Almost a decade had passed with no new Ninja Gaiden titles. Ryu Hayabusa’s time in the Dead or Alive tournaments just wasn’t enough for most fans, and though his adventures hadn’t been forgotten, they were fading. A new generation needed to experience that NES challenge and fluid action while moving to updated technology. Tecmo placed the franchise in the hands of Team NINJA, which would come back fiercely in 2004 with an attempt to reinvent rather than recapture the magic it originally created.
Ninja Gaiden X – Mobile (2004)
Tecmo took fans back to the NES with a single act mobile game that had elements of its classic trilogy. A prequel to the original 8-bit stories, this portion of Ryu’s journey was only released in Japan. The story involves Ryu ascending a tower to confront his father in the last trial of his training. It’s an interesting piece of the Hayabusa history regulated to phones, restricted heavily by the controls on those devices.
Most who played it say that Ninja Gaiden X had a lot of charm and creativity, but the decision to put it on mobile platforms doomed the material to living in obscurity, even amongst fans. This game has even failed to be available for download or as unlockable content on another title, meaning it will most likely stay forgotten.
There were also ports of the original game made for phones in Japan. Ninja Gaiden Episode I: Destiny was meant to be the first of four parts that would give Ninja Gaiden to mobile users with added content, like additional levels, but the other three parts were cancelled and never released.
Ninja Gaiden – Xbox (2004)
When the Ninja Gaiden series came back fully, it did so with a lethal blow. Revived after nearly a decade, Ryu would use the Microsoft Xbox as his new hunting grounds. Tecmo would pass the sword of development to the infamous Team Ninja and the guiding hand of their head, Tomonobu Itagaki.
Critics and fans alike loved the new take on the action-slasher classic, with EGM Magazine calling it the best Xbox game of the year. It not only released to high acclaim, but the game sold quite well, making a huge splash for Tecmo. The decision to focus on the non-Japanese markets paid off, as the home country of the game’s production was not excited by the idea of Ninja Gaiden. Itagaki himself talked about how Japanese gamers had no interest in the title, and the initial first four months of sales reflected that with only 60,000 copies sold there.
The game started off much different, a concept far removed from the original Ninja Gaiden series, but Tecmo knew the franchise still had fans and advised Team Ninja to take their first action game in a direction closer to the NES classics and urged Itagaki to stay focused on Western audiences. Some enemies, Ninpo, and certain special attacks were all included in the new game to pay homage to the originals, while Team Ninja took inspiration from the violence the NES trilogy glorified, carrying over and amplifying the butchery. The gore was in full force on the Xbox with its spewing blood and constant beheadings, but it also ramped up the visceral look of its demons, so much that it had to be censored in some countries.
The idea was to make the experience tough but alluring so that it would challenge players’ reflexes and allow them to get better at the encounters with experience. Itagaki did not want anyone to be able to simply memorize where enemies were going to appear, but rather to watch them in the battle and master the timing, closer to an actual sword fight. The key to that was in smooth and responsive combat, making the attacks feel like they had versatility and responded properly to inputs. This solid gameplay was attributed to difficulty, enemy AI, and high-quality animations. The deep combat made Ninja Gaiden hard to master, but rewarding for anyone willing to put in the time.
Itagaki was so intent on the game’s level of challenge that he not only made sure that the enemy AI was aggressive and worked in combination depending on the situation, but that everything living in the game could hurt Ryu in some way. Itagaki also discouraged the use of Ninpo—supposedly because he was dissatisfied with their visual effects—having the game award bonus points for those who could complete a stage without using it. Itagaki was so intent on the difficulty that he famously took it out on the playtesters, “The testers who tested this game went nuts. At first it was easier, but when the testers said ‘this is too difficult’, I made it even more difficult.”
The second version, Ninja Gaiden Black, was released in 2005 and even added Ninja Dog mode and an unlockable pink ribbon to make the game easier, but Itagaki wanted players who chose this to know how he felt about them. In this, the normally respectful character of Ayane turns to cruel mockery instead, leaving the experience feeling like the developers meant to shame and bully those less-skilled.
The lead developer’s distaste for the easier difficulty most likely stems from having received constant complaints about Ninja Gaiden being too tough as it was, and that he truly believed with the right amount of patience and persistence anyone could beat the game. As if to balance having to make his game easier, Itagaki made the other settings more difficult and added a harder Master Ninja mode. There were also DLC additions called Hurricane Packs that placed new missions, weapons, techniques, and enemies, into the game, all to extend the lifespan of the new entry and make it even more challenging.
These packs, along with some other upgraded features, came out in 2005 as a sort of director’s cut, the aforementioned Ninja Gaiden Black. It would not be the only new version of the game, as the PlayStation 3 received Ninja Gaiden Sigma, directed by Yosuke Hayashi in 2007. This particular port had retooled high definition graphics and made the character of Rachel playable in her own missions. Sigma received some scorn from fans, as it not only added new content but also took away from some sections and altered puzzles, changing the intent of the gameplay in parts. There was also a 2012 revision of Sigma that acted as a launch title for the PlayStation Vita, adding new costumes, stronger Ninpo attacks, a new trophy list, and touch controls, in what was called Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus.
This new Ninja Gaiden spent five years in development, with the project first beginning on SEGA’s NAOMI arcade board in 1999. Though it was initially planned for the Dreamcast, fans had shown interest for it to appear on Nintendo’s GameCube, based off of a poll Tecmo conducted.
These plans had to be abandoned when SEGA revealed the end of the Dreamcast in 2001. At one point the next generation Ninja Gaiden was intended to be a launch title for the PlayStation 2, but Itagaki had been impressed by the Microsoft Xbox development kits, which cemented where Ryu would re-debut. The team stayed quiet about this change though, surprising the industry and fans when it was announced in 2002 at the E3 event.
The new series would act as a prequel to the NES trilogy, but Team Ninja did not seem quite as focused on storytelling as it did the gameplay. Itagaki included the classic Ninja Gaidens on the new game so that players could compare the NES versions to his work. Ninja Gaiden was a success again, taking fans new and old by surprise and bolstering Team Ninja’s name.
Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword – Nintendo DS (2008)
The series would find its way back onto a Nintendo handheld once more, as Itagaki was impressed with the hardware. The player would be able to hold the Nintendo DS sideways, like a book, and use the stylus as the titular Dragon Sword (giving the title its dual meaning with the hardware) in an attempt to make the experience more immersive. The head of Team Ninja also pushed for this release at the behest of his children and decided to make a game that would appeal to more than just hardcore fans—reaching out from the normal demographic.
Dragon Sword’s story is set six months after the 2004 entry on the Xbox and sees Ryu Hayabusa returning to his people. A new playable female ninja, Momiji, is introduced, only to immediately be kidnapped. These events set Ryu off on another adventure against the Black Spider Ninja Clan that doesn’t advance the story much, but has a few tie-in elements and is more of a good thing for fans.
The game is stylish and makes great use of the touchscreen combat system, even winning an award from GameSpot for Best Use of Control Scheme (2008 Special Achievements video game award). The player only has a few moves, but doing these is intuitive (minus the rolling dodge) and are easily strung together for fun combos. There are also environmental puzzles and some awkward platforming to round out the eight hours or so of gameplay. It stands as an easy Ninja Gaiden entry, an interesting DS game, but sadly, not a memorable experience for most.
Ninja Gaiden II – Xbox 360 (2008)
It was time to follow up what had been considered such an innovative new take on a beloved franchise, which created a tall task that Team Ninja was up for. Itagaki was confident and the team felt they could perfect what had been done, but this would come with some changes, just not to the core game.
Ninja Gaiden II takes place a year after the first one and has a story that sends Ryu to a slew of interesting locations, but many fans of the series seem to have trouble explaining what is going on with the game’s narrative. It begins with some series tropes, a kidnapped woman and something from Ryu’s village being stolen, keeping things familiar as the ninja slices and dices.
There were new features added to accompany the updated graphics, now having auto-saves before the bosses and health that recharges to a degree, but some players saw these changes as getting rid of features rather than fixing frustrations. This is not to say the game was too easy, as even the testers had trouble completing and mastering Ninja Gaiden II, just as they had with the first.
Combat was refined and AI for the enemy mobs was made to be more aggressive and brutal. Itagaki didn’t want any enemies that would just stand around or wait on the player to attack, they had to always be striking or positioning for the next swing. Ninja Gaiden II was meant to drive home the idea that drove the last game: with practice comes reward. There were more difficulty levels added and even a new game plus mode to reward those who wanted to play through again with all of their upgrades.
The developers made Ninja Gaiden II more of what they wanted from the first, with increased gore, an excessive amount of enemies, and just over the top in a lot of small fun ways. Like their first attempt, the sequel was an attempt to weave the violence and danger together, mixed with beauty, in the appearance of the backgrounds and elegance of fighting, or, to hear it directly from the team, “This over-the-top gore balanced with the graceful cuts of the weapon and movements of Ryu blend to create a beautiful ballet of death that alone is worth the price of admission.” This is seen in several stages and the sexuality the game presents, all traits that had become part of Team Ninja’s fingerprint. The developers even see the game in its own sub-genre of “Violence Action.”
Itagaki told Kotaku that, “Ninja Gaiden II represented the culmination, the absolute height of the franchise and because of this he would no longer be making any more Ninja Gaiden games.” He felt that no other work needed to be done to it, and when asked about an edition or new game for the PS3 he said, “that would be ridiculous.” However, just like its predecessor, Ninja Gaiden II would receive another version.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma II would arrive on the PlayStation 3 in 2009 (and a version for the PS Vita in 2013 called Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus) which saw the beautiful and brutal tapestry that Itagaki created toned down to take out the gore. This was supposedly done to sell more copies of the game in countries that had deemed the previous edition too violent or bloody, like Germany. It may have taken away some elements, but this revised version also added a new motion control feature. You can see the results for yourself below.
Sigma 2 did give the female protagonists a couple of new levels also, but this enhanced form of the game also made the new adventure much easier, perhaps too much for most fans, leaving many to comment that it strayed too far from the material it was supposed to be adding to, similar to how the first Sigma game had done. Both versions suffer from various camera issues, visual glitches, and some slowdown when fighting a large group of enemies.
On the same day Ninja Gaiden II was released, Tomonobu Itagaki announced that he was departing Tecmo due to unpaid bonuses and would be suing the company, at the suggestion of his boss. Initially, he had claimed that Ninja Gaiden II was his best work, but would eventually state that he saw some of its flaws and areas for improvement, including the numerous bugs, which lined up with how many fans saw the sequel—a slightly flawed but incredible game.
Ninja Gaiden 3 – Xbox 360 (2012)
Following in the footsteps of the original trilogy, the third entry of the revived Ninja Gaiden would be directed by a different director than the other two entries. In Itagaki’s place were Fumihiko Yasuda and Yosuke Hayashi, who were left with the herculean task of following up on their predecessor’s work after he deemed the series ‘complete.’ Masato Kato, who helped work on the original trilogy, came back to write the story for Ninja Gaiden 3 and add some credit to the project. His tale would wrap the new trilogy—which takes place in the timeline before the NES games—back around to the initial stories, by adding cameos from original characters. What resulted would be considered by some to be Tecmo’s (Koei Tecmo as of 2008) biggest misstep with the franchise up until that point.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is a story about trying to make the new installment of a series more accessible for everyone, but losing the focus of what made the previous games appealing to most fans. The stories for Ninja Gaiden games have never been a strong point, but this particular narrative fell shorter than the others for many. The idea was to focus more on Ryu Hayabusa’s humanity, but nothing connected or felt like it advanced his character. The ninja master is up against an evil alchemist who has cursed Ryu’s arm, forcing him to kill and creating one of the new core mechanics.
This entry will feel quite different, not through the small graphical upgrades—minus a few tech issues—and presentation choices, like having the HUD only appear when in combat, or the fact that the player will save through a falcon now instead of statues, but in the gameplay. The bigger changes, of course, came with the combat, cutting down on Ryu’s available weapons and a lack of items, taking away many of the ninja’s tools. The game also equipped him with only one Ninpo attack, took away many of his techniques, and cut down on the tight and responsive swordplay. Stack on top of that the developers pulling back on the violence by taking out dismemberment and the game began to feel like Ninja Gaiden in title only.
A member of Team Ninja even stated that, “people do not want to see that anymore,” which was perhaps one of the biggest pieces of evidence to how the team wasn’t following the path Itagaki blazed. The game took away much of its gore, but not the violence, as seen by the execution scenes. Ninja Gaiden 3 put more focus into multiplayer with eight-player action. There were three packs of downloadable content that added more weapons, customization pieces, and new “Ninja Trials,” which were mini-games.
Fans that had come to appreciate the challenge these games provided were dismayed by how much easier and streamlined Ninja Gaiden 3 was. Like its predecessors, an enhanced version of the game—similar to the Sigma ports—was released in 2012 and called Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge. It included the previous downloadable content and took a step back to make the experience more like Ninja Gaiden 2. Some of the third installment’s changes were also reworked or removed entirely—everything from QTEs to parts of the cutscenes—leaving this new version to feel much different from the previous edition.
The fans apparently had wanted their gore, because dismemberment was put back into the game, allowing players to see the efforts of their viciousness. The developers gave Ryu numerous tools to work with again, including even more weapons, new Ninpo, alternate costumes, and the return of a Karma system for players to spend on a multitude of upgrades. Different enemies were also put in and their AI tweaked, along with the added battle areas. Ryu is joined by Momiji and Kasumi (from Dead or Alive), while Ayane is given her own set of missions to fight against the returning Black Spider Clan. Each character can be played in most missions and the ability to make their breasts jiggle with the controller returned as well.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge was more positively received by fans and critics, but still had many of its own problems and was clearly built off of the original game. Though it felt like a vast improvement and drew more players in, not everyone was satisfied with Razor’s Edge as a follow-up to the previous two entries. GameSpot famously said, “while the challenge is welcome, Team Ninja didn’t balance it out by tightening the controls–and all too often relies on the projectile-spewing enemies that plagued Ninja Gaiden II.”
Ninja Gaiden 3 is notable for how little it is spoken about, even while being a main entry in the franchise. The new incarnation of Team Ninja had seemingly lost sight of what made the IP stand out in the genre. Though the second version of the game attempted to correct their direction, the third adventure seemed to be a fatal blow to Ryu’s future.
100 Banjin no Ninja Gaiden / 100万人のNinja Gaiden – Mobile (2012)
The title translates to Ninja Gaiden of a Million People and was an attempt to bring fans of the franchise together through mobile gaming. The gameplay would have been similar to that of Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword featuring touch controls combined with card-based elements as players participate in 3D combat. Users would collect and trade cards featuring characters from the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive universes with various designs. The game was released for Japanese players in 2012, and an announcement was made that would be heading to North American markets, renamed as Ninja Gaiden Clans, but was eventually cancelled for unspecific reasons.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z – PS3/Xbox 360 (2014)
After the failure of Ninja Gaiden 3 came a true side story for the series, where Ryu Hayabusa would not star as the main character and instead had the player take control of one of his fallen foes, a resurrected cyborg ninja, Yaiba. Perhaps it was the fallout from the last main entry, the extreme differences in the new concept, or the lackluster initial trailer, but many fans were turned off from the game early on.
Team Ninja would pass the project off to two companies, one Eastern and the other Western, in an attempt to bridge the desires of audiences. Spark Unlimited and Comcept would co-develop the project with the latter’s Keiji Inafune acting as a producer. Tecmo would act as publisher, but their lack of further involvement caused many to question if this would be close to an actual Ninja Gaiden title.
Ninja Gaiden Z has a completely different look with a cel-shaded art style and comic book motif. It even released with a mini graphic novel that acted as a prequel from Dark Horse Comics. A decent soundtrack attempted to help increase the action sequences and the grindhouse story and crass humor finished out the incredibly stylistic world that didn’t quite feel like Ninja Gaiden.
Gameplay was much more in the style of an arcade experience with enemies taking a lot of damage to dispatch and missing the precision of the kill previous games focused on. Controls for the game were not fluid, combos aren’t plentiful, and these issues made it tough to fight waves of unbalanced enemies. Ninja Gaiden Z was also quite buggy and could often be frustrating.
This game was reviewed negatively amongst critics and received poorly by fans. Even some of its defenders note that Ninja Gaiden Z doesn’t belong in the series. It made appearances on a few Worst Games lists as well. Another sad indicator of the game’s legacy is that Spark Unlimited officially closed its doors a year later, but the impact on the franchise seemed much worse.
Ninja Gaiden ended on a low point and has entered into dormancy, but the franchise has made many other appearances in various forms and continues to live on in these small ways. The ninja adventures expanded to an anime, various pieces of literature, and of course being mentioned in the film The Wizard. Ryu’s story continues on in the Dead or Alive franchise—even appearing in the movie of the same name—but he and his cohorts show up in Dynasty Warriors, and Warriors Orochi, as well as being referenced in other games. How long will fans have to wait for a new installment though, for the ninja to return from the shadows and strike?
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