13 March 2017

Ninja Gaiden Black

When asked about the greats in the genre, ninja brothers will often reply with the following titles: Devil May Cry 3, Bayonetta, God Hand. But first and foremost the three words to be uttered with the utmost care and adoration are Ninja Gaiden Black.
Yet in a bizarre twist, when analysing the interviews Itagaki has done one will see very little on Ninja Gaiden Black itself. While he has often gone on record to discuss the original, the Hurricane Packs and the later Ninja Gaiden 2 comments on the favoured son of his series are slim. Itagaki was pleased with the Hurricane Packs and how they complemented and expanded upon his original game. The goal of providing the best action game had in his eyes been met, if only for those who had online capabilities on their Xbox.
Itagaki stated that he would make Black to please the offline ninjas operating in the shadows, which he’d surmised were around 90% of his player-base, but it’s clear that in his mind the game was already completed with the Hurricane Packs, Black was merely a formality. It was made for the fans, but not out of an artistic desire.

It is this desire, the rich development history surrounding it and the merger of Itagaki’s nature and nurture which took center stage in the last two articles (seen here and here). With all that covered, and the game now complete, the combat engine should be fully analysed.
Ninja Gaiden at the forefront uses a two button layout for its combat. With light attacks being used the most, as the heavy attack is a singular slow hit that is better used when charged up to an Ultimate Technique. The amount of attack combinations available increase as the weapons are leveled up or new abilities are found or bought. These moves use a combination of mixed button commands supported by direction inputs. It is interesting to note that weapons rarely gain pure power, making it easier to balance the game as the player isn’t forced to level certain weapons to keep up with the health of the new enemies. Instead the only thing to really level is the skill of the player.
Enemies are aggressive in nature and there is always one attacking or looking for an opening in your defenses. Holding Block will have Ryu defend but certain attacks have block-breaking capabilities and some simply cannot be blocked. Dodging can be done at nearly any given time, rolling Ryu to safety with some invincibility frames in the middle; called Reverse Wind. This is where the knowledge part comes in, knowing which attack should be blocked and which avoided altogether. In a nice touch a broken guard can be dodged out of; called Furious Wind. Sadly the interesting, but overused and overpowered, Intercept Technique was removed; Itagaki finding it too hard to balance.


When on the defensive the game will often play out with Ryu holding his guard up, dodging when a certain move activates nearby, blocking again only to have it broken but canceled into a dodge. It’s a very active form of defensive play and the player will never feel like he’s standing still but using Ryu’s agility to stay alive. This is possible because enemies have strong visual and audio queues. Let’s take the Bast Fiends (魔神), cat like demons, as an example. They have a swipe, a triple swipe, a pounce, a pounce followed by a swipe and can confuse you by rapid wall jumping. The swipe is a singular hit which will probably be dodged away from as it breaks your block. But the triple swipe follows you, so if you dodge away you’ll get hit. The same goes for the pounce which most players will dodge away. But if the pounce is followed by a swipe, you’ll get hit; these moves are feigns for other ones. Yet they can all be avoided as each has a distinct tell, be it a auditory cry or the fiend leaning backwards before he strikes, they can all can be predicted. Attacks started off-screen can only be of the kind that has an audio queue meaning there are no excuses for being hit.

Due to the enemy aggression it is often the goal to find that one opening using your knowledge of queues, punish, and then go back on the defensive. This leaves a very small window of opportunity so the punish needs to be optimal. Slowly throughout the playthroughs players will find their favorite punishes which deal the most damage and are the most safe and use those exclusively. But this process does slowly force the player away from the other commands at his disposal, turning the game in a repetitive affair. Thankfully the pressure from the opponents, looking for that opening and striking is satisfying enough to keep the game very enjoyable. But the combat could have greatly benefited from pushing the variation of attacks. This is further evident when going for score, as discussed in the Hurricane Packs article, removing nearly 95% of all abilities from the equation and focusing solely on the remaining 5% of Ryu’s moves.

To compliment his close-range style Ryu also has some ranged weapons. The most important being the Shuriken and Bow. Shurikens can be used at the end of a combo to cancel said commands to end an animation early and stun the enemy a bit. The Bow is used more as a tool to dispatch with faraway enemies or later on to deal with the more mechanical foes like tanks and helicopters, temporarily turning the game in a first person shooter.



Lastly Ryu also has Ninpo (忍法) at his disposal, a form of magic. These require red Essence orbs to cast, with the default setup offering three at a time. Once activated Ryu becomes fully invincible and does the corresponding move. They function more as a quick button to help a player out if they are in a pinch.
There are four in total:
- Flame Wheels: covers Ryu in orbs of fire that deal damage and push enemies away. A strong ‘get off me’ move and good when punishing bosses.
- Inferno: a singular projectile that deals good damage. More if upgraded.
- Ice Storm: generates a small snow storm, freezing certain enemies and dealing minor damage.
- Inazuma: kills all regular enemies on screen when fully upgraded and deals strong damage against others.
Balancing is an issue here and it’s surprising Inazuma didn’t get some tweaks. When used properly it can clear entire rooms with just one activation and makes bosses who are supported by additional foes a joke. Ice Storm on the other hand rarely sees any use.

The enemies in Ninja Gaiden Black come in all sorts of variations, which is most apparent in their movement. Some foes like ninjas and bast fiends jump around constantly trying to distract you from their true moves, while other more stationary foes like Galla (魔神) tank around and attack Ryu if he’s close-by with strong hard hitting attacks. On the other side of the spectrum are the ranged combatants who use guns and rockets to keep Ryu at a distance. These have a reduced health-pool, marking their death in one hit. This makes them good to prioritize and balances them out a bit as they can be quite annoying when paired with aggressive close combat enemies. Later-on the humanoids take a near permanent back seat to the fiends who will run rampant. Most fights will be against large slow enemies who require a strong weapon to defeat. If you were to show a player a run-through of the last chapter and compare it to the first, the reactions would be quite different and he might even think they are different games. That this happens without the player really realizing it shows how well paced the enemy encounters are and how slowly and carefully the transition from man to monster goes.
Furthermore each difficulty setting remixes the enemy encounters, adds new ones and sometimes even introduces new enemies not seen on lower settings. This goes double for the bosses who either gain allies to help them in their fight or are replaced by different encounters all together. This helps keep the game fresh and challenging, instead rewarding the player’s skill at the game and not their memorization; exactly what Itagaki desired.

Aside from tactical decisions with the sword, ones must also be made with their wallet in mind. Once killed an enemy will drop one of three colours of Essence, which come in various sizes. Yellow counts as money, Red gives an extra charge of Ninpo and Blue heals the player. Yet all three can be absorbed to perform an Ultimate Technique, making the player ask a question with each Essence: “Do I need this, or shall I use it to kill this enemy”? This question is even further deepened by the fact that Red and Blue orbs give you a stronger Ultimate Technique than the Yellow one does. This is a neat twist on the economic side of the game and is something the player has to keep in mind at all times. In a strange twist though, if you are already at full health or max Ninpo, absorbing the orbs normally does nothing. It would have been a good addition to make these count as a lot of money, rewarding the player if he rarely used Ninpo with some nice money instead. This was done in Devil May Cry but it was never embraced by this series. Perhaps Itagaki did not wish for players to focus on their economy too much, as also evident by the low cap on the maximum amount of essence a player can carry; which is easily reached.

Alma descending upon the player.
Boss fights operate as milestones the player builds up to, especially on repeat playthroughs. Items are saved because you might need them and money is hoarded because it might help you out there if you are stuck.
Each boss is designed differently but there is one core element that is mostly present throughout; dodging. Bosses, especially the fiends, have a randomized algorithm that has them dodge your attacks when you try to hit them. While there are a few openings where they simply cannot dodge this does make the bosses feel very reactive and even scary at times . You’ll never know if you’ll get a hit in and if they’ll punish you for your aggression. Bosses like Alma are a good example of this. She flies around in an erratic pattern to confuse you, throws projectiles and tries to grab you. In between you have to force an opening throughout the madness surrounding you, praying it will hit. You’ll jump left and right, climb walls and dodge at split seconds to survive and then attack yourself only to be dodged. It feels like a duel between ninja; a strong sensation. The dodge notwithstanding, most bosses do operate the same. They have a couple of moves you’ll need to learn the timing of on how to dodge or block them, find out which are safe to punish and discover the move to punish with. Again the variation is eventually low.

Though the tournament is over, Master Ninja makes its debut as a difficulty level in this game. The concept behind it being that only the best of the best can conquer it. But the game pads its difficulties out carefully, hiding Master Ninja behind Normal, Hard and then Very Hard before being accessible. By doing this the act of starting the difficulty is it’s own reward as it shows dedication to the game, having beaten it at least three times already.

With every battle won, comes wisdom


Once started the enemies faced are immediately the hardest available and the odds are severely stacked against you. Items are more expensive and certain abilities aren’t given until much later, having the player rely less on them and more on their own skill. Enemy compositions are considerate, you’ll never die in one hit and foes don’t take unfair amounts of damage before dying either. It never feels unfair but instead neatly balanced. Where most games are built on Normal difficulty and then scaled up, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking Ninja Gaiden Black was built the other way around. The game doesn’t hold back and one really has to embrace the 私わゲー  style of gameplay to survive (pronounced Wa Ta She wa GHe, meaning “I am the game”). This is most apparent during the boss fights who, on higher settings, summon minions to assist them. While this practice does make the bosses as a character feel more weak, as they need help to beat you, it works from a mechanics point of view to make them more challenging. Without them bosses are quite simple once the patterns are memorized, an easy feat after beating the game three times. This way the challenge remains but the gained knowledge doesn’t become useless. Going back to Normal difficulty afterwards to face them one on one suddenly shows just how empty the boss fights become without their allies to defend them.

Should all the above prove too hard Black introduces a Ninja Dog difficulty mode which is unlocked if the player dies repeatedly. Ryu will carry a pink ribbon around for the rest of the playthrough and will be unable to attain a Master Ninja rank upon completion of a stage, showing Itagaki’s disdain for failed ninja who are unwilling to learn from their mistakes. He even went on record to say: How could a dog become a Master Ninja?”.

With all that said, once completed and viewed as a whole, especially with the previous two articles as reference, it’s easy to see that Black changed a lot compared to its original form. This article started with the mentioned lack of artistic desire and this shows in the vision. The game has slowly moved away from a more methodical ninja adventure to a man versus monster showdown where the trick is finding the best moves and forget the rest. All the little changes made this transition happen without anyone, probably even Itagaki, knowing. Still, even with all that, there are no games in the genre that are this packed with content or this well designed. Every frame of the game is carefully considered, every enemy placed with care and each move well designed and thought out. If you are standing on a hill and there are two Spider Ninja facing you paired with one Bast Fiend, you know that Itagaki painstakingly planned this encounter out.
It is only when viewed from afar that certain details can be called to question. So when asked what the pinnacle of the genre is, one should only need one word instead of three for the message to come across:


BLACK




postscript notes
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  • I found it very difficult to be negative. Black has received a large amount of praise but its flaws are rarely analysed or put into the spotlight.
  • The Bast Fiend example was taken from my speech at a Nerd Night, where I spoke to 50 strangers about my passion for the action genre. They were the perfect example to show how these games were designed, and the example is still relevant today.
  • My biggest wish was to incorporate a comment on the aesthetics of the levels, but I couldn’t find a logical spot in all three articles without sacrificing the core of the piece. Hopefully the upcoming Sigma article has room for this.
  • Not mentioned in the article are the added costumes and mission mode, these will be discussed in the Sigma article.

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