made even more complex when you factor in different colored essence. Blue essence heals Ryu, whilst Red restores his Ninpo. A single red or blue essence will fully charge Ryu’s Ultimate Technique, but again, you don’t get the benefit of the heal. The lower Ryu’s health, the more Blue essence will spawn. Do you accept the heal, or do you take the opportunity to deal more damage? For such a simple mechanic, it adds a disproportionate amount of depth to the moment-to-moment gameplay.
Interconnected Level Design
Whilst combat is the game’s primary draw, there is a surprising amount of game to be had outside of the blood-shedding. Most of Ninja Gaiden Sigma is set in, around, or under the City of Tairon. Tairon is small by modern standards, but it is also rather dense and interconnected. Ryu will travel these streets a fair amount throughout his adventure, and going off the beaten path will reward you with all manner of gubbins. This could be something as simple as an elixir, or as exciting as a permanent stat upgrade. The most exciting items, however, are the additional weapons. It also helps that most of these hidden items require Ryu to use his mobility options to access, making finding them a blast.
Whilst Ryu’s Dragon Blade is more than capable of dealing with the denizens of Tairon, being able to whip out two swords, a bone-crushing staff, a spikey nunchuck, or even a warhammer, is a lot of fun. Each of these weapons has its own combo list. This gives them real depth if you wanted to dive into their deeper mechanics. There are buckets of weapons to play around with too; While weapons in the same category are largely the same, each category of weapon is vastly different. There are even a bunch of additional Ninpo to find and ranged options, such as exploding shuriken, further expanding Ryu’s arsenal and combat options. Accessing them requires a fair amount of menu navigation, however. Be prepared to flick through tabs if you want to frequently change up your style.
I have certainly painted a rather enticing picture so far – and rightfully so. The core of Ninja Gaiden Sigma is still rock solid. It was fantastic 17 years ago, and it’s fantastic now – mostly. Unfortunately, the game does suffer from a few issues that detract from the core experience. The biggest of which is easily the bullshittery that tends to bookend many encounters. Ninja Gaiden Sigma loves to take cheap shots at the player, often resulting in high amounts of damage, or even death. You could be walking down a corridor only for a dude to pop out of nowhere and chunk you. You could be platforming, and then a bunch of guys appear and shoot you with rifles causing you to immediately fall to your death. There is a disturbing amount of trial and error sprinkled throughout an otherwise phenomenal game, which is a damn shame.
Retro Camera Issues
The camera is almost a bit of a tinker too. Whilst you can quickly zip the camera behind Ryu, and you have full control over the camera at all times, it did, on occasion, get lost when things got crazy, leading to some cheap hits. This also ties into the lock-on system – or lack of one. Ninja Gaiden Sigma uses an automatic soft-lock that works fine most of the time. When it doesn’t, however, it can once again lead to cheap damage and missed attacks. Both of these issues are relatively minor in the grand scheme, but they are very noticeable when it all goes wrong.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma is also a long game, with a bit of a pacing issue. The opening few stages are quite literally amazing. Well-crafted level design, interesting encounters, and plenty of opportunities to explore. Once you hit the halfway mark the game takes a noticeable shift and becomes much more linear – and a lot less interesting. This is made even worse in the Sigma version of the game as additional chapters were shoe-horned in, further extending the playtime. These bonus chapters are also pretty bad, as they star Rachel – a character who, mechanically, is less interesting than Ryu. Her stages are also pretty crappy, often being retreads of levels you have already done.
As this is the Sigma port of the Ninja Gaiden, there are a couple of modes to check out in addition to the main story. These are essentially combat trials. They put everything you’ve learned to the test by pitting you against difficult groups of enemies with a predetermined loadout. Being a master of the Dragon Sword won’t get you very far when the game hands you a Staff. There are also a few alternate costumes to unlock if you want to look especially snazzy on repeat playthroughs.
Like Butter On Toast
Ninja Gaiden Sigma runs like melted butter on the Switch. From start to finish, docked or handheld, the game nails a solid 60fps. This is essential for a game this fast and frenetic. Graphically the game holds up remarkably to boot. Sure the textures are not the best, and the environments are a little bit basic from time to time, but for the most part, it’s very clean. There is a distinct lack of clutter on the screen, and aside from one incredibly painful section in a burning building, it looks great. Animations in particular are outstanding, giving the combat a real flow and weight. For those who like hilariously over-the-top breast physics, the game has you covered too.
I was even more surprised at how well the sound design has held up. The sharp clanging of steel on steel, the satisfying sound of flesh being cut, and the subtle noise of blood splattering across the walls – it’s all great. The music is excellent too, although much more reserved than its more eccentric brothers. It gives Ninja Gaiden a very specific feel. Heck, even the voice acting is great, even if the dialogue is cornier than a bowl of cereal.
Pacing issues and the occasional bout of bullshit don’t do enough to hold Ninja Gaiden Sigma back. What the game does right, it does so in a way that no other game in the genre even comes close to. The core of the game is just as good as it always was. If you are a fan of the genre, then this is a game worth playing.
NINJA GAIDEN SIGMA IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Koei Tecmo for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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Forged in the rainy wilds of northern England, I carved a path of mediocrity through generations and genres. My play style is often described as: “optimistically awful”.