After the massive success of Ninja Gaiden I had no doubt in my mind that we’d see a sequel, but barely a year has gone by since the original’s release and already Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos is available on store shelves! Tecmo certainly wanted to strike while the iron’s still hot, but with such a small development window is it even possible for the sequel to live up to its predecessor, let alone surpass it? That’s not an easy question to answer, because it all comes down to what you value in a video game. I’ll get into that soon enough.
Ninja Gaiden II picks up one year after the original’s climactic ending. If you’re not familiar with series, the original game introduced a new form of storytelling called Cinematic Display, which is part of the Tecmo Theater Series. Strip away these fancy buzzwords and what you get is a traditional side-scrolling action game where you play as a ninja named Ryu and every so often (usually after defeating a boss character) you’re treated to an intermission cinema scene that propels the story forward through comic book-like animated panels and dialog text appearing underneath. In fact, even before you see the title screen the story kicks off with one of these extended cinema presentations that introduces us to a new villain named Ashtar. It turns out he’s actually the bad guy that was pulling the strings of the bad guy from the first game, Jaquio. If you missed out on the original, (I highly recommend you play it first) the instruction book of the second game has six pages devoted to filling you in on the plot that has transpired thus far.
For those that have played the first game, expect mostly the same type of gameplay here with some cool enhancements. If you’re new to the franchise you’re in for a treat as you get a compelling story and intense action all in one game. As a ninja, Ryu has his trusty sword with him and can pretty much hack and slash any enemy or monster within striking distance. You can once again jump onto some walls, but thankfully they’ve improved Ryu’s move set so he can now freely climb them instead of having to play vertical Frogger and slowly jump back and forth up them. This is a huge improvement and a very welcomed change.
Along the way he can gain special secondary weapons that utilize Ninja Power to use them. If you’re familiar with the Castlevania games, it pretty much rips off the idea of collecting power (hearts) to unleash your special weaponry (press up on the control pad and B at the same time). You gain this power by slashing hanging objects in the background (like candles from Konami’s horror series). Most of the items from the last game make a return, including the Throwing Star, Windmill Throwing Star, Fire Wheel, and Invincible Fire Wheel. Missing the go-round is the incredible Jump & Slash technique from the first game that was so essential in taking down bosses. Fire Dragon Balls have been included this time around, which are helpful in attacking foes appearing below you, but for the most part they’re disappointing.
What’s not disappointing is the biggest new addition to the game: ninja shadows! Throughout the stages you’ll come across these red ninja icons and when you collect one your body will split into two. If you grab another you can gain an additional red shadow fighter. These spiritual projections will follow your moves exactly and can’t be hurt or killed; only disappearing if your main character dies. They follow your path exactly but are on a slight delay, meaning that if you make a jump and then stop moving the shadows will hang out in midair! You can then press your attack button to slash enemies and the shadows will do the same thing, except they remain positioned where you left them as long as you don’t move. This brings an entirely new strategic element to the gameplay that was missing in the first game. I was constantly experimenting and placing my shadows in just the right spots to do the most damage to enemies and especially bosses. In fact it makes some battles downright simple because the shadows can’t be hurt but they can continuously deal damage. Of course half the challenge is having two shadows with you at the time you face off against a deadly boss creature, but if you have them alongside you the odds are definitely in your favor.
Probably the biggest upgrade in Ninja Gaiden II is its graphics, which is an insane thing to say because the first game already featured amazing visuals. I’m not sure how Tecmo managed to pull of some of the special effects and tricks seen in this game, but they are incredible to see on the NES. Some of you may have had the chance to check out a TurboGrafx-16 or a Genesis by now and some of those games feature a technology called parallax scrolling, where different backgrounds and foregrounds move at separate speeds, giving the games a sense of depth that’s otherwise lacking in 8-bit games. Up until now that was pretty much reserved for 16-bit graphics chips, but I’m happy to report that it’s here and looks absolutely gorgeous in this title. What that means is right from the get-go when you witness Ashtar standing atop his castle looking out over the land you’ll be treated to some amazing graphics with storm clouds racing across the ominous purple sky at different speeds as lightning bolts strike down from the heavens. Other levels take full advantage of this with multiple layers of movement really adding to the overall impact of the stages. Kudos to the developers figuring out how to get this running (and running well) on the NES.
The improved graphics aren’t just in the extra scrolling, but also are noticeable in the cinema scenes where the overall game seems to take a slightly darker tone than the original. Characters look more detailed this time around with impressive lighting and shading accentuating every aspect of the story. The stages also feature a bevy of special effects so no two look exactly the same. One minute you’re running along the city streets and the next you’re hitching a ride atop a train. You’ll visit a vast array of locations and each level is just as memorable as the last. You’ll have to battle your way through vicious winds atop mountainous terrain and you’ll have to take extra care to perfectly time your jumps in a level that is blanketed in pure darkness, only illuminated every few seconds by lightning strikes. And that’s just the first few levels!
Just like the original, Ninja Gaiden II features a stunning soundtrack filled with captivating music. The opening introduction will surely send chills down your spine and the various stages all capture the mood perfectly. The various cinema scenes are punctuated by dramatic music and sound effects and although some scores are heard over and over again in numerous scenes I never tired of them. Really my only complaint is that while the stage music seems to fit the scenery well, sometimes the cinema music doesn’t match the story as well as it could, playing more upbeat tunes when maybe they should be darker in tone. Still, it’s a minor nitpick that really didn’t have any impact on my enjoyment.
Scoring a sequel to a game that received a perfect ten is a daunting task. Obviously when I reviewed the original game a little over a year ago I didn’t know there would be a second title and what it would entail. We break our review scores down into categories, but the overall score doesn’t have to be an average of all of those categories put together because some are given greater weight than others, depending on the reviewer. So, here’s how the two games compare in my eyes.
If you have to own the latest and greatest in technology with cutting edge graphics and a rocking soundtrack, then the answer is yes – Ninja Gaiden II is a clear improvement over the first. If gameplay is king and all you care about are impeccable controls and exciting stage designs, then they are about on the same level, with a slight nod to the second game thanks to the ninja shadows and the easier wall climbing.
If what makes a game great is its challenging difficulty, well I have to give that point to the first game because it is decidedly harder than what you’ll encounter here, although this game’s no slouch in that department. Of course that dovetails into longevity of a game, or how many times can you replay it before getting bored. Again, this is an extremely personal point of view because some of you simply adore the most challenging of games and prefer to die over and over again until you perfect each and every stage. This is essential to conquering the first game, so if that’s your jam then it wins this category. Others, like myself, don’t mind difficult games, but prefer they be fair and balanced throughout so they are beatable and fun and the same time. Of course this might lead to some growing bored quicker if they see the ending after five or six hours, but if the game is infused with that special magic that makes replaying it over and over again a joy in and of itself, a lower difficulty isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can actually be a positive point. I know sometimes I’m in a mood to just mindlessly play a game for a few hours and I appreciate games that aren’t a complete cakewalk, but at the same time aren’t impossible and I feel Ninja Gaiden II falls more into this category than the first, although some are sure to still find it extremely difficult. After all, it says “Hard to beat!” right on the box!
All of this to say that both games are highly fantastic, but if I had a limited budget and saw both games at the store and could only afford one, I’d pick Ninja Gaiden II. It’s more approachable with its slightly easier difficulty and it trounces the first one in the gameplay department thanks to the ability to nimbly climb walls and the addition of the ninja shadows. In the end you really can’t go wrong with either game and I still insist that if you can play both, please do, because the story beats and plot twists will have a greater impact and make you appreciate your time spent with them even more. The leap in technology from the first to the second in just a year’s time makes me wonder what Ninja Gaiden III will look like; assuming Tecmo decides to make another sequel!
Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos Review
- Graphics - 10/1010/10
- Sound - 10/1010/10
- Gameplay - 10/1010/10
- Lasting Appeal - 10/1010/10
Final Thoughts: OUTSTANDING
It’s not very often we get a sequel to a hit game just a year later and it’s just as good, if not better, than the original, but here we are with Ninja Gaiden II and Tecmo proving they’ve got what it takes to deliver! Featuring the best graphics ever seen on the NES, a rocking soundtrack, impeccably spot-on controls, innovative stage designs, awesome power-ups, and a high difficulty curve, this is yet another must-have game that no one should miss out on.