As I settled in on the couch this weekend, sunlight streaming through the windows and my dog snoring at my feet, a storm raged on my television. Xbox 360 controller firmly in hand, I watched as the camera dove and swooped over the black waves of a tumultuous sea before finally coming to rest on the Team Ninja logo. I smiled, for the day I had long dreamed of had finally come. Today, for the first time in my life, I was going to be good at a Ninja Gaiden game. Tomonobu Itagaki himself had promised me as much.
Well, that’s not entirely true. What he had actually said to me was that anyone, even so-called casual gamers, would be able to succeed at Ninja Gaiden II and even pull off some really cool moves in the process. Ninja Gaiden II would be far more accessible than other games in the franchise, he assured me, and not just for the leetest of the leet. No more Ninja Dogs, no more making players feel bad for having the life expectancy of a fruit fly with diphtheria. Everyone was welcome to share in the ninja love.
Many have found fault with that particular change of heart, accusing Itagaki of dumbing down the game for the sake of selling a few extra copies. Which, frankly, he is, but I don’t care. I love Ninja Gaiden – believe me, I do – but it’s just stupid amounts of hard. I don’t fault it for its difficulty level; in fact, I appreciate its unrelenting demand for well-honed gaming skills, its punishing nature and lightning-fast action. I’m just never, ever going to be any good at it.
My experiences with Ninja Gaiden were never what you would call “rewarding.” With enough effort, I sometimes managed to achieve levels of not sucking quite so much, but I never once felt like I was the game’s master. In my best moments, I didn’t feel as though I was gaining ground, merely not losing it. In other moments … well, in other moments I simply turned off the Xbox in favor of doing something that was less of a blow to my self esteem. Like trying on bathing suits after eating a pint of Häagen-Dazs. Christie, the snow-haired fighter from Dead or Alive (another Itagaki creation) chides her opponents by telling them they are “weak and unskilled,” which was a pretty good summary of how I felt every time I attempted to step into Ryu Hyabusa’s blood-soaked shoes.
So when Itagaki assured me in warm, soft tones that even I, ninja newb though I might be, could do well at Ninja Gaiden II, I rejoiced. I knew I was never going to top the leaderboard or inspire others with my Amazing Feats of Ninjastic Awesomeness, but I was going to actually make it to the end of a level without feeling like a hamfisted moron, and that was good enough for me.
These were the thoughts that were drifting happily through my head as I watched the intro movie, in which a chesty CIA agent who apparently gets a frequent-buyer discount at Strippers-R-Us asks a shopkeeper if he’s seen Ryu Hyabusa. Bad guys swoop in and snatch the girl, prompting Ryu to make a dramatic entrance and kick off the first fight of the day.
A handful of Spider Clan members attacked me in a fairly delicate manner, giving me time to familiarize myself with the basic controls. Rather than pounce on me all at once, they took my assault in turns, as if to say, “No, no, don’t rush. Please, take your time learning how to turn us into chum.” It was all so warm and friendly. A bit of button mashing and I was alone again, free to examine the stunning environment and smash a few nearby pots. Oh, this was going swimmingly! If skipping with glee wasn’t strictly against the ninja code, I would’ve.
Even the dead ninjas that I encountered along the way were friendly and helpful, leaving behind notes telling me how to execute new moves like the Shadowless Footsteps and Reverse Wind. Some of the dead ninjas were sad, because they couldn’t pull off the moves that I was achieving. Poor, poor, dead ninjas. They would never feel the inner warmth and glory that comes from being good at Ninja Gaiden. The feeling that I now possessed.
The feeling that lasted about ten more minutes. The first few clutches of Spider Clansmen were pretty laid back and easy to dispatch, but they eventually got tired of screwing around and began attacking me in earnest. The careless mashing of the X and Y buttons that had gotten me this far started to fail me, as enemies blocked and dodged and effortlessly cut me to ribbons. I sliced the arm off of one ninja, only to have him ensnare me in a choke hold a moment later, his bloody stump glistening wetly as I gasped for air.
This was supposed to be easy?
I frantically hacked and slashed through wave after wave of deadly ninjas, dashing and jumping and wielding my Dragon Sword with desperate fervor, cursing Itagaki, his sunglasses, his leather jacket and his terrible, terrible lies. This wasn’t the easy game I’d been promised, this was crazyfastninjafighting with magic and claws and special moves and…and…and…
And I wasn’t dead yet.
I’d been playing for more than an hour, and I wasn’t dead yet. I’d had to retreat more than once, and I still seemed to be pulling off certain moves more by accident than by choice, but I wasn’t dead yet. Empowered by my character’s remarkable will to live, I tentatively approached fights with more in mind than simply surviving. I concentrated on using specific moves against specific enemies. I used my Ninpo magic strategically, and to the greatest effect. By the time I did a flip off a wall – on purpose – and came down upon a claw-wielding ninja with a cruel and devastating blow, I knew that Ninja Gaiden II isn’t an easy game, no, but it’s an easier game.
Itagaki wants this to be the Gaiden that’s for everyone, but even its “easy” gameplay still requires a fairly high level of ability. The truly “casual” players, the ones who spend more time with Uno than Gears of War, are likely to give up mere moments after turning the game on – assuming they dare to try it in the first place. An easy game should allow a gamer with even the most rudimentary of skills to make some sort of progress, to achieve some level of mastery. An easy game should, you know, be easy.
Still, for people like me, who want to walk the path of the ninja but who keep falling on their faces, Ninja Gaiden II a boon. I have no idea how far I’ll make it down the Path of the Acolyte, but I’m pretty sure I’ll at least enjoy the journey.
Even if it is the hardest easy game I’ve ever played.