Why Does This Exist? – Thoughts on the Ninja Gaiden Master Collection
For the past few days, I’ve been chewing over clever ways to open this not-exactly-a-review. Anecdotes from my own patchy history with the 3D Ninja Gaiden games? Nah. A tie-in to how I literally lived in a Japanese ninja town for three years of my life (and all that I learned was that you can’t throw shuriken like in most anime)? Who cares, really? Historical context? Too easy. Maybe even a quick quip about how I ended up with the games contained herein eating into my limited PS5 hard drive space? Bleh.
None of the wit or charm in the world will get around the one thing I most desperately want to get off my chest, though. This being, quite simply, this: Ninja Gaiden 3 is really bad.
By bad, I mean bad. Not mediocre, not kind of bleh, not forgettable in a 58-70% on Metacritic kind of a way. I mean that it’s actively filled with bad design choices and is somehow aggressive in its lack of singular vision. I presume that it stays like this the whole way through; I had sized this game up after twenty-five minutes, and an additional hour or more did nothing other than layer upon the already terrible while introducing no redeeming quality of note.
Apparently, the game that series visionary and public dickhead persona, Tomonobu Itagaki, left Team Ninja to make is somehow even worse. (I’ve not actually played it, though, so who knows – maybe it’s secretly great in a Deadly Premonition kind of way?) How did this even happen? Maybe I should have opened with a little historical context…
A little over a decade ago, and about a year or two before Ninja Gaiden 3’s original release, I wrote at some length about the confused, insecure state of the Japanese games development scene during the first HD generation. The TL;DR version? Japan became too insular, fell behind on market trends, and then made some terrible, soulless games that neither looked nor felt the part in unsuccessful attempts to seduce Western markets.
Why bring this up? Because as a game, as a piece of media designed to (presumably) entertain, Ninja Gaiden 3 is wholly worthless in every sense other than it technically works. That said, as a kind of time-capsule into this age of confusion? In that sense, it’s a masterclass in all of the ways that some Japanese developers had fallen behind, and weren’t really sure how to catch up again. Right off the bat, Gaiden 3 leaps into not-as-cool-looking as it wants to be QTE-style action before slamming into the rainy streets of London. Some shit about having to rescue the PM. The streets are flooded with a bunch of might-as-we-be recast Call of Duty bullet-fodder armed with knives instead of guns.
Spongey enemies swarm in from everywhere, while the camera, in reverence for series tradition, does its best to make the player physically ill. It’s utter chaos, a mess of spectacle that swiftly turns to an eyewash of indistinct moving elements on the screen. Soon enough, other army dudes start firing rocket launches from every angle conceivable. Intervals between blasts are roughly two seconds. At least, that’s my best guess. I never got to count a third Mississippi.
Think about the above. Rockets flying around the screen at a rate of fire more appropriate for a handgun, the flat whizz-boom of their impact playing out like a metronome dissolving into white noise. Once your game starts doing this – and starts doing it from the opening minutes – you’ve all but completely lost hope of adding weight to your spectacle. If military-grade ballistics are treated as little more than squirt-guns, then you’d better be doing battle with fucking Unicron before lunch is served.
Ninja Gaiden 3 just never lets up, has no concept of flow or pace or why certain elements can be cool. Systematically taking down a chopper as a Ninja leaping from rooftops? Badarse! The execution here? Bad-pain-in-the-arse. Played through backwards compatibility on PS5, it is at least smooth as silk, but no number of frames per second could hope to redeem this mess. It’s fundamentally broken. It wants to be everything, throws far too much in, seldom executes anything well, and ends up as the equivalent of a Japanese restaurant deciding to appeal to Western tourists by developing a special roast-beef flavour of ice cream and then topping it with a drizzle of tomato sauce as a result.
I take back what I said about time capsules. Set Ninja Gaiden 3 on fire. Bury its ashes with a warning in hieroglyphics. Erect an impossibly heavy stone structure on top lest its mummified corpse rise to terrorise unsuspecting generations as yet unborn.
But what if you could remove the sauce and extract the beef from the ice cream?
Herein lies the mess with trying to review such catalogue content, or indeed anything with more than one prong on the fork that is being sold. Does a terrible multiplayer mode detract from the score awarded to an otherwise refined single-player campaign? Does a bland, tick-the-back-of-the-box campaign similarly poison the overall quality of a clearly multiplayer-centric release? How much does the effort (or lack of) put into the actual remastering get rewarded?
Would we consider some things better if there were simply less, even if the excess flab is easily enough ignored? Can the taste be washed away and focus properly get realigned?
Where can enthusiasm be found to continue after this, when there are so many games in my backlog already? Certainly, it’s difficult to overlook how cheaply the far superior Devil May Cry 5 can be had for these days.
Enthusiasm, it turns out, could be found in Ninja Gaiden 2. Or Ninja Gaiden 2 Sigma Super Ultimate Higher Resolution ah-fuck-it-how-many-times-have-these-games-been-remastered-anyway, as may be the case.
If Ninja Gaiden 3 was a confused attempt by Japanese developers to ape the already-questionable aesthetic appeal of Michael Bay, then Ninja Gaiden 2’s opening is proof that the team could already do better, so long as it stuck with what it knew all along. The opening stage is just fucking glorious: a haphazardly slapped-together kind of neo Tokyo, buildings sprouting from each other, high tech skyscrapers decorated with traditional dojo asthetics that have no business floating a bajillion miles above the world’s largest metropolis while a neverending stream of luminescent cherry blossoms cascades in from fuck-knows-where.
Its big, brazen, unquestionably stupid, and… absolutely astounding to behold. It’s excess at its absolute finest, made even better by the fact that, despite the absolute overblown absurdity of it all, gameplay is never a mess. There is somehow order, maybe even rhythm, to be found in this monstrosity of a visual showpiece. Combat can be understood, enemy positions followed. Timing for attacking, dodging and blocking makes sense, it trusts its core mechanics enough not to wrench-in weird, jarring twists every couple of scenarios, and there’s no pissing match between any goddam rocket launches.
Things settle down a bit after this, with nighttime Tokyo getting replaced with (presumably) Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari by clean sunlight. Still, the combat is playable – enjoyable, even – and, although it is clearly still action-centric, there is at least a semblance of pacing. I’d struggle to recommend Ninja Gaiden 2 over some more modern character-action titles, but I certainly wouldn’t warn people away from it, either. It holds up, and an inclusion of a gentler difficulty setting for each of the three games in this collection helps to broaden the appeal a bit.
Even when it moves west towards New York, the eerie emptiness of such a large city is still punctuated by a kind of anime silliness that sticks everything together. Certainly, Ninja Gaiden 2 can’t maintain the astonishing balance of the spectacle and the practical from the opening stage the whole way through, but as an overall package, every single element is just so much more focused.
Enthusiasm restored, then.
Bursting? Not exactly, but I at least don’t hate this anymore and might even continue to play of my own volition.
The Original 3D Ninja Gaiden remains perhaps the most revered. It was a big deal when it was released on the original XBox back in 2004; at once a noteworthy Japanese exclusive for a machine that was fast becoming the America box and an absolute looker at the same time. It was also gory as all sin, and quickly re-established the franchise’s infamy for punishing difficulty.
What matters most now though is that, while I think I actually enjoyed my time with Ninja Gaiden 2 a bit more, this game really shows-up just how far Ninja Gaiden 3 would go on to stray from the series’ identity.
Make no mistake: this game is tough as nails, and the easier difficulty setting is not only welcome, but even recommended for most players. But even if you ask for the biggest challenge on offer, Ninja Gaiden still allows time to breathe. There are hints of classic Resident Evil puzzles in here: keys of various kinds to open doors of varied types. Basic exploration is encouraged to the point where it’s even required early on. It does suffer from a certain vagueness as to the path for progress at times, and all-too-often fights break out in narrow corridors while the camera does everything possible to make you hate it. The latter seems to be a fundamental series problem that I find baffling as I really don’t think that the combat engine works particularly well in tight spaces.
The game’s not at all bad. There are even sensible arguments to be made about it still being the best of the batch, although it’s likely a matter of personal preference.
There remains a lingering question, though – for what purpose, exactly, does this collection exist? Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 are fine games, sure, but even the temptation to try 3 feels like a detriment. Moreover, this package is very much a remaster, not a remake: the games look largely like they always did in their last iterations, only now a bit sharper.
What is really confusing is that easier modes have been included, but online modes are left lacking. This feels like it should be a release targeting the diehard fans as it lacks the shine it likely needs to pull in new players, but the versions of the first two games here aren’t even those that the core consider to be the standard-bearers. Those who aren’t already in the fold stand a much better chance of enjoying themselves now… but will this collection even get their attention in the first place?
What is being put forward is a package that does a lot to improve accessibility, but that isn’t nearly sexy enough to draw much attention from the not-already-initiated. At the same time, choices made (for whatever reasons) around what content is and isn’t included are likely to upset the existing fanbase, such as it is.
What possible reason could there be for this release, then? Simply to put something, anything out there? To strike while Bayonetta 3 appears lost in development hell and some of Platinum’s money may be sitting on the table? This is also coming to Switch, after all.
If I hear about the potential fate of a Ninja Gaiden 4 resting on the sales from this, however, I’m going to scream.