It's probably a good thing Game On wasn't around to review Ninja Gaiden when it hit Xbox in 2004 — we probably would've written "an awesome, brutal, majestic action masterpiece," then filled the rest of the space with crude crayon drawings of ninjas. Because really, there'd be nothing else to say.
It's easier to ramble on about Ninja Gaiden II, which in some ways isn't a good sign. The original set the bar so high that it's not just the competition that falls short: The game's own sequel suffers in comparison. NG2 is just as intense, fast, flashy, and challenging as you would hope. But the game's lack of polish, coupled with an equally disappointing lack of ambition, renders it not quite as laudable as its predecessor.
The real difference here — and the one Tecmo hyped in its NG2 publicity campaign — is the bloodshed, and lots of it. Nothing like the Nerf batons wielded in Soul Calibur, the swords here actually cut — and cut deep, leaving splashes of blood and sundry appendages to litter every map you tear through. Then it cranks the carnage to 11 by pouring on hordes of foes; a few of the battles here number more enemies than there were in all of NG1. One fight later on in the game, up a long staircase, features a mob of ninjas so thick they seem to cascade down the steps to meet you, like a black-garbed waterfall swirling with razor blades. It might be discouraging if you had more than a split second to actually take it all in; instead, it's merely sublime.
Ninja Gaiden II
Publisher: Microsoft; Platform: Xbox 360; Price: $59.99; ESRB Rating: M (for Mature); Score: 8 (out of 10)
In terms of that sort of over-the-top awesomeness, NG2 delivers. One battle takes place in a coliseum filled with thousands of werewolf spectators, who naturally decide to jump the wall and run you down when you get the upper hand on their champion. Then there are the zombies armed with chain saws and bazookas — that's zombies, armed with chain saws and bazookas! To some, that would merit a 10 out of 10 right there.
But for all of NG2's spectacular highs, there are some unforgivable lows. Most of all, the game just feels unfinished, exhibiting a clunkiness that's especially jarring after NG1's technical brilliance. Every possible goof is represented here: slowdowns, stutters, glitches — even a few crashes. That's PC shit, man.
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Even the mania of NG2's action is a mixed blessing. Yes, the game offers a spectacular, satisfyingly difficult challenge with an insanely deep combat system. But the crowds of foes can't help but change the feel of the game significantly, almost smothering everything else. NG1's strategic, measured action is no more — now it's combat played in the snug confines of milliseconds, a game of perpetual evasion and survival by the skin of your teeth.
Later on, there's a moment of unusual quiet: As you walk slowly through a bamboo forest, a few ninjas lie in waist-deep grass, waiting to spring an ambush. After getting nailed by a few, you start creeping through the bracken, baiting attackers into showing themselves and engaging them one-on-one.
More moments like that — levels where you slink in shadows and engage the enemy on your own terms, rather than charging like a freight train through a Ginsu factory — might have resulted in a more satisfying experience. As it is, NG2's badassery is as admirable as it is exhausting.