Xbox Review: Ninja Gaiden. Ryu Hayabusa returns at long last!

Ninja Gaiden for XboxWell it’s the last weekend before the storm. E3 is only days away, and before we know it we’ll be flooded with enough news to melt the minds of every gamer on the face of the planet. But before that happens, I thought I’d take time out to fulfill my previous promise of offering up reviews of every Ninja Gaiden title. And so, I present to you, my review of Ninja Gaiden, for the Xbox. This concludes, for now, my splurge of Ninja Gaiden reviews. All three NES games, and now the Xbox version, are reviewed on the site for your reading pleasure. A review of Ninja Gaiden Black will be forthcoming, although I cannot say for certain when. Click the names for my previous reviews of Ninja Gaiden I, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, and Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom.

And with that, pop some popcorn, pour yourself a nice hot cup of coffee, snuggle up, and get ready to read! Click below for my final review of Ninja Gaiden for Microsoft’s Xbox console. 🙂

Ninja Gaiden
Platform: Xbox
Also Available On: None, Xbox Exclusive
Released: May 2, 2004
Players: 1
Genre: 3D Action
Save: 8 blocks
Discs: 1
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Tecmo
Creator: Tomonobu Itagaki
Country of Origin: Japan
Rating: M for Mature. Features Blood and Gore & Violence

Ninja Gaiden
Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox is the revival of one of Tecmo’s most classic franchises. The Ninja Gaiden series for the Nintendo Entertainment System was beloved by gamers the world over for it’s action packed gameplay, extremely tough & punishing difficulty, great music and one-of-a-kind storyline that used cut-scenes, a first for video games at the time. Requiring split-timing reflexes and extremely difficult to master, the series was a cult favorite that sadly never receive a proper upgrade after the third game in the series was released on the NES in 1991. Several generations later, the new Ninja Gaiden finally landed for Microsoft’s powerful Xbox console on March 2nd, 2004 after several years in the making.

Ninja Gaiden seeks to take the best aspects of the 2D side-scrolling series and translate them to full 3D. Tecmo had become popular with their Dead or Alive series, which originated on the Playstation, and included a playable Ryu Hayabusa, who was the main character in their NES Ninja Gaiden games, as a playable fighter. Using the experience of making a 3D fighting game, Ninja Gaiden’s creator, Tomonobu Itagaki, used his newfound fighting game experience and applied it to the new Ninja Gaiden. Thus this incarnation updates what you’d expect from a typical action game by closely relating it to that of a typical fighting game, and fusing them together to create something that’s deeper than any previous action games before it, as far as the combat is concerned. And marks a fitting style for the revival of the series.

Ryu Fighting Murai - NGYou play the game as Ryu Hayabusa (who may or may not be the original Ryu in the NES games) a member of the Hayabusa Ninja clan and descendant of the Dragon Lineage, who’s village is attacked by a ruthless samurai named Doku, “Lord of the Greater Fiends”, who is part of the evil Vigoor Empire and a Great Fiend himself. A legend tells of two swords, the Dark Dragon Blade, and the Dragon Sword, the former of which is said to have the ability to gather the hatred of humanity and confer it’s evil power upon the one who wields it, transforming him into the “Devil incarnate”. The Dragon Sword was carved out of the bones of a dragon and now rests in the hands of Ryu, passed down from generation to generation. Doku, the attacker of his village, steals the Dark Dragon Blade, which had been safely protected by a beautiful women named Kurea (info found in the instruction book, not the game). During the attack, she, a childhood friend of Ryu’s (again from the book) is killed, and Ryu arrives just in time to confront Doku, who then attacks him. Overcoming him with the power of the stolen Dark Dragon Blade, Ryu is seemingly fatally wounded and is left for dead. Soon however he is revived (which is not explained but hinted at by a mysterious bird) and, in typical Ninja Gaiden fashion, seeks to not only take back the sacred Dark Dragon Blade, but to “Get his revenge”.

(Trailer 1 – CG Scenes)

The storyline in the game sounds good and keeps you occupied while playing, serving it’s purpose well, but in actuality it isn’t all that deep, and doesn’t factor into gameplay save for some scattered notes you find and brief movie-scene glimpses of a mysterious figure, easily taken as a leader of sorts, known as the Dark Disciple, a wise, cunning, and at first seemingly friendly person who follows you named Gamov, and a few other characters who make various appearances, including Rachel the “Fiend Hunter” and Ayane, a beautiful young girl who helps you by giving you hints along the way, as well as Murai, a friendly Master Ninja from another clan, who you are talking with when the village is first attacked and who teaches you useful skills at the beginning of the game. And last but not least, Alma, sister of Rachel who herself has been turned into a Greater Fiend.

Unfortunately, the character development isn’t deep at all, and many things are not explained. Some deeper meanings or explanations are hinted at and could possibly be uncovered by those really willing to dive into the mythology and piece together all the information (or read the instruction book), but taken as is, the storyline is cool and all, but really isn’t a big part of the game.

NG Screen 1The most important and fundamental element of Ninja Gaiden is definitely the combat. It’s all about the fighting. Like it’s forebears, Ninja Gaiden is a punishingly difficult game. Itagaki really spent a lot of time on the AI, and thus, the AI can be really skilled and will take you out in no-time flat if you are not on your toes. The beginning of the game is actually more difficult than the latter sections, due to the fact that you are weaker and do not yet possess your most powerful skills or magic attacks.

You move Ryu around with the left thumbstick, and the right thumbstick will go into a first-person view to look around, where you can zoom in (while in first person view) by using the R Button for greater accuracy with your bow & arrow. The L Button blocks, and if you move the control stick while blocking Ryu will roll along the ground, which is one of the most basic and useful techniques in the game, allowing you to easily dodge attacks as Ryu is invulnerable while rolling. The A Button jumps, the X Button hits with a regular attack and the Y Button hits with a heavy/stronger attack. The former is quicker and is the basis for building combos. The B Button throws your secondary weapon. Black is a quick-map button, and White allows you to see how much karma points you have and keeps track of your combos with a little display in the upper left-hand corner, which can be toggled on or off. Finally the Start Button takes you to the game’s menu screen and the select button shows game options. Holding both select & start for a few seconds will do a soft-reset, resetting the game for you so you don’t have to get up off the couch.

(Trailer 2 – Gameplay)

The key to combat in Ninja Gaiden is a move that allows you to draw in “essence”, which can be done by pressing and holding the Y Button. Essence is given off by killing enemies and comes in three forms: Yellow, Red and Blue. Yellow essence is crucial as it’s used as money in the game, allowing you to buy from Muramasa, a wondering wizened old man who’s scattered statues of himself around the game world, which magically take you to his store, allowing you to purchase items, weapons, new moves, maps, upgrades for your weapons as well as rewards for collecting Golden Scarabs, which you will find hidden throughout the game as you play. Red Essence will fill one icon on your Ki Gauge. The more Ki icons you have, the more magic attacks, called Ninpo, you can use. And finally, Blue Essence will refill some of your health.

ClashUsing essence in various ways will be crucial to mastering the game. By drawing it in with Y, and letting go, Ryu will power up, and when released, attack with a flurry of devastating blows on his opponents. This is called an Ultimate Technique. Using Ultimate Techniques is to your advantage (and differs with each weapon), as enemies killed with it will drop more potent essence, in effect giving you more money, health or Ki when collected. To collect essence Ryu only has to jump near it, and it’ll come to him for collection. When drawing it in with Y, the essence is NOT collected, but rather used to perform an Ultimate Attack (an Ultimate Attack requires only one blue or one red essence, but two Yellows). Thus there is a trade-off and balance that has to take place during combat between figuring out when to use essence for Ultimate Attacks, and when to collect it for either money, health or ki purposes. Yellow Essence is the most common type.

Ryu facing SamuraiNinja Gaiden really forces you to master your attacks as well as the attacks of your enemies by using this Essence trade-off. Money gets used up fast due to a lot of expensive or frequently necessary purchases, but the more skilled player will learn to swiftly take out enemies and will fight often so that he can collect more money, using Ultimate Attacks whenever possible to increase the amount dropped. Outside of Blue Essence, the only other way to restore your health is by buying potions. And you will need A LOT of potions. They are very crucial and can mean the difference between life and death. They come in small and large varieties, with the large filling up your entire health meter, but costing significantly more. You will also find other items that include devil elixirs, coming in small and large varieties, filling one or all of your Ki Gauge respectively, as well as Talismans of Rebirth that can be bought (and occasionally found), that will revive Ryu, completely restoring his health and Ki, if he is to die in battle. As briefly mentioned before, you can also buy weapon upgrades. These will make your weapons more powerful while adding more moves to your arsenal for that weapon, as well as Technique Scrolls, which will teach you a new move.

RachelOn the Pause menu of the game, you will be able to switch between your melee weapons, projectile weapons, and armlets. Various weapons will be found throughout the game and added to your menu, which you can then freely switch between at any time, while Armlets can be bought or are given to you as rewards, and they add attributes and special abilities ranging from increased attack and defense, to faster Ki buildup or health regeneration. Also on the pause screen you will have a Ninpo tab, which lets you select and equip various Ninpo attacks. Ninpo act as magic attacks, and can be devastating to the enemy. One Ninpo Attack, which range from fireballs that surround your body and act as a shield, hurting any enemy they touch, to a wave of ice that surrounds your body, hitting any enemy around you with multiple strikes, will consume one icon on your Ki Gauge when used. These attacks need to be used wisely, and frequently, especially during boss battles, as they will make the game much easier, and a skilled player will be able to pretty easily fill their Ki gauge back up by collecting Red Essence.

Ninja Gaiden features lots of really cool and really fun weapons, all of them are different and have different attacks and/or abilities, and range from various light and heavy swords to nunchaks to war hammers to an underwater spear gun, with projectile weapons including shuriken and a large shuriken that when thrown comes back to you, as well as a bow & arrow, among others. Much like in a fighting game, you can view each weapons move list by pressing Y on the menu screen. Moves are executed much like in a fighting game, using combinations of normal and heavy attack buttons in conjunction with moves on the stick and pressed in combination.

NG Screen 3 White NinjaWhat makes Ninja Gaiden so fun to play is the vast array of moves, techniques and abilities at Ryu’s disposable. Right of the bat, you will notice how athletic Ryu is. Running along walls is performed effortlessly simply by running up to and jumping onto a wall while holding the stick to run alongside it. Or simply running straight up the wall. Ryu can also hang from ledges and swing from poles, as well as do a flip kick up adjacent walls at certain locations. You can even attack while running alongside a wall, or by jumping off it and performing an attack, which do more damage than normal. Probably the most useful attack has Ryu jump in the air and slicing right through his enemies, however it can only be performed with lighter swords and weapons.

You will face many enemies, called “fiends”, throughout the game. Combat is the main focus as was mentioned earlier, of Ninja Gaiden, and the game benefits with it’s fighting-game-style mechanics. Ryu has a vast array of moves, and they are performed much like you would execute them in any modern fighter, such as Tekken, Soul Calibur, or most similarly, Dead or Alive. Even if you are not a fan of fighting games or don’t frequent them, you should still be able to get by in this game if you give it a chance. I’m not a fan of any modern fighters, but while the extensive move list and multitude of weapons can seem daunting at first, combat is so frequent that you will quickly catch on to moves, and the more you fight, the more you play, the more you die and try again, the better you will get.

DokuHaving said that, this is probably the most difficult game you will ever play. Certainly one of the most difficult games of the modern generation, harkening back to the punishing difficulty of it’s old-school NES brothers. Prepare to die A LOT while playing. The key is to save frequently, learn your moves and the patterns of your enemies, never cease to block and use your roll and wall techniques often, and keep in mind your Ki gauge while balancing it with Ultimate Attacks and collecting essence that spawns off the dead enemies. You will no doubt go through frustration when your enemies slaughter you, which can happen easily and fast, even by the most basic enemies; But if you can keep your cool and simply try again, you’ll gradually get better and start plowing through the game, even as the enemies themselves get tougher and tougher as you delve deeper into the game.

One of the coolest aspects of Ninja Gaiden are the gigantic and menacing bosses you’ll fight. Bosses and mini-boss encounters are frequent, and extremely formidable, both in size as well as in the skill it can take to defeat some of them. The interesting thing is that while they may look intimidating, and some of them can be frustrating with devastating attacks, they all are beatable and you will eventually conquer them once you’ve recognized the patterns and attacks of the bosses and learn to use all your attacks, Ninpo, different weapons and whatever else you can do to get the upper-hand (don’t forget about Armlets!).

NG Screen 4 Bow & ArrowThe game-world is pretty vast, and you’ll go through a number of different environments, as well as underwater (luckily the swimming controls are pretty good. In a cool touch you can run along water by tapping jump. Sadly this technique is never required), although I have to say that it gets old after a while as you will run through many environments more than once, and all of the game generally takes place in one city. While the game at first can seem a little confusing and the levels large and unconnected, you’ll eventually find that it’s actually the opposite, the worlds really aren’t that big and the deeper you go the more you’ll find that it’s actually all inter-connected. By the end of the game you will pretty much be able to wander around to any point in the game.

The world of Ninja Gaiden is also packed full of secrets and items to find, mainly golden scarabs but also treasure chests filled with items or sometimes essence, as well as dead ninja’s you’ll find scattered around from rival clans that will carry crucial items that you need to progress into deeper portions of the levels.

Back in Black

Three types of items in particular are crucial to beefing up Ryu. Blue Orbs, known as “Life of the Gods” will fill in one of the nine Japanese characters on your gauge, that you can view via the pause menu when on the Item Screen (which also shows your current amount of money and the total number of golden scarabs found). Once all 9 characters are filled in, one by one, your health gauge will grow, giving you more maximum health. You will also sometimes find a “Lives of the Thousand Gods” item, which instantly raises your max health. The Red Orb, called “Spirit of the Devils”, will increase your Ki gauge by one icon to a maximum of 5, while the Purple Orb, known as “Jewel of the Demon Seal”s will allow you to upgrade one Ninpo magic attack. Each of your Ninpo (except the default) can be increased three levels, for a total of 9 Purple Orbs.

Gamov & Dark DiscipleNinja Gaiden is divided into chapters, which typically end in a boss fight, with some very cool CG cinematics interspersed throughout. At the end of the chapter you are ranked based on time, number of enemies killed, how much ki you have, and how much essence you collected, as well as your overall skill while fighting. You will get one of five rankings: Ninja Dog, the worse ranking, followed by Lesser Ninja, Greater Ninja, Head Ninja, and Master Ninja. The unfortunate part of all this is that you are never rewarded for you ranking, it’s simply for bragging rights (I suppose), and the game also doesn’t feature an end tally once the game is beat, like you’d expect. You’d expect it to add up all your rankings and give you an overall ranking, but that’s not the case here. You also can’t see your previous rankings . . . a “ranking screen” would be much appreciated so you could keep track and try and best your previous scores. But as is, the rankings are pretty pointless (though it may factor into the Master Ninja Tournament online section, which will not be discussed since I never played the game online).


Ninja Gaiden isn’t an especially long game, though it’ll probably take you upwards of 20 hours or so your first time through, simply cause the game can be so difficult that you will likely get stuck at certain points and or spend time simply killing enemies to collect money or what have you. While Ninja Gaiden is primarily an action game, you will spend time exploring your environments to a degree, searching for chests and scarabs, breaking certain walls to find secret areas, and the game even includes a few puzzle-type sections, although none are too difficult and don’t really amount to anything near like what you’d encounter in say, a Resident Evil title. They mainly entail hitting switches to move some platforms, getting through some areas with spikes, or figuring out a combination lock written on a file you found, etc. They answers are usually easy so it shouldn’t take much work to solve out what you have to do. You will encounter locked doors and have to search for keys, usually found in chests or on the dead body of a ninja, or from beating a boss or other enemy, but outside of that the game is pretty linear, and you shouldn’t find yourself getting stuck and not knowing where to go too much. There is a map as well, but it can be a little complex to read.

Ninja Gaiden has pretty good graphics. At the time they were absolutely top-notch. They still hold up well, obviously, but they do now look somewhat outdated, which is pretty amazing thinking back to just a few years ago when the game looked mind-blowing. Especially on the eve of the soon to be released PS3 and Wii consoles though, the game is no longer the peak of graphic performance. That’s hardly a knock though, as the game is one of the better current gen games and uses the power of the Xbox well. The CG graphics are pretty amazing, and there are some really cool scenes in the game. The music is far from bad, but isn’t great. As a huge fan of the old Ninja Gaiden games, I was hoping for more remixed tunes, there are only one or two. The voice acting is passable. It’s far from great but also far from being annoying or lame. Which is a good thing. It works and isn’t used a whole lot.

NG CharacterSo how much replay value is there to be found in this modern update of the classic series? There’s quite a bit actually. For one thing, there are a total of 50 golden scarabs to be found, and they can be quite well hidden. You probably won’t find them all your first play through. The game also features two higher difficulty settings, Hard and Very Hard. I beat the game on normal as well as hard.

At first, even after conquering the normal difficulty setting, Hard can seem literally impossible. The first time I played it I got slaughtered by the first boss and once I eventually passed him I could not defeat the third boss of the game, eventually given up. But by playing the game more and getting more practice in, I tried it again, and eventually passed. You will find that as you play the game, you will grow in skill, and the opening portions of the game are extremely punishing on hard since you lack moves and weapons, but once you start to gain them, the game gradually gets easier. By the time I conquered it on the hard setting and defeated the final boss, I was convinced that not only could I conquer Very Hard, with enough playing, but I actually found the game to be quite easy. Some of the bosses were push-overs, much like on the normal setting. Obviously, my skill had increased, but the game has a way of easing you into it to where I eventually was plowing through on hard without really noticing how much better I had gotten and subsequently how much easier the game was. Having said that, it was never EASY, and that’s the cool thing about this game.

Boss MonsterNinja Gaiden is a game of skill from beginning to end, and if you aren’t armed and ready, with your mind thinking and tactics being planned as you fight, you WILL get killed. Having said that, you do not need to master every move or every weapon to make it through the game. On hard you will have to fight more though, simply cause items are even more expensive than on normal, and thus you’ll need to have lots of money at your disposal, which can be difficult in the early portions.

Other features that increase replay value is an available movie gallery option, allowing you to watch all the movie scenes once you’ve beaten it, and, in the coolest touch, EVERY classic Ninja Gaiden game, from the NES series, is unlockable in it’s entirety. Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, and Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom. You will unlock these games by finding golden scarabs. 50 scarabs are required to unlock the first game, and then by finding the other two in specific locations. To find number NGII, a certain tower has to be shot from a certain location with your bow & arrow (after you’ve already gotten the first game), and NG3 is found in between the tops of two pillars. That’s all the hint I’ll give. Once you’ve found the games they will be in your inventory, and you can play the game on an arcade machine that you’ll come across in a bar, and once you beat the game with the item in your inventory, you’ll unlock it for play from the main menu, so you don’t have to go back into the game to play the Classic series.

Ninja Gaiden III NES BoxartRead my other reviews to see how the Classic games hold up. While this is a totally awesome touch and is extremely satisfying for both old comers and new comers alike, sadly the games are not the NES originals, but rather the Super NES versions from Ninja Gaiden Trilogy. These versions contain some differences that make them actually worse than the NES originals. Sad, sad indeed. So don’t go throwing away those old carts just yet. Even so though, having a version of the games to play on a modern console is better than no games.

ninja-gaiden-nes2.gifAll in all, Ninja Gaiden is about as great as action games come. Like Devil May Cry before it, the combat and visceral action is non-stop, as you plow through and slaughter enemy after enemy in bloody and gory satisfaction. The challenge level is also welcome in this day and age of many too-easy games. There will not be a point where you cease to sweat from the excitement, frustration and edge of your seat anxiety that comes from knowing that if you make a slip-up, the enemy in front you may take you down for good, be it a regular fiend or one of the games many great, memorable bosses. Unfortunately, the game could’ve used a deeper storyline, and I personally would’ve preferred more exploration and puzzle-solving to offset the constant action. Having said that, the storyline does serve it’s purpose and remains interesting to the end, especially given the twist ending that will likely surprise you.

Ninja Gaiden II NES Box-artNinja Gaiden though, like the classics it’s based on, is not for the faint of heart. It will require every twitch hand-coordinating skill in your body to make it from beginning to end, especially if you want to tackle the game on a harder difficulty seating. While there are quite a few cool rewards and Classic games to unlock, more stuff would’ve been welcome, such as retrospective video on the series or some insights by it’s creator. And it’s also disappointing that some of the secret items and weapons are in themself hidden, requiring a button combination at start-up instead of simply being unlocked and swappable at will. The camera in the game can also cause issues and make it more difficult to see some of the enemies you are fighting. But any complaints with Ninja Gaiden are really nitpicks in the grand scheme of things.

Ninja Gaiden is a polished and extremely well designed game, all that time in development shows and really pays off in the end, living up to expectations that any Ninja Gaiden fan would have, even though the storyline is all new, not having anything to do really with the previous games. But on it’s own merits, it more than stacks up to any modern action game, and defined the genre on the Xbox. Succeeding too in giving other developers a blueprint of how actions games should be done.

Ryu Rainbow!If you own an Xbox, and are in any way a fan of fighting or action in your games, then you owe it to yourself to pick this game up. Especially if you have interest in being able to easily play the previous Ninja Gaiden titles or if you have not played them before, even though they are hard to unlock, they are definitely worth playing even today, as is the new game. Tomonobu Itagaki did the series and fans proud, and Ninja Gaiden stands up today as a true masterpiece of video gaming. Can’t wait to see a sequel to this one. 🙂

While Ninja Gaiden has it’s share of repetitiveness and frustration factor due to it’s difficulty, the game is none-the-less fun. So fun in fact that I actually conquered the game not only on normal but also on hard. I’m convinced I could beat it on Very Hard as well if I could only pass the initial level. The game isn’t for the faint of heart though, as it’ll eat you alive if you aren’t paying attention!

Graphics: 8.0
Really good although showing their age.

Presentation: 8.0
The presentation is pretty sharp overall. Nothing to complain about, it’s all handled pretty well. The menu in particular is cool and detailed, the chapter scenes are nicely done and all the cut-scenes are presented at appropriate times.

Sound & Music: 7.5
The game doesn’t really have any great themes outside possibly the theme used in the trailer, although it’s actually a heavy remix (though it’s hard to tell at first). One of my main complaints here is that I wish there were more classic Ninja Gaiden themes remixed, it’s a shame that you only get one. Voice acting isn’t bad.

Replay Value: 8.5
This game is really, really hard and there are a few things to unlock, although I wish they would’ve added more. A bestiary, unlockable artwork, a history of the Ninja Gaiden series, all would’ve been welcome. The game is so difficult though that you will undoubtedly want to tackle it again on a higher difficulty if possible.

Ingenuity: 8.5
Ninja Gaiden was the next step up from Devil May Cry, an action game that’s unparellelled in it’s complexities and intricacies. One of those games that’s extremely tough to master, yet those who are diligent can definitely overcome. The Ninja Gaiden revival pretty much set a high bar for other games of it’s ilk to follow.

(Clips from throughout game -AMV- Contains Major Spoilers!)