Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ninja Gaiden (Xbox, 2004) Was Ahead Of Its Time

Note: I use 'hack n slash' to describe the genre of games to which titles such as Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry and Bayonetta belong. I recognize that to many, the term hack n slash calls to mind games like Diablo and Champions of Norrath while games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden would be considered third person action games. Just remember that when I say hack n slash I mean Ninja Gaiden, not Diablo.

'Ahead of its time' is a phrase with which I am intimately familiar, having said it myself many times in my life (usually in reference to a video game or a technical death metal album I am raving about at any given time). It is also a phrase with which I take issue, as the concept of something being ahead of its time implies that it is possible for something to exist before it should exist, which seems patently absurd, especially when stated so clearly. If something comes to exist at a moment in time, what other time could there be, aside from the one in question, at which the thing in question should exist and who determines that? Clearly the idea of something being ahead of its time is a romanticized and hyperbolic one. That being said, I am prone to hyperbole and romanticism and so I am going to make the claim that Ninja Gaiden (Xbox, 2004) was ahead of its time. If it is at all possible for something to be so, Ninja Gaiden is it.

At the time of the game's release, the hack n slash genre was well established, but certainly not to the degree to which it is today. Nor was it nearly as popular as it is now. God of War had not yet released. Devil May Cry 3, arguably the best in the series and the title that really elevated both the Devil May Cry series and the hack n slash genre as a whole in terms of mainstream popularity (as well as acting as redemption after the dud that was Devil May Cry 2) had also not yet been released. The first title in the series was, at the time, widely considered to be the best of the genre, and probably rightfully so. At the time, Capcom really innovated and elevated the genre with the release of the original Devil May Cry.

And then in 2004, a reboot of the classic 8 bit Ninja Gaiden series developed by Team Ninja, the development studio behind the Dead or Alive fighting game franchise, was released and the genre was elevated to dizzying new heights (see, there's that aforementioned tendency to hyperbole).

The first thing that really stood out upon first playing the game was how smooth, fluid and fast everything was. The game ran at a blistering 60 fps, which, if I am not mistaken, was a first for the genre, at least on consoles. It felt incredibly smooth, fast and responsive, and this was felt immediately after beginning to play. The controls were tight and the main character, Ryu Hayabusa, was incredibly agile. The options in terms of mobility were staggering. You could run up and along walls, hop back and forth between them to get to high places in seconds (known within the series as "bird flipping") jump on enemy heads and then launch yourself off of them, either once or multiple times in succession, allowing for the possibility of getting past a group of enemies by simply traversing over them as though they were a part of the flooring. Ryu could also roll dodge and perform a move known as the "Flying Swallow" which is a mid air flying sword thrust which covers great distances instantaneously and can decapitate multiple enemies in a single motion.

Hmmmm....three guys all shooting at me, what do I- oh, that takes care of that then!
Totally unrelated to the feel of the game, but equally noticeable upon first playing it was the fact that the game was absolutely stunning. Upon release it was one of the best looking Xbox games. Arguably even the best, period. This makes the fact that it ran at 60 fps all the more impressive since developers typically have to sacrifice either visual fidelity or the framerate when developing console games. The best looking games, especially during the sixth video game generation, were typically 30 fps. The few games that did run at a higher framerate were not typically the most technically impressive games from a visual standpoint. Ninja Gaiden was a top tier game in terms of visuals and it also somehow ran at 60 fps. The game was an absolute technical marvel and it was a dream to play while being a beauty to behold.

No hack n slash released before Ninja Gaiden featured the incredible speed, mobility and aesthetics found within the game, and I could probably stop here and consider my case presented. Just the feel alone was, at the time, something that felt next gen. I had not played any game before it that looked, felt, controlled and moved the way it did. It was insane, and I found myself flabbergasted at just how good it felt and looked. However, the things that, in my opinion, warrant Ninja Gaiden being considered a part of the echelon of games that are considered to have been 'ahead of their time' are not limited to the agility of the main character and the fluidity of the action. The game also featured incredible enemy AI, a return to "old school" difficulty, which is a trend that we now, in 2014, find ourselves in the midst of, and extensive DLC during a time in which downloadable content on consoles was in its absolute infancy and seen in very few games.

Ninja Gaiden's AI is very unforgiving, very smart, and adaptable. They were very mobile and reactive to what you as a player were doing. The enemies would coordinate to attack you as a team. There are moments in which you find yourself being sent airborne by one enemy and then nailed by a damaging mid air follow up attack launched by a second enemy. Before Ninja Gaiden, hack n slash enemies were typically there to be killed. Cannon fodder, essentially. They usually attacked one at a time. Not in this game. They attacked together as a group. You got very little room to breathe, but you were also given an extensive array of tools with which you could create breathing room. The central theme could be said to have been "tough but fair." The lead designer, Tomonobu Itagaki, had this to say about the enemies in Ninja Gaiden: "In other action games, the enemies are there for you to kill. In Ninja Gaiden, the enemies are there to kill you."

 As I alluded to earlier, Ninja Gaiden is difficult. Very difficult. Upon booting up the game, the situation in which you found yourself as a player seemed dire. The odds seemingly stacked firmly against you. Yet everything was done with purpose and in fairness, as you, the player, were in control of a tremendously adept character who could more than handle the seemingly insurmountable odds. This return to classic difficulty levels was pretty rare at the time of the game's release. Fast forward to 2014 and a lot of games feature very high levels of difficulty, mirroring those seen in classic "old school" games released in the 80's and early to mid 90's. In fact, the level of difficulty featured in these games has become, at least for some of them a selling point. The creators of games like Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy talk about the high level of difficulty with the same exuberance that a real estate agent applies to discussions about high ceilings and the lack of murder suicides in the history of the home they are selling. Like so many other aspects of the game that have since become genre (or even industry) standards, Ninja Gaiden did it first. 

And then there was the downloadable content. At a time when DLC on consoles was very limited and hardly being utilized at all, Ninja Gaiden, naturally, featured DLC. I say naturally of course because by this point, it's becoming quite clear that the game really was ahead of its time, if such a thing is possible. Aside from the novelty of the dlc existing in the first place, the content itself was very extensive, and absolutely free (you hear that, 2014 game companies?). There were two downloads, called Hurricane Packs (HP1 and HP2). HP1 was added additional content to the story mode. Thy added a few new enemies, a new camera system, a new weapon, the Lunar Staff (which became my favourite almost immediately), alterations to the AI, making the game even more challenging, and the intercept move, which was basically a parry, allowing you to deflect enemy attacks (by blocking at the proper time)  and then land a counter attack. All of that for FREE. Then, as if that wasn't enough, they released HP2, which was a series of phases (5 in total) of combat in an arena against a series of tough enemies and bosses. It was a lengthy and very challenging gauntlet, and it was also awesome. And yes, free. 

If any of you who were bored enough to make it to the end of this article decide to comment below, I welcome the discussion but kindly ask that you refrain from mentioning Ninja Gaiden 3 (either of them; I hate both the NES Ninja Gaiden III and the Xbox/PS3/Wii Ninja Gaiden 3) as if you do, I may have to run amuck and cause carnage on a scale unprecedented for a man of my limited means. The series stopped at 2 as far as I am concerned. Stopped at two twice, actually, but that's for another day. 

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