Ninja Gaiden 2 will forever be Team Ninja’s albatross. It’s the game that halted the franchise’s incredible momentum that spanned four original games and an almost equal number of modified iterations of those games between 2000 and 2005. Tomonobu Itagaki’s group of funny, pervy game makers stumbled onto something truly special when they made Dead Or Alive 2 for the Dreamcast, and they polished their talent for fluid animation and thick, physical video game martial arts to near perfection with 2004’s Ninja Gaiden. Something broke between that game and Ninja Gaiden 2 though, and you can see how Team Ninja was set adrift after finishing it. It’s a listless, muddled game that reflects the turmoil that nearly broke the band up for good.
Always refining its work—only a few of the games in its catalogue haven’t been remade or repurposed in some way—Team Ninja Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus (or Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2+ if you prefer) for PS Vita is its second attempt to make Ninja Gaiden 2 the game it might have been. It’s not as dramatic a remake as Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 on PlayStation 3, nor as daring and comprehensive as Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge on Wii U. But while it struggles under the technological limitations of the Vita itself, it’s an admirable work by director Yosuke Hayashi, even though the inherent flaws of the original still hold the game back.
Are They Making Fun Of Ninjas?
Ninja Gaiden for Xbox was always a weird game, but its relative quiet gave it an air of mystery that bellied its silly story of ninja families and demon lords. Dialogue scenes were infrequent so when something as ridiculous as lead character Ryu Hayabusa riding a gondola onto a giant blimp to fight a morbidly obese cyborg happened, you just kind of took it in stride. Ninja Gaiden 2, unfortunately, throws that balance out of whack. From the start, there’s a greater emphasis on story, with ridiculous anime bad guys aplenty posturing in front of Ryu. Evil spider ninjas are trying to resurrect the Archfiend, the big king of demons, and doing so involves tearing about the Dragon Ninja clan Ryu belongs to. It’s personal too, and the game culminates with Ryu alongside his lady pals, like demon hunter Rachel and Dead or Alive’s Ayane, descending into the underworld to save Ryu’s CIA girlfriend.
It’s aggressively silly. The first game mitigated that silliness by not explaining itself, but the characters don’t keep their traps shut for too long in Sigma 2+. Take the Greater Fiends Ryu throws down with, like Lightning god Alexei and werewolf-Incredible-Hulk-hybrid Volf. These guys need to boast about their crazy demon lives before getting to the fisticuffs. If Alexei just sat on top of the Statue of Liberty in New York looking scary, it might be more intimidating, but instead he drones on and on before beating down Ryu. Sigma 2+’s extra scenarios that let you play as Rachel, Momiji, and Ayane actually do a good job of keeping things to the point.
Sigma 2+ also doesn’t remember how silly it can be. In the original Ninja Gaiden, there’s a scene where Ryu is trying to break into a control room, and the badly broken window is duct taped together. Examining it brings up the message, “Are they making fun of ninjas?” It’s a moment of humor, the sort that’s especially frequent in the Dead or Alive games, that reminds the player to not take the game too seriously. Sigma 2+ is painfully serious and it can make the game a slog. It’s amazing that a game that forces you to fight a possessed Statue of Liberty and sword-wielding dogs is too somber.
Heavy handedness isn’t the only thing that hampers Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2+. The game’s levels are simply too long. The original Ninja Gaiden had a fair number of adventure elements. Sometimes Ryu needed to find a key for a door, and so the levels would have him circling back to locations he’d already visited. As a result, the stages were more contained, like loops. In Ninja Gaiden 2, Team Ninja opted instead for wholly linear levels that send you down a straight path, tackling scripted encounters as you go and searching for hidden items in the corners of each section. Instead of making for a more exciting, roller coaster of a game, the levels are drab and stretched too thin. What’s more, it repeats itself incessantly, forcing you through identical looking stages and boss fights again and again.
There are some grand scenes, especially in the middle of the game when Ryu scales the inside of a giant clock tower, but that’s a few minutes out of a level through dull city streets that lasts around half an hour. Had Team Ninja spent time editing these levels, slicing off the fat, the game would be as nimble as its lead character. Again, the added levels with the female stars do a good job of showing what could have been had Hayashi directed the game in the first place.
The combat is proof of the game’s potential. Even in its first release, the flow of fighting Gaiden 2’s monsters and ninjas with Ryu’s expansive arsenal is a velvety pleasure. No other character, not Kratos, Dante, or Bayonetta, moves quite like Ryu and his friends. Sigma 2+’s normal difficulty mode provides a perfect equilibrium between challenge and accessibility too, further improving on the balance seen in the original version of Sigma 2. The fighting just plain feels good. Pulling off a huge combo with Rachel’s ridiculously large hammer or Ryu’s razor flails comes close to giving the game that good feeling of trashy, pulpy action inherent in Team Ninja’s best work. The other parts of the game, like its story and its levels, don’t support the combat though, and combat alone is just not enough to carry the game.
There are two Vita specific modes Team Ninja built into this version. The Ninja Race time attacks, where you have to blitz through portions of levels on a time limit killing enemies as fast as possible to keep the clock running, is an entertaining diversion for obsessives, but not a huge lure on its own. The game’s Tag Battles, however, are more special. Tag Battle is Sigma 2+’s version of horde mode, throwing you into fights against waves of enemies in closed arenas taken from the game’s full levels. The treat is that you get to pick two characters from the roster, letting you trade between them on the fly. Being able to fire up a fast fight with Rachel and Momiji for five minutes is an instant, if somewhat empty, gratification. Team Ninja could sell this mode on its own as a budget downloadable and have something pretty great.
By comparison, Tag Battle demonstrates one of the big drawbacks of Sigma 2+. In order to get the combat as smooth as possible, the game’s visuals often take a hit, becoming blurry and indistinct as though the screen is covered in Vaseline. It’s especially noticeable when the screen is full of highly detailed characters in Tag Battles, but it happens regularly in the main game too. Making the sacrifice for the combat was the right call, but the ugliness of these moments is hard to ignore.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2+ is the closest Team Ninja can come to making Ninja Gaiden 2 a good game. It plays very well, and the game shines in its most inspired moments, but nothing changes the fact that Ninja Gaiden 2 wasn’t a good game to start with. In the five years since its first go around on Xbox 360, Team Ninja has had a hard recovery. The excellent Dead or Alive 5 and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge show that the developer has finally found its feet again. Here’s hoping that with Sigma 2+ behind them, they can let go of the past and forge a new future for themselves free of old failures.
Score: 6 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PS Vita using a code provided by the publisher)