Ninja Gaiden II: Day of the Ninja Review

The Ninja Gaiden series will always have a special place in my heart, but not because of the outstanding Xbox game or the three or four updates and/or ports of it. No, my Ninja Gaiden timeline starts a little further back, during the heyday of the NES. The original Ninja Gaiden was the first game I ever bought for myself. Cousins, friends and babysitters... all these people would bring NES games to our house, and we had a good number of games in our collection, but Ninja Gaiden (along with the Karate Kid) could probably be blamed for my gaming fanaticism. I saved up, I paid up and I played - for hours upon hours upon hours. The original game had it all: great soundtrack, fun and extremely difficult gameplay, crazy boss fights and probably most historically important, Ninja Gaiden with the first home video game to utilize cutscenes (betcha didn't know that, huh?) to tell the story.

Nearly 25 years later, I still have that original NES cartridge, along with the original NES cartridges for Ninja Gaiden II and III, the Super Nintendo Ninja Gaiden Anthology (which collected all three games on one cart) and, most obscure and bizarre of all, the Tiger Electronics LCD Ninja Gaiden game. My modern Ninja Gaiden collection has all the bells and whistles, too; I still have the Xbox original, complete with the downloaded Hurricane Pack (and the original Xbox that holds it... one I would have sold ages ago if it weren't for the fantastic downloadable add-on), Ninja Gaiden Black, Ninja Gaiden Sigma on the PS3, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword on the Nintendo DS and now, after what seems like forever, Ninja Gaiden II is a part of my collection. Needless to say, Ryu Hayabusa and I have spent quite a lot of time together over the years. But why should you, the reader, care about all this? I wanted to make sure that you, and everyone one who reads this review, knows just how hard it was for me to suck it up, get over my rabid Ninja Gaiden fandom and admit the worst - Ninja Gaiden II on the Xbox 360 is easily the most disappointing, sub-par sequel to ever hit the world of video games, and it is, without a doubt, the worst game yet starring this reviewer's all-time favorite ninja.

As shocking is that must have been to read, it was twice as hard to write. Never fear, though, I wouldn't drop a bombshell like that without a lot of solid evidence to back it up. I'll start with one of the game's higher points - the graphics. Ninja Gaiden II looks absolutely fantastic and possibly even better than Ninja Gaiden Sigma on PS3, which seemed impossible to top in the graphics category. Ryu always moves and looks just like a ninja, and with all the on-screen action, the game rarely drops its smooth framerate. Even early in the game, its easy to find yourself surrounded by between 8 and 10 fantastically detailed enemies, all moving, attacking - and bleeding - in a seamless dance of death.

And speaking of death, that is where Ninja Gaiden II's visuals truly shine. Not only will you be hacking dozens of enemies to bits, but their hacked off limbs, heads and whatever else stay where they fall. It might seem like a little thing, but backtracking through levels is always more fun when you can see just how much damage you've done previously. It also adds a bit of realism to the fighting. Another visual flair, almost as cool as the permanent decoration with enemy bodies, is the blood spatter that will remain in areas you've fought in. It's very cool at first, but as you progress, you'll notice that sometimes blood is splattered where there is no surface, creating a floating stain that screams "lazy programming." And, with just that minor oversight, we begin to move into the areas where Ninja Gaiden II falls apart.

Sticking with the graphics for a moment, Ninja Gaiden II does have its faults beyond phantom splashes of blood clinging to nothing. The environments in the game, from underground tunnels to New York City and beyond are all pretty much just ‘meh.' For as good as the characters, good, bad and ugly, look, the environments are pure PS2. Nothing in the backgrounds has much life at all. One of the best examples that come to mind is an early level set in NYC that has you venturing though streets, over rooftops and even through subway tunnels. But none of the environments are more than just static backgrounds. No weather. No innocent bystanders. Even wrecked subway trains are bland and offer but one path from point A to point B. For as much damage as you're responsible for when it comes to the game's enemies, you won't be putting sword scratch one on anything that gets in your path. With even the laziest of games these days offering environmental interaction like never before, Ninja Gaiden II is like running Ryu through a Bob Ross painting. Looks pretty good, but forget about leaving your mark.