Ninja Gaiden: past to present

These articles were originally published separately, but after posting them I felt they belonged together so I combined them into one big piece. As a result each article was slightly altered to prevent double explanations and to have the story flow better. As an extra this version includes a short epilogue about the Ninja Gaiden community. 
And lastly, this article was given a make-over to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Ninja Gaiden on October 2018. Enjoy!

ninja gaiden

覚えゲー(pronounced OH boe GHe) is a term often used to describe games that focus on the player memorizing the patterns of his enemies to continue through the game, loosely translating to “remember the game”. The original Ninja Gaiden on the Nintendo Entertainment System from 1988 was one such game. Filled with unexpected traps and combinations of foes that had to be circumvented to reach the end goal. The larger than life boss fights were equally pattern based, each with distinct moves that could be predicted and responded to perfectly if the player was sagely enough at the game’s mechanics.

In 1999, following his rise to fame after the successful Dead or Alive 2, Tomonobu Itagaki was ordered by his commander in chiefs to start production on an action game. Itagaki has often remarked that his philosophy of game-design centers around player interactivity, with their actions quickly being reacted to by the game; reflex based gameplay is his niche. Dead or Alive 2 used a counter-system which allowed players to negate enemy attacks if they became too predictable or if their reactions were fast enough. An almost mixture of the 覚えゲー style of gameplay and his own reactive philosophy. It is no surprise then that once we delve into Itagaki’s history we find out he was being mentored by Yoshiaki Inose, who programmed the original Ninja Gaiden in 1988. Dead or Alive 2 is a child of Itagaki’s nature and nurture. His own personality and the training he had received in his craft.

While designing the action title Tecmo had requested of him, the marketing department issued the order to link the title to that of the original Ninja Gaiden to up sales due to its fame worldwide as a strong action title. It was with this that Ninja Gaiden started development for the Playstation 2, though from a user poll the fans in anticipation for the game highly requested it to be a Gamecube exclusive. Ironically the game ended up on neither platform instead being released on the Xbox due to Itagaki, with his engineering and programming background, being impressed by its hardware. This decision was not known to both the executives of Tecmo and the public, shocking both consumers and management when a trailer at E3 2002 revealed the Xbox-exclusivity.

When launched in 2004 the game starred protagonist Ryu Hyabusa from Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden fame. Itagaki took great care not to reboot the existing source material but instead chose to set the title before the original games and the first Dead or Alive title, not wanting to disrespect the original’s foundations but compliment it.

Ryu featured two designs used throughout the first time playing. The first being a purple shinobi outfit with little detailing, focusing more on the classical ninja look while also referencing Ryu’s blue design in the 1988 title. The design is simplistic and does what it needs to. You are a ninja and one of many: you are not special.

The later design which the player uses throughout the rest of the game sports kunai and straps with a menacing silver falcon emblem present on Ryu’s forehead. This design lets Ryu feel more special and a like true master ninja. In his hands he wields the Dragon Sword, a legendary katana (刀).

With the weapon in hand Ryu’s combat style consists of three buttons; light-, heavy- and ranged attack. Outside of that he can use his trademark agility to hop on enemies, jump off walls, run on walls and back-flip out of harm’s way. While he gains more options later-on throughout the game such as multiple weapons and new abilities like the Counter Attack and Guillotine Throw, the core remains the same.

At the beginning of the game we see control Ryu as he climbs a hill, allowing us to get used to the controls first. But half way throughout the climb players are ambushed, and the fight begins. Later-on players will realize that the threat of this foe is low, but for a new player they can be tricky. Their attacks are relentless and the player could very well die or come out of the battle with scars both on the body and in the mind. Once defeated, the player can press the attack button to kick the dead body to the side. In the frame that the kick connects the screen flashes white and a strong sound is emitted from your speakers, really selling you on Ryu’s power.

It is this very beginning which immediately showcases the direction this title will go towards. One must fight for and earn the right to be a ninja and master the moves of himself and his enemies; 覚えゲー. But he must also react. Enemies have an unpredictable nature and will dodge and jump around frantically in an attempt to disorientate the player: Itagaki’s brand of game-design.

The first chapter continues by throwing more ninja at the player who has little options at his disposal at the time. In an attempt to school the player the first chapter is among the harder ones with the least tools available, forcing the player to fall back on Ryu’s agility, cementing the role it will play throughout the full game. The level itself looks and feels like a ninja school. It is fitting then that at the end of the chapter lies the first and only exam: Murai.

Placed in a wide open dojo Murai exhibits the same approach as the player. He has his guard up and punishes mistakes with counters, grabs and attacks of his own. Once in danger of being hurt he will back-flip to safety or block. He is designed in a way to allow the player to learn the game from him, not learn how to beat specifically him. Akin to playing Dead or Alive 2 against a superior player one will learn concepts of offense and defense by him crushing you over and over until you finally win one round yourself.

Murai wields nunchaku (ヌンチャク), not a katana. Probably to emphasize the feeling of embarrassment losing with your blade to a wielder of two sticks and also giving the player the promise that he won’t be facing, or using, just the katana. During the fight Murai truly expresses the mixture in Itagaki’s nature and nurture of game-design. The boss has a small selection of attacks and distinct patterns the player can memorize but he will also randomly block or dodge attacks to give the fight a more reactive feel. Here the game fully embraces a style of game-design which we will call 私わゲー  (pronounced Wa Ta She wa GHe) from now on: meaning “I am the game”. The player must become the game, his mind and body completely dedicated to the experience before them allowing Ryu and the player to become one entity. Once Murai lies defeated using just their wits, knowledge of the game, reactions and usage of Ryu’s agility the player is one step closer on the road to become a master ninja. This feeling of learning and slowly becoming a master ninja was at the center of Itagaki’s mind when designing this game. Resulting in players in the community, to this day, refering to each other as 忍者の弟 (pronounced nin DJA no toh toe) or “ninja brother”. Urging each other to always ascend to the next level of play for that impossible benchmark of becoming a true ninja.

With the game now opened up we can look at the combat mechanics behind the game in a little more detail. When analysed Ryu sports two main attack buttons that can be used together to create a combination of attacks, again akin to Dead or Alive. The list of moves may seem small by today’s standards but each and every move offers a distinct use. There’s an uppercut, a few vertical and horizontal slices and a few kicks and slides that deal less damage, but stagger foes more. What stands out is that once pressed the action cannot be canceled immediately forcing the player to think before he presses. This methodology of thinking before one acts is complemented by the enemies on offer. Enemies are fast and will attack together if need be, really putting the pressure on the player. With all the information on screen the 私わゲー gameplay-design puts the player in a hard spot. From enemy movements to sound effects telegraphing their next move, it can be scary to let go of the block button and dedicate to a move. But once done and the opening is used to finish of one foe the feeling is beyond description. Once the player is more settled he can try out the “Ultimate Technique”. When killed enemies drop a small orb called Essence which, when the heavy attack button is held down, is absorbed by Ryu to unleash a devastating flurry of blows throughout which Ryu is fully invincible. The fact that an Essence is required to activate the move, and that it cannot be manually charged, means that the player needs to have killed at least one enemy first making it less a crutch to lean on than most fully invincible moves in the genre.

Aside from being used in this move, Essence can also be used to upgrade and buy weapons and items at shops. To balance this enemies killed by the “Ultimate Technique” will drop a Strong Essence which is worth more money, but essence absorbed to fuel the technique barely give any at all. This element adds a nice gamble to the system making each usage of the ability a thought process: do I use the Essence for my “Ultimate Technique”? Will it kill them? Do I have enough money to upgrade my katana? This decision is made even harder with the knowledge that enemies killed using an Ultimate Technique only drop yellow essence and thus not the blue health orbs, could also influence the decision of a player thirsting for a heal. And even if such a blue orb floats around, you can still absorb it for a more powerful Ultimate Technique. All thoughts racing through the player’s head while enemies are dancing around him, waiting for him to let his guard down. This whole system is a neat twist on the economic side of the game and is something the player has to keep in mind at all times. In a strange twist though, if you are already at full health absorbing the blue orb normally does nothing. It would have been a good addition to make these count as a lot of money, rewarding the player for not taking damage with some nice extra cash. This was done in Devil May Cry but it was never embraced by this series. Perhaps Itagaki did not wish for players to focus on their economy too much, as also evident by the low cap on the maximum amount of Essence a player can carry, which is easily reached.

All in all though it is a brilliant design for a super-move. It is strange then that the move has been re-tweaked and reworked throughout every remake and sequel to date but never reached this level of balance again.

If we unscrew the lid on Ninja Gaiden further we find that the Ryu doesn’t necessarily gets any stronger throughout the game, not by design anyway. While he will gain new abilities and weapons, his damage-output remains nearly the same and enemies rarely get more health but instead they become more aggressive or gain new moves as the game progresses. Instead of balancing the game around Ryu it is focused on the true ninja at play here: you.

The designers’ thought process throughout Ninja Gaiden’s fourteen chapters is that the player will learn from his mistakes, recognize patterns and will learn to adapt to new and unforeseen problems on the fly. This is why new enemies are often reiterations of previously fought and mastered foes, offering the player some knowledge as a base while also offering new threats via new moves or mechanics. Regular ninjas become Black Spider Clan Ninjas and Imps are slowly replaced by their bigger brethren the Ariochs. This form of game balancing relies heavily on the player and can get very risky. Leading to either a game that stays equally difficult from start to finish, one that gets easier, or a game that gets impossibly difficult for the player near the end; depending on the player himself, his persona and how he expresses it in the game.

And express it he shall. With two types of katana, a giant sword named the Dabilahro, an axe, nunchaku, a fictional weapon by name of the Vigoorian Flail and a giant wooden oar named the Unlabored Flawlessness there are plenty ways to show the world who the true ninja master is. Itagaki has often remarked that he disliked the fact that most players used the Dragon Sword katana throughout the game and it is not hard to see why. Other weapons either focus on power or speed while this weapon has both and is one of the three weapons capable of performing the powerful “Izuna Drop” attack. While it is recommended to use certain weapons in certain conditions, switching weapons is done via a menu which slows the down combat immensely. So players are more likely to stick to a balanced all purpose weapon throughout the experience, in this case the Dragon Sword. The further the player advances throughout the story and the more weaponry he possesses the player will slowly master the knowledge and find the perfect counters and punishes for his foes. While rewarding, this can also make the combat somewhat monotonous and repetitive as each fight will consist of the player dodging and blocking until that one opening presents itself to be punished with that one move over and over again. A minor blemish, but a blemish.

As such though, it is no surprise the game was a success, despite its difficulty and punishing mechanics. The 私わゲー style of design, born of Itagaki himself, was a hit and got players addicted selling nearly 400.000 copies in the first month. The original 2004 version of Ninja Gaiden is a game that started a lot of trends and set the bar for the genre and future titles to come. But Itagaki and his team – often forgotten, but always at his side – were not done yet. For an artist a piece of art is never finished. But it also takes a good artist to know when a piece must be laid to rest so the artist may move on.

ninja gaiden: the hurricane packs

In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished – a word that for them has no sense – but abandoned; and this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public (and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver) is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reflection, which fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless.”- Paul Valery (French philosopher)

Artists across every form of art have struggled with ceasing production and letting their product see the light of day. But a good artist knows that its piece will live a life of its own, and grow. The Statue of Liberty is a great example, a statue whose green color has become a staple of its design even though it was originally gray having turned green by oxidation. Art evolves even if it remains untouched. In other cases artists come back to their work, retouching a once published piece. This can lead to conflicting visions, one of the past and one of the present, as infamously done with the Star Wars movies.

During game-development there comes a time when the deadline is reached and the game is sent out to be mass produced. During this time the team that made the game is essentially available to produce newer and better art but it is likely they are still in the ‘zone’ of their previous project with tons of ideas floating in their heads or unfinished enemy-designs. In the current day and age development is planned around this, as in this time-slot most downloadable content (DLC) is made. But Ninja Gaiden was created at the start of the online age for consoles, where DLC wasn’t popular enough to even deserve its acronym. Still bursting with ideas Itagaki and his team set out to, in their eyes, complete Ninja Gaiden. Not for the buyer but to satisfy their own artistic desire. The name of the project: Hurricane Packs.

We are creating the Hurricane Pack for ourselves rather than for our fans. Our goal is to become No. 1 in the Action Game category as well as the Fighting Game Genre. The Hurricane Pack is an experiment based on that goal.” – Tomonobu Itagaki

Content-wise the Hurricane Packs are divided among two downloads, each with their own goal. The first aims to perfect the original game by changing and updating certain elements. The second offers a separate more contained experience to challenge the best players out there.

Let’s start with the original Hurricane Pack, released at August 2004 only five months after the original game. It is accessible from a separate menu to not replace the original game but compliment it. This does make the game’s menus a bit more complex but preserves the original content, a practice future games tend to ignore by having patches and DLC replace existing content.

The game begins with Ryu jumping down to cut down an unsuspecting ninja before beginning his ascension throughout Murai’s now familiar dojo. But it is also immediately different as fights contain with new ninja-type enemies paired with more late-game foes. Once familiar areas feel dangerous again as the player does not know what he can expect. Other completely new enemies are added later-on as well and movelists of existing ones expanded. Most of the new enemies are demonic in nature though, not human. Itagaki has stated that he found human foes to be boring to design and rather wanted to focus on the supernatural foes and bosses. This does slowly turn the game away from its roots as a ninja game, with ninja styled foes falling more and more into the background. Making the game less ninja versus ninja but more man against monster.

It isn’t shortly after that the player gets his hands on the Lunar Staff. This new weapon is a long red staff with little golden edgings. It’s simplistic in its design, elegant and makes a loud knocking sound when it connects with enemy bones. With a fast move-set and a strong “Ultimate Technique” that covers a wide area, it is the first weapon to have players divert away from the safe Dragon Sword option. Not surprising as the designers were well aware that the sword was favored by the community. While examining the new weapon’s sleek design it is easy for a hostile ninja to sneak up on you, but his attack is blocked just in time. It is here that you activate, perhaps by accident, the new “Intercept Technique”. This move allows Ryu to immediately counterattack an attack that is blocked just as it connects: a parry.

Where dodging was normally the most recommended way to survive both are now equally important due to “Intercept’s high damage output and addition to the Karma-score system. Karma is part of a ranking system. Killing enemies grants the player points which at the end of the mission lead to the player getting a predetermined rank. These ranks go from Ninja Dog, Lesser Ninja, Head Ninja, Greater Ninja and ending with the rank we all aspire to: Master Ninja. The game in essence combines the more arcade-like point systems together with the letter-based grades present in games like Devil May Cry. Both systems have up and downsides. A regular scoring system means the player can always improve his score, allowing for more replay-ability and optimization. But by having these scores be visible on a leaderboard, even if you are in the top percentile of players you will probably be around 10.000th place. A strong achievement but one that can also be very demoralizing. A letter, or in this case a title based system, has a clear goal for the player to reach each chapter: Master Ninja rank. But once obtained one cannot go higher. Seeing both these systems combined here is a unique twist, especially since this happened so early in the genre’s age.

While playing for score a player will quickly notice that doing “Ultimate Techniques”, which can now also be manually charged without Essence, yields the most points. Paired with the “Intercept Technique” this turns a Karma-run more into a puzzle on how to kill each and every foe with an “Ultimate Technique” as reliable as possible while still making the timer for that time-bonus. While definitely interesting Itagaki does push players towards one single mechanic too much negating nearly every other option the game has on offer. In almost each and every situation the “Ultimate Technique” is the best move to use, a balance issue that has yet to been resolved within the series.

The second Hurricane Pack launched one month later in September of 2004. This expansion featured a tower for the player to climb while slowly gaining upgrades as he went up higher and higher until he reached the final segment and won. The pack barely contained any new content as most assets were reused. One new addition being two new bosses, with one being a redesign of the existing Alma boss with some tweaks. But this setup presented a more quick and streamlined Ninja Gaiden experience. While the entire tower could be completed within about one hour it was filled with the hardest the game had to offer. Players had to carefully plan their purchases and upgrades as everything was severely limited. This streamlined experience also allowed Itagaki to experiment a bit more freely with the combat scenarios. Sometimes even pitting the player against bosses and regular enemies at the same time, a first for the series.

But the most important element to this DLC was the Master Ninja Tournament. While hard to believe in the multiplayer landscape of today, single player tournaments were a thing. Starting long ago with Swordquest on the Atari 2600 which pitted players against each other in a slightly edited build of the game with a chance to win great prizes.

The Master Ninja Tournaments consisted of three online contests, taking place over Microsoft’s online service Xbox Live. To compete players had to upload their Karma scores of the Hurricane Packs within around three weeks. The first two tournaments functioned as qualifiers for a live Ninja Gaiden Master Tournament World Championship, held on September 25 at the Tokyo Gameshow 2004. The Master Ninja Tournament was the final trial from Itagaki: to find the real ninja. His distaste for failures was also on full display with him sending the 100 lowest ranking players a t-shirt with the term “ninja dog” on it. Only the worldwide top five were allowed to compete in the finale, resulting in intense qualifiers. It was a dream each and every player could aspire to at home, to end up on that stage and become the best. Once the finals began the finalists had to play an edited version of the second Hurricane Pack with a ten minute timer. The one with the most Karma at the end won. And with dying resulting in a loss of Karma the stakes were very high. Ninja Gaiden, as mentioned before, is half based on reaction and half on knowledge so it was a wise decision to have the tournament take place as fast as possible. This prevented players from getting too familiar with the newly introduced enemies and bosses. If done today the results could have been far different.

Itagaki’s pride and joy was front and center as he smiled on stage. Watching the best of the best duke it out against his creations on the big screen could very well be the highlight of his career. While originally a five-man showdown the battle was clearly between the American player Snapdragon and Japanese master Yasunori Otsuka. While Snapdragon finished the tournament faster, Yasunori Otsuka managed to snag more Karma and thus won the tournament. The show came to an end with Itagaki proudly presenting Yasunori Otsuka with a plaque which read:

World wide master ninja tournament 2004 

The one true ninja 

“With every battle won, comes wisdom”.

Yasunori Otsuka (left), Tomonobu Itagaki (right)

While the tournament was a success and put both the game and its community in the spotlight, there has never been something quite like it again. 2010 saw Sega organize an event in Japan to have a few random players fight for the highest score in Vanquish’s Challenge maps with producer Atsushi Inaba also participating, but other than that events like this have been extinct. A shame as they showcase player skill and community building, both strong game sellers and keeps game from being forgotten.

Now, with the tournament behind him and Ninja Gaiden, in his eyes, perfected, the question remained: what was next for Itagaki and his team? While the Hurricane Packs were a very selfish endeavor, his next would be one for the fans. As he stated after the launch of the Hurricane Packs: “I know that 90% of the Ninja Gaiden users only enjoy offline gaming. To not disappoint those hardcore fans of Ninja Gaiden, I’d like to think of something for them”. – Tomonobu Itagaki.

ninja gaiden black

When asked about the greats in the genre, fans will often reply with Devil May Cry 3, God of War 2, Bayonetta, God Hand and perhaps an off-beat title like Chaos Legion or Shinobi. But first and foremost are three words uttered with the utmost care and adoration: Ninja Gaiden Black.

Yet in a bizarre twist when analyzing the interviews Itagaki has done one will see very little on Ninja Gaiden Black itself. While he has often gone on record to discuss the original, the Hurricane Packs and the later Ninja Gaiden 2, comments on the favored son of his series are slim. Itagaki was pleased with the Hurricane Packs and how they complemented and expanded upon his original game. In his eyes the goal of providing the best action game had been met, if only for those who had online capabilities on their Xbox. Itagaki stated that he would make Black to please the offline ninjas operating in the shadows, which he’d surmised were around 90% of his player-base. But it’s clear that in his mind the game was already completed with the Hurricane Packs. Black was merely a formality. It was made for the fans, not out of artistic desire.

It is this desire, the rich development history surrounding it and the merger of Itagaki’s nature and nurture which took center stage in the previous chapters. With all that covered, and the game now complete, the combat engine should be fully analyzed.

As noted before Ninja Gaiden uses a three button layout for its combat. With light attacks being used the most with the heavy attack being a singular slow hit that is better used when charged up to an “Ultimate Technique” and ranged attacks that serve as back-up. The amount of attack combinations available increase as the weapons are leveled-up or new abilities are found. These moves use a combination of button commands supported by direction inputs.

Enemies are aggressive in nature and there is always one attacking or looking for an opening in your defenses. Holding Block will have Ryu defend but certain attacks have block-breaking capabilities and some simply cannot be blocked. Dodging can be done at nearly any given time, rolling Ryu to safety with some invincibility frames in the middle: called “Reverse Wind”. This is where the knowledge part comes in, knowing what attack should be blocked and which should be avoided altogether. In a nice touch a broken guard can be dodged out of: called “Furious Wind”. Also, though not sure if intended, a broken guard can also instantly be reset by letting go of the block button and pressing it again, having Ryu block whole chains of attacks that are guard breakers. Sadly the interesting but overused and overpowered “Intercept Technique” was removed – Itagaki finding it too hard to balance.

When on the defensive the game will often play out with Ryu holding his guard up, dodging when a certain move activates nearby, blocking again only to have it broken but canceled into a dodge. It’s a very active form of defensive play and the player will never feel like he’s standing still but using Ryu’s agility to stay alive. This is possible because enemies have strong visual and audio queues. Let’s take the Bast Fiends (魔神), cat like demons, as an example. They have a swipe, a triple swipe, a pounce, a pounce followed by a swipe and can confuse you by rapid wall jumping. The swipe is a singular hit which will probably be dodged away from as it breaks your block. But the triple swipe follows you, so if you dodge away you’ll get hit. The same goes for the pounce which most players will dodge away from. But if the pounce is followed by a swipe, you’ll get hit. These moves are feigns for others. Yet they can all be avoided as each has a distinct tell, be it a auditory cry or the fiend leaning backwards before he strikes they can all can be predicted. Attacks started off-screen can only be of the kind that has an audio queue. In short: there are no excuses for being hit.

Due to the enemy aggression it is often the goal to find that one opening using your knowledge of queues, punish, and then go back on the defensive. This leaves a very small window of opportunity so the punish needs to be optimal. Slowly throughout the playthroughs players will find their favorite punishes which deal the most damage and are the most safe and use those exclusively. But this process does slowly force the player away from the other commands at his disposal, turning the game in a repetitive affair. Thankfully the pressure from the opponents, looking for that opening and striking is satisfying enough to keep the game very enjoyable. But the combat could have greatly benefited from pushing the variation of attacks. This is further evident when going for Karma points which, as discussed before, removes nearly 95% of Ryu’s abilities from the equation.

To compliment his close-range style Ryu also has some ranged weapons. The most important being the Shuriken and Bow. Shurikens can be used at the end of a combo to cancel commands early and stun smaller enemy a bit. The Bow is used more as a tool to dispatch faraway enemies or to deal with the more mechanical foes like tanks and helicopters, temporarily turning the game in a first person shooter.

Lastly Ryu also has Ninpo (忍法) at his disposal, a form of magic. These require red Essence orbs to cast. Once activated Ryu becomes fully invincible and casts the corresponding spell. They function more as a quick button to help a player out if they are in a pinch.

The “Flame Wheels” cover Ryu in orbs of fire that deal damage and push enemies away. A strong ‘get off me’ move and good for punishing bosses. Meanwhile the “Inferno” is a singular projectile that deals good damage, “Ice Storm” generates a small snow storm freezing certain enemies and dealing minor damage while the “Inazuma” kills all smaller enemies on screen when fully upgraded and deals strong damage against others.

Balancing is an issue here and it’s surprising “Inazuma” didn’t get some tweaks as the game received updates. When used properly it can clear entire rooms with just one activation and makes bosses who are supported by additional foes much less threatening. “Ice Storm” on the other hand rarely sees any use.

The enemies in Ninja Gaiden Black come in all sorts, which is most apparent in their movement. Some foes like ninjas and Bast Fiends jump around constantly trying to distract you from their true moves, while other more stationary foes like Galla (魔神) tank around and attack Ryu if he’s close-by with strong hard hitting attacks. On the other side of the spectrum are the ranged combatants who use guns and rockets to keep Ryu at a distance. These often have a reduced health-pool marking their death in one hit. This makes them good to prioritize and balances them out a bit as they can be quite annoying when paired with aggressive close combat enemies. Later-on the humanoids take a near permanent back seat in the end-game where most fights are be against large slow enemies who require a strong weapon to quickly defeat. If you were to show a player a run-through of the last chapter and compare it to the first, the reactions would be quite different and might even think they are different games. That this happens without the player really realizing it does show how well paced the enemy encounters are and how slowly and carefully the transition from man to monster goes. Furthermore each difficulty setting remixes the enemy encounters, adds new ones and sometimes even introduces new enemies not seen on lower settings while also remixing item locations. This goes double for the bosses who either gain allies to help them in their fight or are replaced by different encounters all together. This helps keep the game fresh and challenging, instead rewarding the player’s skill at the game and not their memorization; exactly what Itagaki desired.

Boss fights operate as milestones the player builds up to, especially on repeat playthroughs. Items are saved because you might need them and money is hoarded because it might help you out there if you are stuck.

Each boss is designed differently but there is one core element that is mostly present throughout: dodging. Bosses, especially the fiends, have a randomized algorithm that has them dodge your attacks when you try to hit them. While there are a few openings where they simply cannot dodge this does make the bosses feel very reactive and even scary at times. You’ll never know if you’ll get a hit in and if they’ll punish you for your aggression. Bosses like Alma are a good example of this: she flies around in an erratic pattern to confuse you, throws projectiles and tries to grab you. In between you have to force an opening throughout the madness surrounding you, praying it will hit. You’ll jump left and right, climb walls and dodge at split seconds to survive and then attack yourself only to be dodged. It feels like a duel between ninja, a strong sensation. This method of gamedesign also makes it so that the bosses retain a level of difficulty even after becoming very familiar with them, keeping the game interesting.
The dodge notwithstanding most bosses do operate the same. They have a couple of moves you’ll need to learn the timing of on how to dodge or block them, find out which are safe to punish and discover the move to punish with. Again the variation is eventually low.

Though the tournament is over, “Master Ninja” makes its debut as a difficulty level in this game. The concept behind it being that only the best of the best can conquer it. But the game pads its difficulties out carefully, hiding “Master Ninja” behind “Normal”, “Hard” and then “Very Hard” before being accessible. By doing this the act of starting the difficulty is it’s own reward as it shows dedication to the game, having beaten it at least three times already.

Once started the enemies faced are immediately the hardest available and the odds severely stacked against you. Items are more expensive and certain abilities aren’t given until much later, having the player rely less on them and more on their own abilities. Enemy compositions are considerate, you’ll never die in one hit and foes don’t take unfair amounts of damage before dying either. It never feels unfair but instead neatly balanced. Where most games are built on “Normal” difficulty and then scaled up, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking Ninja Gaiden Black was built the other way around. The game doesn’t hold back and one really has to embrace the 私わゲー  style of gameplay to survive (pronounced Wa Ta She wa GHe, meaning “I am the game”). This is most apparent during the boss fights who, on higher settings, summon minions to assist them. While this practice does make the bosses as a character feel more weak, as they need help to beat you, it works from a mechanics point of view to make them more challenging. Without them bosses are quite simple once the patterns are memorized, an easy feat after beating the game three times. This way the challenge remains but the gained knowledge doesn’t become useless. Going back to “Normal” difficulty afterwards to face them one on one suddenly shows just how empty and easy the boss fights become without their allies to defend them with your level of experience as a player.

Should all the above prove too hard Black introduces a “Ninja Dog” difficulty mode which is unlocked if the player dies repeatedly. Ryu will carry a pink ribbon around for the rest of the playthrough and will be unable to attain a “Master Ninja rank” upon completion of a stage, showing Itagaki’s disdain for failed ninja who are unwilling to learn from their mistakes. He even went on record to say: “How could a dog become a Master Ninja?”.

With all that said once it is completed and viewed as a whole, especially with the previous two versions of the game as reference, it’s easy to see that Black changed a lot compared to its original form. This article started with the mentioned lack of artistic desire and this shows in the game’s vision. The game has slowly moved away from a more methodical ninja adventure to a man versus monster showdown where the trick is finding the best moves and forget the rest. All the little changes made this transition happen without anyone, probably even Itagaki, knowing. Still even with all that there are no games in the genre that are this packed with content or this well designed. Every frame of the game is carefully considered, every enemy placed with care and each move well designed and thought out. If you are standing on a hill and there are two Spider Ninja facing you paired with one Bast Fiend, you know that Itagaki painstakingly planned this encounter out. It is only when viewed from afar that certain details can be called to question.

So when asked what the pinnacle of the genre is, one should only need one word instead of three for the message to come across:


ninja gaiden sigma & sigma plus

In June 2007 the Playstation 3, one generation later than originally planned, received it’s own version of the original Ninja Gaiden, subtitled with Sigma. The name of Sigma (∑) can be interpreted in a few ways. By definition it means the ‘summation of an equation‘, impllying that this game holds all the lessons learned from the previous versions and that they are now put on display in one final product. This can also be taken to a personal level as the new director Yosuke Hayashi is at the helm this time, being a former apprentice of Tomonobu Itagaki. All his lessons learned from his master are on display here.

So far Hayashi had mostly worked behind the curtains, his biggest team effort with Itagaki being on the Ninja Gaiden game for the Nintendo DS: Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. As a child he would play videogames himself and he noted that his favorite moments were the credits. He hoped, and imagined, that one day his name would be among them. When asked about his inspirations he immediately points out Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo fame. But it’s important to note that this is probably in the sense of motivation to pursue the craft and not inspiration in their vision on the art-form. Instead of Miyamoto as his teacher, he had Itagaki watching over him.

Relationships between student and master are very complex, especially in the arts. Going back to the art renaissance in Italy – around the year 1440 – students of the paints would often mix the oils for their masters for over ten years and only then, by exception, be allowed to paint one branch or shadow in their tutor’s work. It wasn’t until the master felt comfortable with the student’s skills that he’d set them free, but they would always remain of stern judgment. The student was a reflection of the master, if he did bad the master would gain a bad reputation as well. This philosophy extends to the current era where art-academies are known to be one of the more grueling experiences in a student’s lifetime but also the most rewarding. Even after getting their diploma they’ll often feel the urge to prove themselves even if they’ve already succeeded in doing so.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma is the first time Hayashi was at the helm. Akin to a student in the early renaissance to paint one leaf in the Sistine Chapel, with his master already at work on a new piece: Ninja Gaiden 2. Hayashi could focus all his attention to the leaf as instructed or he could add his own aspirations in his master’s work and vision. Letting the Italian metaphors rest for a spell, if Sigma desired to be described with one word it would be 添加 (pronounced Thenka), meaning “addition”. Supplementing the previous additions this game adds another weapon: a twin set of katanas called Dragon’s Fang and Tiger’s Claw (巌龍、伐虎, pronounced Iwao Ryū, Ba Ko) in anticipation of Ninja Gaiden 2 which would originally introduce the weapon. Rachel is also added as a playable character in between certain missions, a buxom blonde sporting an axe with a slower playstyle. New items and save stations were added and nearly all enemy placements have been re-re-tweaked or changed for the sake of variation. In terms of new content Sigma can easily be considered the longest and most content-filled game in the series.

If written down in bullet points Sigma sounds like the perfect iteration of the original Ninja Gaiden. Once Ryu unleashes his new weapon and blood paints a chapel’s walls this feeling is heightened. The player traverses through familiar, though slightly altered, grounds and goes on a rampage. Nothing can stop him. One fiend gets the jump on him but Ryu repels with a Ninpo, which now requires you to frantically shake the controller to increase its power. A minor annoyance but it does not take away from the game. Once completed Ryu puts both his katanas away and flies of into the sunset as a silver eagle transformed, justice and vengeance made real. Holding the game’s box in his hands the player will look back on the experience. One will recall that the new weapon’s “Ultimate Technique” nearly killed a boss in one strike, probably not the intention of the designer. The player wants to press New Game for another go at this marvelous experience. He wishes to feel the thrill of being Ryu once more but then he recalls the forced Rachel chapters. While he liked them he felt they interrupt Ryu’s tale instead of complimenting it. The player puts the game down until he revisits it a year later. He starts the game on the now highest difficulty setting but before he can get used to the controls an enemy spawns and kills him instantly. There is no moment to reacquaint. When he finally reaches the demonic boss Marbus he suddenly notices that throwing Incendiary shurikens no longer hurts him like they did in Black. Did they change that? And those minions also seem extremely aggressive compared to Black, or is that between the player’s ears? Ranged combat also seems a lot more simplistic now that Ryu can shoot arrows from in the air.
Going even deeper into the game he finds that the added enemies in certain fights have also made getting a maximum Karma score on certain fights impossible. More and more the additions show that they were put into the game but not nearly as well considered as under Itagaki’s watchful eye. This isn’t to say his additions were fruitless, but it is better to add one thing and do it exceptionally well than to add ten things but not examine them closely.

Eventually the player will tire of these minor additions and jump into Mission Mode. Originally introduced in Ninja Gaiden Black these offer short fights against certain enemies under specific conditions. Being separate from the main game the designers could experiment with the weapons and skills the player has and which enemy combinations would appear. If you ever had the fantasy of fighting both the samurai lord Doku while dodging the pain of Alma, this is your dojo. Being offered in chunks with all parts of exploration or additions throughout the series being ignored the game really shines here. There are a few missions in which the player controls Rachel, but unlike during the story the player can skip these. Once all have been conquered the final challenge awaits: a re-imagining of the second Hurricane Pack aptly titled Eternal Legend. A tower to climb with the ultimate honor awaiting at the top. An even greater honor lies in the downloadable Survival Challenges that see players tackle an seemingly infinite wave of enemies and bosses with a single weapon of their choosing.

These honors can be yours and you can display them with pride using a few extra costumes. Strangely the Ninja Gaiden series adds costumes with each iteration, but also removes previous ones. Whereas in the original 2004 release one could select the purple shinobi outfit from the start, become a fiendish blue version of Ryu or a ninja from the future wielding a plasma saber, in Black these were replaced with new costumes. Sigma continues this trend by removing even more older ones. It’s a strange design choice as the assets are there though with Sigma one can be forgiven that it might be some strange copyright issue. Still it’s a noticeable absence of already existing content.

Given as a whole Sigma is Ninja Gaiden Black, streamlined and stuffed with extras. It’s the definition of a reiteration that has nothing, or sees nothing, to improve and thus adds new things. Going back to the analogy of the student painting the Sistine Chapel, Hayashi chose not to paint the leaf but instead inserted his own vision into that of his master. The result is one that can only clash. Though one might wonder what the original artist thought of this, his feelings aren’t as harsh as one might think. In the public eye Itagaki has fired a harsh shot at Hayashi, stating “I’d like to point out real quickly that the playable Rachel in Ninja Gaiden Sigma was something that was done by a junior member of Team Ninja and I didn’t really have any involvement in Ninja Gaiden Sigma” and “I think Ninja Gaiden is the story of Ryu Hayabusa and of his journey and, particularly, I didn’t think that the Rachel playable aspect in Sigma was done very well”. But what is done behind the scenes shows otherwise. In a strange choice the introduction mission of Sigma had its layout changed somewhat compared to Itagaki’s original. A small mountain was removed to make place for a gorgeous view with trees and a waterfall. While being an addition hailing from Sigma, when Ryu revisits this area in Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden 2 it uses the same design as of that in Sigma instead of Itagaki’s original. This could be an oversight or smart reuse of high resolution assets, or the master giving a small subtle hand on the shoulder of his former student. While on a surface level his words will always be harsh to keep him sharp and the master’s legacy intact, underneath he will always support him.

Afterwards in 2012 Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus saw the light of day for the Playstation Vita, a portable handheld. Again Hayashi chose to add more content adding a few new costumes and accessories which change certain stats of the player. These abilities can sometimes stack with the powers gained from armlets and now also from costumes allowing Ryu to plow through higher difficulties with ease. Sadly this once again shows little consideration or thought being put into the additions. These also stack visually, slowly turning Ryu into more of a cartoon character.

We started the article describing the meaning of the term Sigma. But outside of ‘summation’, Sigma also has another meaning. It was used to mark objects that were not well aligned. A harsh statement but one that feels strangely apt. Sigma is a strong game in and of itself but when compared to the baseline offered in the previous iterations it feels like it and its vision are misaligned. At the time of writing Sigma Plus is the final version of the original Ninja Gaiden to be released, though this is probably going to change in the future. The original Ninja Gaiden was a hallmark of the series but also for the genre at large. It defined a template that many would follow and created a community that none could ignore.

Though I, the writer, have remained as objective as possible until this point, I ask for your leniency as I put my own opinion into words: Ninja Gaiden is a game like none other but also one that has gotten worse over the years. While additions were made, some bad and some good, the charm and balance of the original has not yet been matched. Ever since Itagaki went back to his creation with the Hurricane Packs the game started to deviate from its original concept and, respectfully, never looked back. In the 2004 release every pixel oozed love from the creators and this is a feeling sorely missing currently, both of the original’s re-imaginings but also of its sequels. It is a series that down the line focused more on quantity than quality: more weapons, more moves, more gore, more playable characters, more locations, more bosses, multiplayer, co-op, a complexer Ultimate Technique system and many other mechanics. But while none of those were ever as well designed as those present in the original, they are still at the top of the genre. A testament to how great Ninja Gaiden is and how grateful we are that we can experience the thrills of being a ninja in such a way.

どうもありがとうございます Itagaki-様.
Domo arigato gozaimasu Itagaki-sama.
Thank you very much, our master Itagaki.

the community, iberian’s and beyond

While 2004 saw the end of the Master Ninja Tournament it also saw the rise of the community at large. What differentiated this community from ones we see today is that they were united by a singular goal: to beat Itagaki and his creation. Like the tournament being Itagaki’s platform to search for the ultimate ninja, so too did the community seek to conquer his beast of a game and they did so together.

Most communities are inherently competitive, being defensive or even aggressive towards new members as they form a threat to their own success. A new user could be the next champion to kick one of their throne or the upcoming teammate who has no idea what he’s doing. Yet in a singleplayer experience like the original Ninja Gaiden the goal was unified and later extended by Karma- and challenge runs. Message boards would run wild looking for ways to get that point counter higher or find a way together to consistently hit Alma. This form of a community still exists to this day but has mostly found its place in the speedrunning where people try to find the fastest way to beat a game. Still, Ninja Gaiden had its fair share of stories surrounding its community, and this final chapter will give a little peak into that small but important piece of ninja history.

You have arrived at the premiere site for all things Ninja Gaiden! All the items you will need for your successful NGB mission or story mode run is right here. Videos…help guides…walk-throughs…Tributes, and a thriving bulletin board community. For the serious NG player – you have found home. Please use the site responsibly and respect other users during your visit. Thank you in advance. We thank Tecmo and Team Ninja for developing the worlds best action game and hope that the users of this site will support their hard work by doing business with them at: TECMO-Online

– Original quote from the Iberian’s website-

Iberian’s Ninja Gaiden Realm, with the url iberiansngrealm.com, is where most of it started. The site belonged to user Iberian Warrior, hence the name, and quickly became a home for all fans Ninja Gaiden. The reason was two fold. First being that it supported a video-archive, as Youtube didn’t exist until a year later and didn’t catch actual steam within the videogame community until early 2006. This meant that if one was looking for tips or tricks and how to perform them, this was the place. But it also offered a base of operations: a forum in which the masters at large could discuss tactics and patterns. Each new member was welcomed and the skill level present ranged from “couldn’t beat the game on easy” to “beat the game on the highest setting without being touched”. Experience has shown more than once that new blood can often find new and interesting things that experts don’t, so the more the merrier! This – in combination with the common goal – made the Ninja Gaiden community a friendly and mature one. Friendships were forged, blades were sharpened and victories were gained. When a video was shown of two players who’d met online that were now sitting on one couch playing Ninja Gaiden Black together with a few beers, the feeling was heightened. Was this what Itagaki was secretly striving towards?

Sadly around 2010 Iberian’s website started to frequently go offline. Due to personal issues he was unable to keep the server online consistently. Though prominent members tried to salvage the server or even take over its maintenance and cost, Iberian Warrior decided to keep the site to himself. Whether it was out of love for his own creation or another reason is unclear and not important. Lots of videos were lost, but due to the sporadic downtime of the site some users had backed-up some content. Most painful was the loss of the discussion topics though. Some going into the hundred pages of the game’s grand masters discussing new strategies. These will forever linger in the now silent database of Iberian’s Ninja Gaiden Realm, in the dark.

But this was not the end! Friendships had been formed and people did not falter. Around the time that Iberian’s Realm started going offline more and more the Ninja Archives were born. Supporting a forum, video archive and later a chat room. The site was run by user DarkHazuki. When Iberian’s went dark it became the home of all remaining ninjas, though some still wander the void of the web hoping for the glory days of Iberian’s to return. It wasn’t until 2017 that the site transitioned into the hands of community member Joe The Button and gained a new name: ngrealm.com, a name to reference Iberian’s legacy one last time.

This form of community was not exclusive to Ninja Gaiden however. Devil May Cry fans were blessed with the still active Phantombabies website, a reference to a popular enemy in the game, and God of War fans found shelter in its official forums forming the The Ultimate God Of War Union Board. Other smaller communities usually find their home on their dedicated forum on Gamefaqs, some like the Metal Gear Rising board still being slightly active to this day.

If any part of these articles on Ninja Gaiden peaked your curiocity and you want to join the community, give the NGrealms a chance. Other good places are the Ninja Gaiden II (xbox) forums on Gamefaqs which houses many of the same members. Lastly, there is of course Stinger Magazine’s own little forum. Though I consider myself only a very minor member of the community, having joined very late, it is still one I am proud to be a part of and it brings me joy every day.

May the legacy of the ninja never die.

斬 postscript notes 斬

  • Interestingly enough Nunchaku (ヌンチャク) is written in foreign styled katakana indicating a non-Japanese heritage of the weapon. Probably due to its introduction into popular culture thanks to Bruce Lee;
  • It was notoriously hard to find actual information on the Master Ninja Tournament, as most factual and numerical data is no longer available. Citations of it being the ‘most successful Xbox Live event’ were omitted from this article as they could not be backed up;
  • While high contenders in the tournament, both Snapdragon and Yasunori Otsuka never became big members of the online Ninja Gaiden community as far as we know;
  • Outside of hearsay and discussions at the time, there is no official recording of the Vanquish tournament taking place, just pictures;
  • Sadly, with the discontinuation of the original Xbox Live, the Hurricane Packs are no longer available for download;
  • I wished to add the kanji for the mission rankings, but I couldn’t read them. While I can read most Kanji the paintbrush styled font used by the game makes them very hard to tell apart;
  • I found it very difficult to be negative towards Ninja Gaiden Black. Black has received a large amount of praise but its flaws are rarely analysed or put into the spotlight;
  • The Bast Fiend example in chapter three was taken from my speech at a Nerd Night, where I spoke to fifty strangers about my passion for the action genre. They were the perfect example to show how these games were designed, and the example is still relevant today;
  • We would see what Hayashi’s real vision would be with Ninja Gaiden 3, more on that in the future;
  • Hayashi is hard to track down, being far less prominent in the media compared to Itagaki. His lack of credits are also hard to find, whether he worked on the original Ninja Gaiden in 2004 under Itagaki is unclear;
  • A quick mention should go to the art design in the Ninja Gaiden series, mixing both Egyptian, American, Japanese, Turkish and old Christian designs and still making it feel like one world;
  • I found it difficult to mix the examples of Italian art-history with those of the Japanese roots these articles had, I hope it came over correctly;
  • Thankfully it was impossible to find a screenshot or footage of Ryu donning all those accessories in Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus;
  • The history of Iberian’s Ninja Gaiden Realm is a sensitive subject. For this reason some facts were omitted. The full story can be found here: https://pastebin.com/DGwZchwX
  • Itagaki’s almost iron-clad vision lead the game through its production, even leading to a situation in which when testers noted that the game was too difficult, Itagaki personal saw to it the game was made more difficult. This vision of a director not willing to make compromises for a general audience does lead to a game that sells less copies, but does tend to enhance its quality;
  • When designing the game Itagaki noticed one of his staffmembers working on a background element, a ghost like fish. Itagaki gave the staff member an order, either they be an enemy or they would be removed: there would be no working on things in this game that didn’t factor into the gameplay;
  • When the original Ninja Gaiden was being certified in the US, an employee of Team Ninja was flown over to play the game for them as none of the game could get past the first level;
  • Ninja Gaiden Sigma was in the works to be ported to the Xbox 360 at one point, but Itagaki was growing tired of Tecmo’s emphasis on making money over releasing good games and considered Sigma a worse product. Thus he worked towards its cancellation;
  • The reason for the main weapon being a katana are interesting: Itagaki is a proud owner of his own katana set which was made for him by his father and the ninjatō sword used in many ninja fictions has no official record of them actually existing – making a katana a good choice.

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