Up until now, holding the DS sideways like a book has triggered images of brainy minigames or self-help software meant for mommy dearest. After spending five chaotic hours with Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, it's now become synonymous with nut-busting action on par with Devil May Cry or God of War.
Developer Team Ninja has seemingly done the impossible - create an adrenaline-drenched action title that's totally stylus driven. Slashing an enemy with the pen makes Ryu attack, stroking up makes him jump, tapping an area fires an arrow, etc. These controls are obvious, and that means a lot for a system that holds such a tight grip on the casual audience. Literally anyone who owns a DS could dive in and start dicing demons within minutes. It does take a few to learn the ropes, but Dragon Sword is much more accessible than its console counterparts and, more importantly, a lot more forgiving (they're known for being infuriatingly difficult).
Above: Even the first level is loaded with enemies. Better learn your UTs...
Ryu's move set is a little smaller than the Xbox/PS3 original, but there are still plenty of ways to kill. Air attacks, sword combos, Izuna Drops (a giant spinning pile driver, basically) plus crushing Ninpo attacks make any player more than a match for the various ninjas and towering bosses lurking in the shadows. Pulling off successful Ultimate Attacks in a row (as seen in the video) is a thrilling sensation - scribbling furiously then letting go to unleash a devastating, multi-targeting assault isn't just fun, it feels like a bad ass accomplishment when done right.
As much as we've praised these controls, however, there are issues. Dodging, done by blocking and then sliding the stylus away from the enemy, doesn't always move you in the desired direction. More than once (hell more than 10 times) we rolled right into an attack instead of away, and some of the jumping commands didn't listen properly either. The aforementioned UAs suffer occasionally as well, as they're done by quickly scratching back and forth on top of Ryu. Sometimes you get the UA to charge, others he just slashes wildly. Everything works for the most part, and no one's bothered to try something this grand before so we're willing to look past a few weird moments, but the fact remains you'll have some angry, "I didn't do that!" shouts.