Finding a game that's as outright mean as Ninja Gaiden II is fun. These days the big releases all seem so eager to hold your hand, stroke your hair and whisper in your ear that you're smart and important. But you can almost hear NGII snorting at this as it throws another clutch of blisteringly fast enemies at you. Here's a game that says: "Yeah, I guess you don't suck that hard. But can you deal with this?" And you know what? I love it for that.
There are a few of reasons why it's not too smart to fall for this game, but we'll get onto them in a bit.
The truth is that in many respects, Ninja Gaiden II is everything you could hope for. Ryu Hayabusa is still a backflipping, wall-running death machine who moves with the speed of a sneeze made of pure pain, so controlling him is still a joy. And, same as in the Xbox original, this is nicely matched by totally merciless enemies who'll happily attack all at once and/or do it from a distance and/or from off camera.
You've got a real kitchen sink of bad guys to take on this time, including werewolves, cyborgs, demons, bats, mechs, soldiers, dogs (who carry swords in their mouths!), wizards, giants, giant snakes, er, jellyfish, fish ghosts and other ninjas.
And there's a general sense they're all breathing down your neck, all the time. It's not that they come at you without leaving you room to breathe.
There's all the time in the world after each fight to pick something from the epic combo list of any of the seven weapons - an arsenal now boasting a mammoth scythe and a pair of ninja claws with matching feet-talons.
It's just that, no matter how much better you get at the game, Ninja Gaiden II always keeps pace step for step. Every time you think you have an enemy's attack patterns down they get replaced by something else, every time you think you find yourself in a groove you're knocked out of it by some stray longshot.
A good example of this is in the new dismemberment mechanic. Legs, arms and heads are endlessly falling off enemies, but they're stubborn bastards and more often than not keep fighting on. You're always ending combos only to find you're now taking on a demon without a head or a squad of soldiers missing legs, complete with frightening arterial squirts. But rather than being hilarious in a Monty Python way, these enemies, now resigned to death, eagerly perform vicious suicide attacks.
The other big new mechanic is the Ultimate Technique. Holding down the strong attack button now causes Ryu to hold still and charge up a staggering flurry of blows that'll make short work of just about anything, but that's only if you don't get sliced open during the lengthy charge. Also, any nearby orbs dropped by dead opponents (which boost your health, ninpo magic power and currency) get drawn into you while you're charging and power up your combo instantly, making it possible to chain Ultimate techniques together.
These nips and tucks prove the original game's combat was no accident - Team Ninja know exactly what they're doing. And this makes it all the more disappointing when you find the areas where the game's completely failed to upscale, or even become worse.
What's the problem?
For a start, levels are infested with invisible walls, with the tiniest slopes and most sparse walls of sticks projecting unbreakable forcefields. Then there's the engine's occasional slowdown, some lengthy loading times, scattered AI issues, and a camera that... well, it's one thing to have enemies launching into attacks from off camera, but it's another thing entirely to have a camera that loses track of the boss during battles when the only thing in a massive arena is you and the boss.