I never got past the first level of Ghouls 'n' Ghosts.
I was, admittedly, only ten, and my Atari ST was just about in need of its twelfth joystick in two years, but the game was just one step beyond my reflexes and patience. A similar thing happened recently with Ikaruga - I kept going back, but the game was just beyond what my brain can cope with.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached Ninja Gaiden. You see, Ninja Gaiden is pretty hard. You've no doubt already heard that. Serious Gaming Source #1 told you so; someone on Hardcore Forum #4 said it was rock and Gary Armstrong in 9D said he couldn't even get past the first boss. So, should you even bother? Yes. What you need to understand is that Ninja Gaiden IS bloody hard, but also bloody good.
Taking control of Ryu Hayabusa, you must return the stolen Dark Dragon Blade to its rightful home in blah blah blah yawn land. The story is bollocks. That isn't really what Ninja Gaiden is all about. What it is all about is being a brilliant 3D platform/adventure game kitted out in adult-sized ninja pyjamas - you get as close to actually being a ninja as you're ever likely to be. Hayabusa-san jumps, kicks, spins, slices, hacks, turns into a raging ball of flames, runs up walls, back flips and plummets to his death exactly when you expect him to. The controls that Team Ninja have come up with are as predictable and precise as any developer has ever produced. The instruction manual need never be opened because you already know what each button does before you press it and more importantly, you already know exactly how the little ninja chap is going to do it. Ryu and his time warping Persian Prince of a cousin have set new standards in gaming control that everyone else must now aspire to.
Where Team Ninja's franchise resurrection takes its leave from Ubisoft's is that the precision controls aren't just a flamboyant addition to an already well structured and evenly tempered game - they are an absolute necessity to avoid the frustration that would otherwise come with playing it. Without the inch perfect jumping and the tight combat moves, the game would be demoralising and we'd all end up in tears.
When is a game too hard to enjoy? It's a moot question, so don't bother trying to answer it. It is much easier to say when a game's not too hard; and that's when you don't end up losing unfairly. When the reason you died is that you made the mistake. You jumped when you should have rolled. You forgot to block. You didn't respond to the boss' attack pattern. You forgot to block. You kicked when you should have chopped. You forgot to block. You didn't learn that new technique. You forgot to block. Difficulty like this is forgivable - it is even to be commended. What can't be commended is dying because you jumped left but your character jumped forwards and off a cliff; when you pressed 'attack' and he kicked when you wanted him to chop; when you pressed block and he didn't do it in time; when you did any of the above and the camera was looking the other way. When the game makes the mistakes for you, something is wrong.
This game plays out over a series of interconnected areas that are loosely divided into levels. Progress beyond this boss and you can open this gate which allows you to go back here and do this because you've picked up that thing that goes 'thwack'. By and large, this game structure works well and reduces the need for endless re-treading of old ground. When back-tracking is required, sporadically re-spawning enemies are there to make the journey a little more enjoyable and to provide much needed health pick ups. For the most part though, paths intertwine and shortcuts become available at exactly the right moment and it's fair to say that a lot of thought has gone into the level design. The same can be said of the graphics engine - it's certainly impressive, with some of the best and most consistently high quality graphical effects yet seen on Microsoft's tub of (rather powerful) lard. The cut-scenes in particular stand out with some wonderfully shot sections, although it's debatable whether the dialogue translation from Japanese to American (English would be too kind a word) has worked here - sometimes, subtitles really are the way forward. Aurally too, the game stands out with the music moving from moody background soundscapes to blistering drum and bass in the time it takes for a group of pistol wielding Vigoorian troopers to drop out the sky and spank you.
On the subject of spanking, let's get back to talking about just how tricky Ninja Gaiden actually is. Gaiden is tough, but in a fair way. At first encounter, certain enemies can seem impossibly difficult to beat but once you learn to treat the game as a series of brief Dead or Alive style battles, react to the different styles that different enemies adopt and, most importantly, learn when to block, it begins to make sense. Study new techniques, power up your sword at one of the interspersed shops or make use of the ninpo magic that Ryu masters throughout the game, and enemies that used to daunt you become crash test dummies to pummel with panache - and pummel them you will. Heads roll (although not in the PAL version), feet fly, arms flail and swords clash in the most brilliantly (un)choreographed fight scenes since Keanu donned a leather coat. And it's here that the tight controls make the game. At the touch of one or two buttons, Ryu becomes an extension of your spinal cord reactions as he responds with ninja speed and ninja strength to your thoughts. Get killed and 97.86% of the time (actual statistic) it's going to be because you didn't think fast enough, not because the game messed up.
There are, of course, a couple of negatives. At times, the save points seem to have been placed entirely at random by one of the designers' children. Sometimes, there are two in close proximity with barely any enemies in between and sometimes you struggle through three or four groups of bad ass ninjas/ghouls/tanks/helicopter gunships only to be faced with a boss battle and no save. The camera isn't always going to be your best friend either as it occasionally gets switched to a sort of first person view in the heat of battle, making the end result of the fight a little more random than it should be.
So, what's the story? Can a game this tough be scored highly? Yes it can. It can because it's bloody good and it's bloody fair. Never once does it feel like a test of memory. Never once does it frustrate because the controls let you down or because the AI went wonky. Never once do you lose the desire to have that elusive last go. Never once, most significantly, should you feel like a certain part of the game is insurmountable - I'm crap at games and I've made it my bitch. Ninja Gaiden is as brilliant as it is beautiful and as fantastic as it is fiendish and, all should have a go at this wonderful slice of the mighty gaming pizza.
Hard as a randy Rhino? You bet, but infinitely more enjoyable.