When it first came to Xbox, Ninja Gaiden was infamous for its unforgiving difficulty. Some hated it for that, others appreciated that a mainstream game could still be challenging. In the time since, the series has struggled with balancing that difficulty with expectations and that includes the continually remade original. The most recent port, Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus, is ready for the PS Vita’s launch, and though it implemented a few changes to ease the flow, many old decisions keep holding it back.
Featuring some of the best graphics of any Vita game so far, the plot is purposefully old school. Ryu Hayabusa’s quiet ninja village was slaughtered by a demon, so he’s out to kill everything on his way to revenge. On the way the leather-clad ninja meets impossibly proportioned women, monstrous fiends, and an army of henchmen just ready to be decapitated. The story remains nonsensical, but in a way that harkens back to the series’ NES roots.
Revolutionary to the 3D action genre at the time, the core gameplay of Ninja Gaiden holds up beautifully. With combat deeper than many fighting games, each battle in NGSP is unique from the next, with numerous combos and strategies to take advantage of in every encounter. If you’re not careful, many standard enemies will kill you, making you very aware of your strategy in a fight, and the resulting victory all the sweeter.
NGSP’s combat depth increases when you include all the unlockable weapons, magic attacks, and later combos. Character movement and the environments are built around very involved battles breaking out at any moment, which comes at a cost. Despite how well the controls fit with fighting enemies, it often comes up short with platforming, sometimes annoyingly so. The jumps aren’t nearly as precise as they should be, and when missing a platform means returning to the bottom of a pit and fighting respawning enemies, it’s enough to make you throw the handheld across the room.
The retro difficulty and old school approach to the challenge are part of Ninja Gaiden’s charm, but constantly your fun is disrupted by another headache-inducing shortcoming. The way saves work are especially tiring, as the game never auto-saves and the save spots are placed in very random ways. Even if you complete a chapter, get scored on it and move on, should you die without saving, you revert to you last save no matter where that was. In this day and age (and on a handheld) it’s borderline unforgivable.
That’s not to say some concessions weren’t made to make this title more approachable. The overall difficulty of the game has been lowered, as “Normal” isn’t as tough as we remember it being once upon a time. And if you die enough times, the game offers you the coward’s way out to reduce the difficulty. Even some boss battles have been softened, including the infamous Alma, once one of the toughest, most infuriating segments in gaming history, now one of the easier parts of the campaign.
Other adjustments were made for Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus to feel at home on Sony’s handheld, including some touch controls that feel slightly gimmicky. The best use of front touch screen controls came when aiming arrows in first person. Once one of the trickier segments, now you can just tap on the spot on-screen you want the shot to go, simplifying things immensely. You could tell Sigma Plus wasn’t designed with the Vita in mind, but at least a few smart choices were made.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus feels like a game from a different era, and despite half-steps to make it more approachable, is painfully frustrating in ways that probably can’t be changed without altering the core of the game. If you can get past that, NGSP is a deep, lengthy adventure, with combat that’s still one of the best in 3D action gaming history. If you’ve never played it before, this is the best way to enjoy it now, just keep some aspirin handy.