Ninja of a Bygone Era
While Ninja Gaiden's textures and environments were jaw dropping in 2004 while running at a blistering 60fps, they are decidedly underwhelming in 2012 at half the speed. It doesn't help that you spend most of the middle of the game backtracking through the same brown city ad nauseum while spelunking through the equally brown catacombs beneath it. Not only does this lack of color and character make for a dull game world, it also creates one of several issues that really make this game feel like the dinosaur it truly is.
Many of the areas are so non-descript that when combined with the puzzlingly vague sense of where to head next, you wind up wandering about aimlessly with very little to do. As great as the combat is, a typical fight can end in as little as 30 seconds, while you can easily spend 2 to 3 minutes running around without a single idea as to where you should be going until you reach a new pack of enemies or an old one respawns. If you aren't busy running yourself in circles in Browntown, USA then you're likely fighting the camera while trying to get through one of the many poorly conceived platforming or puzzle sections. For a game that's become so infamous for its excellent combat engine, I had forgotten how little of your time is spent in combat, and how much of it is spent doing all the other stuff, which incidentally happens to be the exact opposite of fun.
Contributing to this issue is a save system that people didn't even like back then, and is particularly ill suited for playing on the go. Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus lacks any “save anywhere” or auto-save functionality of any kind, and instead goes with a rickety old, “reach the next save point and save” system that no one has ever liked in any game ever. It basically eliminates any chance of having a quick, productive session on limited time and actually ensures that you will have to repeat five to fifteen minute stretches of gameplay over and over if you keep dying. This is barely considered acceptable design on home consoles, but for a portable game, it's nearly unforgivable.
None of the rest of the package offers reprieve for these shortcomings. The story is as incomprehensibly vapid as it's ever been, complete with stilted dialogue being delivered by completely one note characters. Ninja Trial mode allows you to jump into a number of high score challenges, but the lack of a quit or retry option makes perfecting a run tedious, and without any leader boards to speak of, there is little incentive to push your performance to the limit. Finally, the forced touch control elements hurt more than they help. Accidentally touching the screen will lock you into first person aiming mode, making you a sitting duck in the middle of combat. Utilizing the rear touch panel for ninpo attacks feels like a tacked on afterthought.
What makes all this truly infuriating is that if the game just let you stay in combat all of the time instead of making you wade through all the half baked exploration, puzzles and platforming, it would be terrific. Ryu Hayabusa is capable of some incredibly elegant violence, and the boss fights are among 3D gaming's most memorable. Complete mastery of combat requires an engrossing mix of pattern recognition, technique, adaptation and improvisation – all of which start to happen at near instinctual levels. Few action games ask so much of the player, and still fewer give so much in return.
But too much has changed in this genre in the past 8 years. Devil May Cry 3 and 4, the entire God of War series, Bayonetta, Darksiders, and others have delivered more well rounded experiences. While none of them share quite the same level of sophistication in combat (though DMC and Bayonetta come damn close), each of them eclipses Ninja Gaiden in every other meaningful way. In a world where none of those games came to be, this would be a great port of a peerless action game. But that isn't the world we live in, making Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus an amber preserved fossilization of an aging relic from a bygone era.