Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ninja Gaiden II (NES): A Game of "Milder" Attrition

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States, was nicknamed "Unconditional Surrender" Grant during the US Civil War. He earned this dubious title for his willingness to fight a battle until victory was earned, regardless of the loss of human life on either side. With this in mind, I think it is safe to say that, had he had the opportunity to play it, he probably still would have been pushed to the brink by the war of attrition that is Ninja Gaiden.

"This game is a bitch."

Modern gamers and classic gamers no doubt are already aware of the aura of impossibility that surrounds the Tecmo saga, which has been well documented in recent years with the revival of the series. It is not for the meek of heart or the impatient of mind. In fact, even these folks have likely thrown a control or two while playing one of the titles in the franchise. To best exemplify the difficulty that is, take a look at this animation, which gets right to the painful point:

It is this very difficulty that has relegated Ninja Gaiden to the Backlog for so long. It's a fun game. It's a game that has gotten a lot of play by me. It just also happens to be a game that 1.) Doesn't have any means of saving nor stage select, and 2.) is infuriatingly tough to play through to the end in one sitting (that is, if you can get to the end). I have spent hours upon hours upon hours throughout my life revisiting the original game, playing through the levels I have played so many times before, and still getting my ass royally kicked. It was only recently that I reached the end of the game, only to come to the abrupt realization that I was not going to be able to beat the final boss without losing my mind, playing the game for days on end, or both. I passed on the opportunity; I haven't regretted it. Maybe one day, I will find the time and the willpower (and the self-loathing) necessary to vanquish that beast once and for all. Until then, it is an accepted member of the Backlog for obvious reasons.

Of course, this post isn't about the first Ninja Gaiden title. Like many gamers, I am a firm believer in beating games in order for the sake of the storyline. To get the full effect of a series, its characters, and its plot, one must take the time to go through the series in its order of release. It's because of this stubbornness that the series' further-backlogged sequel, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, had not yet seen the light of day...Until now.

"The light! It burns like the Art of the Fire Wheel!"

In reaching the final boss of the first game, I discovered that the story is told in full for all intensive purposes. We learn who the bad guy is, what happened to the protagonist's father (perhaps the core surprise of the game), and what the conspiracy has been throughout the game. Beating it simply gives you the final "closure" to the story (which likely isn't worth it for the price paid in punishment). As such, I decided that rather than revisit a game which has proven time and time again to be like kryptonite to this gamer for the sake of pride only, it was time to give its forlorn brother a go.

Preparing for the Long War

Prior to starting my long and arduous journey through this meatgrinder, I thought it might be worthwhile to find some support that didn't involve alcohol. Now, as you may have noted while watching the animation, it is "suggested" that strategy guides are just another victim of the Ninja Gaiden bloodlust. Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to test out this theory.

Over the years, my brother and myself developed a rather large Nintendo Power collection (previously referenced in the Chrono Trigger "Immediate Removal" post). One such issue that I found in the library happened to be the official Nintendo Power Ninja Gaiden II Strategy Guide, which self proclaims its as the gamers' messiah via the bullet points on the back cover:

*The only official strategy guide including 76 power-packed pages of inside information straight from the pros at Nintendo

*Where to find highly prized 1-Ups in treacherous caverns

*How to beat the powerful Ashtar and his henchmen

*Clues to finding items hidden in the Maze of Darkness
(Nintendo Power, Vol. SG2/NP15,)

Sounds promising. So, I decided that I would keep the guide within arms reach for the guaranteed moment when the game would, quite casually, tell me to go &$%# myself. Armed with knowledge and an abundant amount of self-depricating humor, it was time to set off on Ryu Hayabusa second adventure. Very quickly, though....

Some Truths Aren't Self Evident. (Spoiler Alert for Ninja Gaiden 1)

Right out of the gate, something struck me as lacking in this edition of Ninja Gaiden. Primarily, the backstory for this quest. Like in the first game, we get a pre-title screen sequence of images and dialogue. This time, instead of the epic sword fight involving Ryu's father, we see the moment right after Ryu's successful defeat of Jaquio in the first game.

A henchman stands on a ridge outside of the Amazon fortress, addressing a villain known as Ashtar. Essentially, this conversation establishes the classic, quasi-cop out starting point for a sequel: The whole first game was just a first step in a larger plan of a larger villain.
It's Ninja Gaiden. Ok, I'll bite.

However, when you actually begin the game, we get no explanation as to WHY Ryu has gone back out onto the streets to fight. We just find Ryu on a random city rooftop with baddies (which look exactly like the first boss in NG1) attacking him.

Alright, NG, you are starting to look an awful lot like a generic sequel...

But, of course, the level of difficulty still has to be there, right? That mindboggling, suicide-inducing skill level that makes gamers young and old tremble? Well, to a point. Ninja Gaiden 2 does still have moments that require the player to die numerous times before you can pass them. In NG1 terms, for every 10 times I would bang my head against a wall in the first game, I probably only banged it 2 times in NG2. None of these spots, though, moved me to open the Strategy Guide.

Really? That's it?

The game also introduces a couple of new combat items. In this gamer's opinion, they are hit and miss. The addition of the Fire Dragon Ball power up (a simpler, downward-diagonal Art of the Fire Wheel) and the alteration of the Invincible Fire Wheel to be an activated ability rather than a grab-and-go timed ability are huge improvements (though they seem to give the player a touch too much power given the overall decrease in challenge).

On the other hand, the game's biggest addition in combat, the Phantom Doubles ability, proves largely useless. The concept is very interesting: grabbing the Red Ninja blocks that occasionally drop create up to two shadow versions of Ryu that follow behind him. They don't take any damage, but are capable of doing the same moves that the real Ryu performs. As great as this sounds, the general usage of the shadows is very irritating. It is incredibly difficult to get the shadow into a position that allows it to do any damage. To boot, all the time you tend to use lining up the shadows puts you in the line of fire, resulting in more damage than if you just take out enemies the old fashioned way. While they do prove useful by doubling or tripling the number of specials fired off at a time, they overall proved to be more of a pain because of their limitations.

The New Deal...Very Much Like the Old

As I played through the game, I kept hoping that the payoff of the storyline would override all of the detracting factors of the gameplay. Ashtar, our villain, appears to be a rather imposing challenge. Add to that the Ninja Gaiden difficulty, which could be building up to the end, and I figured I was in for a hell of a denouement.

I wasn't entirely wrong. The final stages did prove to be a challenge. I kept on running into the same stumbling points: falling down a well placed death-hole, getting bombarded by the classic swarm of agile enemies, etc. However, through simple persistence, I found my way through to the end of the stage with my wits somewhat in tact.

However, the story did not make it to the end with me; it ended two "Acts" earlier when I defeated Ashtar (who was a rather straight-forward and simple boss). Now, if this were a typical sequel, the main baddie would probably turn out to be nothing more than the main baddie from the first game. But this is an NG game, so clearly that couldn't be....

This seems way too familiar . . .

I can't even say it with a straight face. Yes, Ashtar is just the "reincarnation" of Jaquio from the first game. Yes, Ninja Gaiden 2 has official proven itself what I hoped it was not: a stereotypical sequel. Rehashed enemies, rehashed storyline (or lack thereof).

On a final note, however, I should share that I did make it to Jaquio and fought him numerous times. I kept getting his life down to a quarter-bar, but kept succumbing to the wear-and-tear damage he delivered. So focused was I on finishing the game, I even turned to the strategy guide for its infinite wisdom on the final boss. However, this is what the magazine gave me instead:

"You're on your own in this last scene, and you'll have to use every Ninja skill at your disposal to make it to the end."

The magazine mocked me.

What a tease.

That was the last straw. I was done with this.

A Final Recount

In summary, NG2 just doesn't hold a candle to the first game. Whereas in NG1, the player was driven to overcome insurmountable challenges and the risk of mental anguish, NG2 doesn't provide the same draw. The difficulty of the game does not make the completion of it a true badge of pride, and the story does little to keep the player interested. It was worth the play to bridge the divide between the first and the third NGs (a conversation for another time), but

1 comment:

Ayn said...

You know, it's funny: I beat Ninja Gaiden II before Ninja Gaiden I. The phantom doubles were pretty useful for some bosses, though I will agree that this incarnation of ol' Jacky is a bit harder.

If you stick it out for Ninja Gaiden 3, it does manage to bring back the challenge.

..And then some.