Some critics have pointed out the surprisingly complex and nuanced narratives of many top recent video games as signs that the medium is progressing as an art form and may soon be seen on par with movies and TV shows as far as storytelling goes. Grand Theft Auto IV, for instance, frequently asks tough questions about our ideas of morality, Mass Effect broaches racism like no game before it, and Metal Gear Solid 4 might as well be part of a philosophy course on the ethics of war. But alas, if you’re worried that video games are becoming a little too “arthouse” or highbrow, there are always titles like Ninja Gaiden II.
In this quasi-sequel to the 2003 Xbox title, (if you don’t count Ninja Gaiden Black or Ninja Gaiden Sigma, that is) the main female character’s heaving breasts are more developed than the story. The plot revolves around the Spider Clan Ninja’s theft of the so-called “Demon Stone” from the safekeeping of protagonist/super-ninja Ryu Hayabusa. The Spider Clan awakens the “The Archfiend” (they might as well call it ‘The Final Boss’), demons take over New York City and use the Statue of Liberty as some sort of evil base and create general mayhem. The only person that can stop them is Ryu and his badass ninja skills with, of course, assistance from Sonia, the aforementioned busty CIA agent who looks like she might have stepped off the cutting room floor of a Soulcalibur sequel.
This isn’t exactly serious thought-provoking fare, true. But it could be reasonably argued that with Ninja Gaiden II being an action game, and more specifically a ninja action game, the story is deservedly perfunctory. It’d be like judging a hot-dog eating contest based on table manners.
That said, if intense and bloody martial arts action is art to you, Ninja Gaiden II could be your Mona Lisa. As Ryu you seem part assassin, part frenzied ballerina, furiously hacking, slashing, slicing and dicing hordes of baddies in style with a dizzying array of slashes, flips, kicks and flying attacks. Human enemies actually lose limbs often (sometimes it made me wonder if I was actually fighting piñatas) at the deadly blades of Ryu, but rather than silently accepting their fate and laying down in a pool of blood, they just become crazed kamikaze attackers. For instance, sometimes if a one-armed attacker is able to grab you, he will set off a suicide bomb killing him (and maybe you) in the process. On the other hand, if you get close to a de-limbed ninja enemy and hit the Y button, the camera will dart to a close up shot and feature a gruesome final decapitation blow, complete with splattering blood and the not-so-sweet sounds of ripping tissue. It’s the kind of violence-porn cinematography that would make Quentin Tarantino weep with joy.
Luckily, not only does the action look good, it controls well too. Using a weak and strong attack button, a trigger to block and a jump button, you can pull off an insane amount of acrobatic attacks in a short period of time and the faster you use your right thumb, the more explosive Ryu can be. Wall jumping and other platforming skills are also done in a way that it feels intuitive and not impossible to pull off.
But just because the controls are smooth and easy doesn’t mean Ninja Gaiden II isn’t challenging. It’s quite the opposite actually. After the first couple levels, the game drifts into sometimes maddingly frustrating territory. In some ways, it’s nice that the designers make you earn your keep because in most hack ‘n’ slash games, mindless button mashing is enough to get you through the game. In Ninja Gaiden II, repeatedly hitting the X button into oblivion will make you nothing more than demon fodder. On the other hand, cheap unblockable combos from enemies and bosses with massive super attacks that take 60 percent of your life bar do get old.
Then there is the worst enemy of all, the camera. From a visual perspective, it’s cool that the designers want you to see Ryu in all his black spandexed glory, but the camera often fails to show a useful view of the action and where the other enemies are on the screen. You can be hit by a shuriken or a fire arrow and have no idea where the damn thing came from. Sure, you can adjust the camera to a default angle with a flick of a button but in a game when a split second can be a matter of life or death, having to constantly change the camera can lead to many frustrating moments.
The bosses can also be a source of frustration. No doubt they look impressive and are designed well, but some of them are hard enough that they make you want you to throw your controller out a window. I had to fight the giant wormlike boss over 15 times before I beat him, and every time he crushed me against the wall, I barely stopped myself from shouting curse words at my TV.
If you like action games, however, and you can get over the wonky camera, the gratuitously ridiculous story and the soul-crushing difficulty, Ninja Gaiden II is one of the best out there.