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What’s more, Team Ninja has got the feel absolutely right. The platform-jumping stuff is, for the most part, fluid and brilliantly handled, and only God of War 1 and 2 provide a close-up combat system of comparable quality. Ninja Gaiden’s mix of quickfire combos, careful blocking and acrobatic special attacks does something special: it gives you the flexibility to deal with multiple opponents in true Ninja fashion, but it doesn’t suffer button-mashing fools gladly. Perception and precision are everything, and Ninja Gaiden succeeds in the area which counts most. It gives you that authentic superhuman ninja thrill in spades.
The game’s other big asset is its attitude and pacing. Like God of War, Ninja Gaiden gives you a true balls-to-the-wall action game. The plot is clichéd and moronic – the stuff of burnt villages, magic swords, revenge and spontaneous mutation – but it enables the game to throw in a wide range of traditional Japanese and peculiar modern settings, and people them with rival ninjas, outlandish creatures and genuinely brutal bosses. This is a game that throws enemies at you with a relentless enthusiasm, demanding that you carve your path through one lot, before hitting you mercilessly with another. It’s the sort of stuff the primeval, reptile parts of your brain eat up, and at its best it’s completely thrilling stuff.
The problem is – as was always the case with Ninja Gaiden – difficulty. For all its reputation as a technical showcase, the original Ninja Gaiden’s more lasting impact has been as a byword for extreme difficulty. The original version was fiendishly tricky, to the point that some players never made it past the first boss battle. Under protest, Team Ninja’s leader, Tomonobu Itagaki, added a lower difficulty level to a remixed version, Ninja Gaiden Black, but only allowed players to take it once they’d been defeated several times in battle – and only then after a humiliating admission that they were abandoning ‘the way of the true ninja’. The fact that this mode – Ninja Dog – is significantly harsher than the normal difficulty modes of many games tells you exactly how hardcore Itagaki thinks a ‘true ninja’ is.