Flashback: ‘Ninja Gaiden:Black’ is still good. Also, hard.

Every now and then, I look at my stack of Xbox 360 games, and just don’t see anything I’m in the mood to play.  When this happens, it’s time to dig through my rommate Russel’s ‘Harry Potter Closet,’ (it’s under a staircase) for my old original Xbox games.  Once I’ve shaken off the spiderwebs and coughed out the dust (which may or may not be the remains of our cat, Barbara; I haven’t seen her for a while) I come up with a stack of old favorites, games that got me through my admittedly difficult teenage years.  Then, of course, the question becomes: What do I play?  My Xbox finally gave up the ghost a few months ago, so I’m limited to games that will play on my 360 (sorry, ‘Phantom Dust’), and obviously online multiplayer games are out, so I need something with a great campaign. 

Since the title of this article already gave away what I chose, I’ll stop stalling: I went with Ninja Gaiden: Black.  This series has been on my mind lately, thanks to the release of Ninja Gaiden 3 (which it saddens me to say is terrible), so I thought I would relive the glory days of the Ninja Gaiden series with one of my favorite games of all time.  I’m all about fast-paced slice-and-dice action games, like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, and I’ve always felt that Ninja Gaiden is perhaps the best example of the genre.  So let’s all dig through our own Harry Potter Closets, find our copies, and remind ourselves of how good it feels to be a ninja, shall we? (Cue me beatboxing and rapping ‘Damn it feels good to be a Ninja’ alone in my room.  Ah, the life of a game journalist.)

First of all, the game still looks pretty great.  On the 360, its age barely shows, with the combat movement still feeling crazy smooth.  The cutscenes are a bit dated looking, but I think I only feel that way because of how wildly different they look from the gameplay.  There’s a moment where you kill some bugs, and then suddenly there’s rock music playing and it’s like you’re watching a cartoon for teens in the 90’s, which now that I’ve said that, doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. 

Back when this game was out originally, I remember being really good at it, which explains my (in retrospect, poor) decision to choose the Master Ninja difficulty.  The first few levels of this game, I got my ass kicked, hard.  The thing I’ve always loved about the Ninja Gaiden games is how brutal the enemies are, attacking you any opportunity they get, rather than taking turns like the bad guys do in a lot of games.  You have to be watching your back at all times, which encourages a defensive, ninja-like combat style.  In fact, the whole game is geared towards just making you feel like a badass ninja, which is something that I feel all forms of media should put more effort towards. 

A big complaint about the new game is that they removed the dismemberment.  Well, if it’s dismemberment you want, look no further than Ninja Gaiden: Black. (Or Ninja Gaiden II, which took it to a whole new level.  Pretty much all I remember about that game is chopping limbs off of hundreds of werewolves for what felt like days at a time.)  Enemy heads just pop off like nothing, which never really stops being satisfying.  Like I said, damn it feels good to be a ninja.  (A real gangsta-ass ninja plays his cards right…)  

The other thing about this game that still stands out is the boss battles. As much as I enjoy Zelda-style boss battles where it’s all about figuring out a system and exploiting it, I’ve always preferred the style of boss battle we get in this game, where it’s just a really hard enemy that you have to beat, by figuring out the best ways to hit him without getting hit.  Which brings me ,of course, to Alma.  Notorious for being the hardest boss in the game, Alma took me about nine or ten tries this time, which I’m not proud to admit.  It’s mostly because that goddamn grab move that eats up two thirds of your life.  If you’re not at full health when she hits you with it, you’re pretty much a goner.  The thing is, though, the difficulty of these boss battles is what makes them so much FUN.  Frustrating, yes, but also fun, in a masochistic sort of way.  When you finally take a boss down in this game, it’s satisfying in a way that many games don’t accomplish. 

The story in Ninja Gaiden: Black is nothing to write home about, but that’s fine.  (You’ve got to kill this giant Ninja Demon, but you may have been a bird the whole time?  I dunno)  It’s perfectly acceptable for a game like this, and what it does well is jet you all over this crazy world, allowing you to see varying locales, from a small village, to an airship, to a demon realm.  You certainly can’t complain about lack of level variety.

In fact, the only missions that bug me are the military levels.  After fighting demons, hacking your way through guys with guns is a bit dull.  More than that, the Tank and Helicopter battles are frustrating in a not-fun way, mainly because you just have to shoot them with arrows, which feels tedious in a game that’s all about swordplay.  But fortunately, it returns you to demon-slicing action relatively quickly.

The other thing that doesn’t really hold up is the platforming.  It’s finicky and difficult, but it doesn’t feel like it’s intentionally so.  It’s fine, though, because the real focus of the game is combat.  Still, I can’t help but think how the game could have been even greater if it had platforming on level of something like Prince of Persia. 

Probably my favorite thing about this game, though, and the reason it has so much replay value for me, is the Mission Mode that was added specifically to Black.  It puts a focus on what the game does really well, which is crazy-hard battles, against both hordes of enemies, and super-tough bosses.  In fact, sometimes it pits you against two bosses at once, which is just nuts.  I love playing the missions over and over on higher and higher difficulties, although I confess that I still haven’t beaten them all.  (How exactly am I supposed to beat Doku and Alma at the SAME TIME?)  There’s nothing more ninja-like than going up against insurmountable odds and coming out on top, right?  Except for sneaking through shadows, which now that I think about it, this game doesn’t really have any of. 

So there you have it.  My experience with Ninja Gaiden: Black, years after having played it last.  So when you dig through your own cat-corpse infested closet and find your copy, remember these two things: 1) You’re not as good at this game as you remember, and 2) Damn, it still feels good to be a ninja.