Ninja binge

Ninja Gaiden II: Gory, glorious, and fiendishly difficult
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Enraging but invigorating

NINJA GAIDEN II

(Tecmo/Microsoft Game Studios; Xbox 360)

GAMER It was 1988 when the original Ninja Gaiden began emptying the coin-purses of arcade addicts with its relentless difficulty and catchy soundtrack. Twenty years and roughly eight installments later, the series should be winning prizes for consistency. In the new Ninja Gaiden II, the player once again takes command of über-ninja Ryu Hayabusa and his trusty Dragon Sword, wading shuriken-first into a merciless onslaught.

The 1989 NES port reputedly introduced cinematic cut-scenes to the console medium, though unfortunately the visual innovation was paired with decidedly lackluster plotting. Nineteen years have elapsed, yet it's no different this time around: a coalition of malefactors has teamed up to awaken an unspeakably powerful evil, and it's up to you to stop them.

Despite this creative stagnation, gamers and developers keep coming back to Ninja Gaiden for one thing: the combat system, which has been consistently satisfying and incredibly hard in every version. In 1999 a Tecmo developer named Tomonobu Itagaki marshaled "Team Ninja" and began work on the first modern, 3-D iteration of Ninja Gaiden, which was released on the original Xbox and PlayStation 2 in 2004.

Itagaki's initial combination of state-of-the-art graphics and unforgiving difficulty resulted in what has been hailed by many as the greatest action game of all time. And while it often makes you want to smash your controller against the wall, mastering the fluid, frenetic combat is eventually quite satisfying. Breaking with longstanding action-game tradition, the number of enemies is precipitously reduced, with a commensurate increase in cunning and deadliness on the part of Ryu's adversaries. Rather than beating impossible odds with frantic button-mashing, the player is forced to actually get good at the game.

For better or worse, Ninja Gaiden II picks up roughly where its predecessor left off, bringing back familiar weapons and combo attacks as well as Ryu's traditional enemies in the form of the malevolent Black Spider Ninja Clan. The graphics engine is snazzy and modern, and the health bar system has been made more merciful by Ryu's ability to automatically regenerate some health after the conclusion of a fight.

One new feature sets the game apart from forerunners: the gore. While the 2004 version made it possible to dispatch enemies with a well-executed decapitation, the sequel ups the dismemberment ante like an amputee fetishist. Even first-time players will find themselves lopping off legs and arms with alacrity. It wouldn't be Ninja Gaiden without a frustrating catch, however: desperate de-limbed opponents become serious threats as they resort to ever-more-suicidal attacks. Close in on one and hit the Y button, though, and Ryu will perform an "obliteration technique," a choreographed slice-and-dice that precipitates a cinematic camera angle and veritable tidal wave of viscera.

Itagaki has finally caved to an "easy" difficulty level, and beginners or even experienced gamers will be grateful for the "path of the acolyte." Despite this and other sanity-saving measures, like the addition of automatic save points before boss battles, the game can still be enraging. Ranged attackers know where you're going to be before you do, and the third-person camera remains uncooperative. One boss even explodes after you defeat him, killing you instantly until you figure out the thoroughly asinine solution.

There's really no point in complaining. Fiendish difficulty will always be the order of the ninja day, and the "game over" screen might as well be replaced by a picture of Itagaki's smug, stunna-shaded face. By the time you ascend Mount Fuji to do battle with the final boss, however, the sense of accomplishment is huge.

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