ninja gaiden black
PublisheR Tecmo / Developer Team Ninja / Format Xbox / release date September 2005
Once upon a time, when I was young and still had all of my faculties, I bested Ninja
Gaiden. The game was the Dark Souls of its day – an unforgiving hack-andslash where the smallest mistake could mean instant death. The victory was a rare jewel in my gaming crown because, over the years, I more or less gave up on games that required any kind of twitch reflexes.
And so, when I pick up the Dragon Sword for the first time in over a decade, those muscles have atrophied. These days, I’m less Master Ninja – to borrow terminology from the difficulty modes introduced in Black, a slightly expanded version of the original game – and more Ninja Dog.
Ryu Hayabusa, meanwhile, has aged much better than I have. He still moves with the grace of a murderous Mario, and it’s an utter joy to control him as he sprints along the sides of buildings, backflips off walls, even skims across the surface of a lake like Jesus doing the 200 metres.
It’s incredible how much of the game is still etched into my memory. I can trace the shape of its levels well enough to track down every secret tucked away on a high ledge. The introduction of teleporting ninja wizards – able to trouble you from afar with fireballs or pop up behind you and stab you – rekindles an old hatred that has apparently burned deep inside me, untended, for all this time. I even remember the button combo required to skip the rather interminable cutscenes.
This ingrained memory propels me through most of the first level. I reach the boss at its end almost unscathed. Huh, I think, maybe this isn’t so hard after all. Maybe I’ve actually gotten better at games with time – I’ve certainly played far more of them. And then that boss, a nunchuk wielder who is also apparently Ryu’s uncle, spanks me like a naughty child. It’s a fair fight, though, and a great way of teaching the intricacies of combat and blocking. The same cannot be said of the next boss, a samurai. On an unkillable horse, with an infinitelyregenerating entourage of those accursed wizards. At which point, I realise not all of Ninja Gaiden’s difficulty is well-earned. The game’s camera is one thing that firmly dates it, back to an era where third-person games often struggled to keep up with the action. With multiple ninjas on screen at once, it quickly becomes chaos. More than once, this boss fight ends with me killed by an attack I couldn’t possibly have seen coming. But, after half a dozen game-overs and accepting that I need to chug an entire inventory’s worth of health elixirs, I emerge victorious. From there, it’s fairly smooth sailing – if ‘sailing’ is the right word for battling on top of a zeppelin with a giant cybernetic eggman. The enemy arsenal grows to include pistols, riot shields and inexplicably electrified blades, but happily bullets can be deflected with my blade, so nothing really fazes me.
Eventually, inevitably, on the streets of Tairon, I make one of those small mistakes I mentioned earlier. And find myself back at a checkpoint outside the city limits, half an hour of progress wiped away. It’s infuriating, a trip back to game design of the early millennium, and as I schlep my way back to town, I wonder: was my younger self actually good at this game, or did I just have a lot more time. And a lot fewer games to play?
“I even remember the button combo required to skip the rather interminable cutscenes”