Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus

Ninja of a Bygone Era

Eight years later, parts of Ninja Gaiden have aged gracefully, but many have not.
Author: Vincent Ingenito
Published: March 5, 2012
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Having achieved Master Ninja rank in every difficulty of the original Ninja Gaiden on the old X-Box, I think I can safely call myself a fan of the game. I don't mean that as a way to brag or launch an E-peen measuring contest, I mean it as an honest statement of how deeply I loved the game when it came out in 2004. I remember forgetting to eat during my lunch breaks at EB Games because I was too busy running through the pre-release demo for the hundredth time. I had literally choreographed the most stylish, and efficient ways of clearing each and every encounter, just so I could show it off to customers. Playing it felt like a performance, and performing it perfectly was rewarding to me in a way that few games have ever been.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus for the Playstation Vita is the first version of the game I have touched since the original, despite the several re-releases the title has seen. That makes it almost 8 years since I last touched it, in which time it has been enshrined by many, including myself, into an elite echelon of modern action classics. While Tecmo has done an excellent job of packing the entirety of their bloody hack and slash opus into a portable form factor, their efforts have been dogged by an unforeseeable truth:

Ninja Gaiden simply hasn't aged very well.

Believe me, there is no one who could feel more pained to say it, but it's true. I came into this review excited to replay and write about a title I considered near and dear to my heart and I yet here I am sitting in front of my computer with a heavy heart explaining why you might want to avoid buying a perfect port of what is widely considered to be the best action game of the past decade.

Ninja Gaiden earned that title fair and square in '04, largely on the strength of its combat, which I am happy to say has aged the most gracefully out of all the game's elements. It's still the only action game I've played where you need to remember attack patterns for basic enemies and have knowledge of minute, system level techniques in order to play at the highest levels. I'm sure scores of people have played it without ever knowing what instant charging or roll/jump canceling are and have never used any weapon besides the default Dragon Sword. That excessive, and often obscured nuance is what won Ninja Gaiden such unquestioned devotion from the hardcore action junkie crowd, and you can find all of it in Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus.

The game offers a wide range of weapons, each with an exhaustive catalog of maneuvers for turning enemy ninjas and fiends into piles of severed limbs and sticky entrails. Each is a style unto itself and can take time to learn and apply effectively in battle. Just as important as knowing how to attack is how to move and defend, as wildly mashing out attack strings will get you killed VERY quickly. In fact, if you're attacking more often than evading, blocking and countering in this game you're actually doing it wrong. Still, relying on defense too often will make you vulnerable to undefendable grab attacks that can cost you a quarter of your health or more. Transitioning between offense, defense and evasion in a seamless fashion while dispatching enemies in the most efficacious way possible is the key to victory, and the correct balance changes from one encounter to the next.

If it sounds demanding, that's because it is. Both then and now, Ninja Gaiden is not for the faint of heart. God of War and Darksiders have not prepared you for the gauntlet this game runs you through, regardless of how similar the combat systems seem on the surface. Not only do they not make games this hard anymore, it's arguable that they never made them this hard at all, not even in the much vaunted 8-bit era. You may like it, you may hate it, but I loved it, and that hasn't changed one bit. The Vita version sports all the white knuckle rigor of the original and the controls are more than up to the task.

The Vita also keeps up with the game visually, albeit with a key sacrifice. While the original version was locked in tight at 60 frames per second, this port runs at 30, and slows down noticeably during a few battles throughout the game. The speed and fluidity of its combat was one of Ninja Gaiden's major selling points in its heyday and a degree of that appeal is lost here. The game remains nonetheless competent on a technical level, with no other graphical concessions of any kind. That said, there aren't any enhancements either, which is the first area where the game begins to show its age.
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