The Ninja Gaiden series underwent something of a renaissance a few years ago when developer Team Ninja brought the series back to life in 2004. A clever combination of Prince of Persia maneuverability with Devil May Cry combat, the game set itself apart by reasserting the belief that video games should be about competition. Head developer Tomonobu Itagaki explains about his original opus, “In other action games, the enemies existed for you to kill. In Ninja Gaiden, the enemies existed to kill you.” It established a fanbase of hardcore players and is still considered one of the hardest games to come out in the next-gen console wars. The follow-up title Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, appearing on the Nintendo DS, is a philosophical 180 from all of these concepts for Team Ninja and the Ninja Gaiden series.
It is important to outline that Team Ninja has not dumbed down the game or taken away your ability to string together complex combos. It’s still a 3-D fighting game, one of the few on the DS. The original version of the game developed its steep difficulty from two game design choices. First, you have an incredibly complex choice of weapons and maneuvers. Second, you’re not allowed to interrupt moves. To an ex-core or casual gamer, that might seem like a nonsensical issue, but to the hardcore mindset you’ve essentially committed the player to lightning fast chess. As anyone who has played Ninja Gaiden Black can tell you, button mashing won’t even get you past the first level. All of that nuance, not being able to change moves mid-sequence and having countless options, ultimately translates into a player having to become a master of their controller. A flick of the joystick and you strike hard. Tilt the other way and you roll. Block. Magic Attack. Roll again. The degree of difficulty it took to master this game is something that would not only confound an old school Arcade Junkie of the eighties, it would leave them in the dust.
And on the DS version…the entire game is controlled with your stylus. That’s it. Every single button on the DS causes you to block. What perhaps makes this shift so tellingly dramatic is that most of the game design is intact in that transition. You still do combos, jump attack, cast magic, roll, and block again. But by simplifying the controls to a “point and click” interface it makes it so the game can now be played by an entirely new range of players. To attack you slash the stylus across the enemy you want to hit. There is no moving towards them, no aiming. Just point, mark repeatedly, and watch the satisfying slashes cross their chest. The game even blocks automatically if you haven’t input a command. In terms of difficulty, you probably won’t die until about half-way through the game. At that point, you start rolling and blocking. Then you probably won’t die until the last level, which takes a bit of work but is still manageable.
Do we then declare this to be a failure in the game? Has a title whose experience was founded on mastering a complex interface become corrupted because it has opened that experience to anyone who can operate a stylus? Itagaki is the kind of game developer that can inspire interest in a game, regardless of what it’s about. In an interview with
1UP he explains that he chose the DS both because it was a challenging platform to work with and because the stylus would allow uninhibited controls for the player. You just point and you’re done. That tantalizing appeal drew him to the DS and the idea of creating a game based on such an uninhibited player connection led him to create Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. That is what makes this game so damn amazing, it’s the same complex experience but with simple controls. You have a good range of moves, you develop personal strategies to deal with enemies, and it all comes down to rolling the stylus across the screen. The same hardcore game that horrified even the most intense of gamers a few years ago has, with a simple change in interface, suddenly become available to the entire casual and ex-core market.
Yet how does this marvel of game design and fluid player input translate into the story itself? The plot of Ninja Gaiden has never needed much depth when it delivers so much for the player to do while ignoring it but it would be a disservice to not acknowledge it. There is always art in story, even in shallow ones, and a salute goes out to a game that has developed the shallow story to a fine precision. Big-breasted women, unquestionably evil demons, and a pressing need to collect eight generic stones drives the majority of the game. But in a throwback to the NES days of panning 8-bit images, the game utilizes the dual-screens to deliver this generic plot with pace and nuance. There’s no metaphor to analyze, but there’s also nothing to criticize as well; the game properly creates the story of your ninja girlfriend being kidnapped and your quest to save her. And, like the Xbox title, the story is always careful to emphasize that your progress to that point is impressive, making you feel pretty sharp. In this third-person game, you play a complete and utter badass.
Perhaps the best moment that summarizes this experience takes place in the resurrected Vigoor Monastery, when a demonic fiend asks you what your name is. Your character, you, raise his sword in attack stance and tell the demon your name. It’s not the first impulse you’d have to a dangerous demon talking to you—the entire exchange has tense music and graphics. But in that moment, as the player, I felt the game giving me a vote of confidence. Through clever anime art, sound, and dual-screen pacing, the game told me to feel only one thing at this demon hag. As Ryu raises his sword in this moment, you, the player, are guided into thinking, “Bitch…do you have any idea who you’re talking to?”
There is a sacrifice in this transition from hardcore to casual, lightning chess to lightning tapping, though. By making the interface easier to use, the controls do not always handle with precision, and in a game design where stringing combos and pulling elaborate moves is the goal, that can be noticeable. Sometimes while slashing through a horde of opponents Ryu will suddenly start his charge-up attack. At other times, when you tap the screen to have Ryu shoot an arrow, the avatar walks forward. It goes without saying that a game whose entire interface is controlled by one means of input would have such problems, and there may not even be a way around it. But for a series where difficulty was the original appeal, when players want to ratchet up the game’s difficulty the means to handle it are not as manageable.
One of the other challenges Itagaki claims he gave himself when making this game was to make Ninja Gaiden fun for everyone, not just hardcore players. Not only does he manage this, he also maintains the overall experience of the original game. You still look, play, and feel like the ultimate Ninja badass while you’re playing. Team Ninja may have completely overhauled the player input, but Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword is still the same great fun.