Tecmo's latest release, a remake of a remake, is Ninja Gaiden Sigma. It was only 2004 when the original game came out, astounding players with visuals that are still among the best seen on any of the last generation of consoles, and action that was intense, violent, and incredibly challenging.
Only a year later and the series' hardcore fans were treated to Ninja Gaiden Black, a near identical version bolstered by a peppering of additional content and some supplementary difficulty settings. Now, only three years after the initial release, PlayStation 3 owners are being treated to Sigma, which is already being sighted as a means to whet appetites for the inevitable Ninja Gaiden 2.
Filling the shoes of video gaming's second most famous Ryu, players must work their way through 19 chapters, dissecting enemies with an array of razor-sharp Oriental weaponry. If any single element of the first Ninja Gaiden defined the title's success, it was the combat system, which ably applied the sensation of a beat-'em-up's control system on a pad set-up so simple it could be applied to a third-person action game.
This fluid control scheme returns, letting you turn Ryu into a whirling windmill of gleaming steel and slicing blades that springs about the screen, leaping on enemy heads and somersaulting off walls, unleashing lethal combos and reams of blood in equal measure as swords cut through flesh like hot knives through butter.
Some subtle additions to the control scheme have been made, though the improvements they bring with them are slight. While the right analogue stick in the original Xbox game activated a clumsy first-person view, before optionally controlling the camera after the downloadable Hurricane Pack, it now defaults to camera control. If you do want a better view of things, a quick click does place you firmly in Ryu's point of view. Some rather cursory Sixaxis control has been included too, to activate the game's 'Nimpo' attacks, though regardless of control method, the inclusion of the ineffective spells feels a little superficial, as you can complete the game almost without using them.
Ninja Gaiden has always been a fairly uninspired action title in terms of originality and innovation; instead concentrating its energies on perfecting the traditional third-person combat genre. Even when the action nears the point where it becomes so difficult it simply feels unfair, Sigma is still hugely enjoyable, and constantly reminds you that you are playing a very well crafted video game.
But what of the motivations to buy a game that has, in effect, been available for years in one form or another? It is here that Sigma's worth as a full priced PlayStation 3 game becomes questionable. Perhaps the most explicit update comes in the form of a playable version of Rachel, the overwhelmingly buxom cameo character from the original game. She brings with her three new levels, a new style of movement, and a different weapon set. Sadly though, her lumbering movement and limited acrobatics, coupled with a painfully sluggish weapon and some horrifically short levels that retread old ground, mean she only really serves to detract from the original, reminding how fantastic Ryu's movement and fluidity feels.
Fans of the genre and the series are going to be attracted to the speed and agility of the game's protagonist, and not a D-list character who drags her weapon through the game like a child heaving a sack of potatoes.
The subtler additional content is actually the better. Die hard Gaiden fans will notice that many of the game's crates and blacksmith shops have been moved to varying degrees, reducing the need to retrace steps, and generally adding to the flow of progress through the game.
Other additions include a selection of new weapons, with the double-bladed pair of short swords being the most useful. There are also apparent improvements to the AI of the enemies, who do seem to coordinate their attacks with a little more forethought. A smattering of new foes are thrown in too, though they bring little more to the game than the smallest aesthetic variations.
There are also a handful of new abilities that Ryu can use when battling the constant stream of fearless enemies that happily charge him like muscular lambs to the slaughter. The shadowy hero can again walk on water, though this time there is no need to hammer any button, meaning combat and escape are far simpler while tip-toeing across the surface of a stream or lake. Ryu can also now fire projectiles when he is in the air, which adds a shade more to your combat abilities than you might imagine, as during the average melee you will spend a considerable amount of time in the space above your victims' heads.
The biggest, and perhaps most surprising disappointment in Sigma is the game's visuals. While the graphics are by no means bad, by next-gen standards they are decidedly average, and occasionally disrupted by tearing, jagged edges and miss matched collision between bloodstains and walls. Here Sigma is a victim of its forbearer's success. The original was so outstanding by previous standards that, relatively, more was expected from the new Sony powerhouse.
The final additions come in the re-jigged Mission Mode, which challenges players to tackle waves of enemies in various settings from the main game. As before, there are 50 missions available, though this time several new locations are included. Online leaderboards back up both the missions and the individual levels of the main game.
There is no doubt that Ninja Gaiden Sigma is a fine example of the action game, but most who will want what is on offer here will have already been tempted by previous editions. Sigma's producers, however, claim that the reason behind another remake of this classic title is to bring it to a new audience, and for that group of gamers, this is a title that, while furiously hard and sporadically blemished, certainly has plenty to offer.