I can't say that the DS seems like the perfect platform for a Ninja Gaiden game. The series is renowned for its complex control scheme and hard as nails gameplay - defining features the DS, with its focus on touch screen gaming, seems incapable of reproducing. With that clearly in mind, Team Ninja took a slightly different approach to Dragon Sword. Like the handheld, this DS action adventure is very much a more accessible Ninja Gaiden experience, and perhaps, quite shockingly, quite simple.
You play as Ryu Hayabusa as always, the slick, leather-clad ninja who is able to leap around the screen and attack with deadly speed. In this DS adventure you're tasked with protecting the Dragon Sword, something the evil Spider clan wants in order to bring great evil on the land. It's pretty typical stuff and sees you battling through 15 chapters, fighting wave after wave of enemies, slaying bosses and solving the odd puzzle. Nothing out of the ordinary if you've played one of the more recent Ninja Gaiden games.
Differences come from the control scheme. Being a DS game, changes to the standard control system we've seen on Xbox and PlayStation controllers was a certainty, but the stylus heavy system in place is still quite unexpected. Essentially all of Ryu's movement and attacks are performed using the stylus on the touch screen. For example, to jump you simply draw the stylus up the screen, almost as if you're directing Ryu to follow. Point to a location on the screen and he'll move there. Slash your stylus over an enemy and he'll attack. Tap your stylus on an enemy and he'll fire a projectile. It's all very simple and easy to pick up.
More advanced attacks can be performed by linking together certain slashes and magic attacks use a novel system where you need to draw an on-screen symbol within a time limit. There's no doubt about it, Team Ninja has thought long and hard about how to get the most out of the DS' seemingly limited control system. Sadly, it's not without its problems though, primarily in defence. Evading attacks via a roll requires you to hold a button and tap the screen, while blocking requires you to press a button. Not a problem usually, but Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword is played with the DS held like a book, making button pressing a less than natural thing to do.
The ease at which you can breeze through most of the 15 chapters can't be overlooked either. Button mashing has always been possible in the series, but here it's taken to a new level with stylus slashing. Long-time Ninja Gaiden fans will no doubt try to play with the style and technique they're able to display on the home console games, but at times with the DS game it's almost impossible not to flip out and scribble on the screen with enough ferocity to burn through its surface. When overwhelmed by enemies you can more often than not scribble your way out of danger, and the frequent save points (which also replenish your health and magic meters) are another device to make the game easier to play through.
This moaning might sound a little hypocritical having had trouble with Ninja Gaiden's difficulty in the past, but here things have been taken to the other extreme. On the DS you could argue that this isn't a problem, but I can't see the game appealing to too many people outside of Ninja Gaiden's core audience. As such, it'll be an experience that won't last very long at all.
Using a combination of pre-rendered backgrounds and 3D character models Dragon Sword looks very nice indeed. It's most impressive when you're fighting one of the many large boss characters, which really show what the DS can do in the hands of a competent developer. On occasion it is a little tricky to see what's going on - Ryu gets smaller as he runs into the screen - but on the whole there's very little to complain about from a presentation stand point.
Although Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword isn't the spectacular action game we hoped it would be, it's still a highly polished, hugely enjoyable game. It is a short lived experience though, with all but the most novice gamers likely to be able to play through its 15 chapters relatively unchallenged. Worth a look but not really on par with the great home console games.