The List: Ninja Gaiden (Part 2)

This does not even touch upon bosses, which exist in their own category.

Even if this sequence isn’t in the original, Doku is. And Doku is evil!

Boss strategies are hit and run affairs; stop moving for a second, and prepare for instant death. They represent the epitome of Ninja Gaiden’s model: they heavily punishes the mistakes of the player. Make a wrong move, and half of your life is gone. The boss fights only exacerbate the necessity to not make mistakes. But, you WILL make those mistakes. But you’re encouraged not to repeat them by how much they cost. Sure, one could simply spam health potions throughout the fight, but even the highest level of challenge here can be won without taking a single hit. Plus, using health potions wastes valuable currency necessary for upgrades and the like. It’s a matter of skill even in resource management.

It requires practice, certainly, but it is possible. Every fight, even the boss fights, are fair – they are just more intimidating than most, considering how they require last-second dodges. Soon enough, pattern recognition develops and the boss can be eliminated as every other enemy. Human fallibility ensures that you will fail even if you attain a zen-like state of awareness, but that just motivates all the more. The roll jump is invaluable here, as well as restraint; certainly, large combos can be used on bosses like Alma in Chapter 7, who remains vulnerable only after a well-timed Flying Swallow, but most players will simply be punished for trying for too much.

Alma is the WORST.

She’s understood to be the hardest boss, although that’s not true; every boss after her is just as difficult. She just happens to represent a half-way point, in that she tests every single skill you’ve acquired in the entire game up to that point. Everything feels easier after her, since you developed all the skills to beat them by default! She forces you to hone your skills to a razor’s edge by bashing your head against the wall over, and over, and over again until you win. Different weapons require different strategies; Ninpo magic can be used as well. She’ll actively dodge your attackes, regardless of what they are, so your timing has to be absolutely precise.

This video doesn’t present an optimal strategy, although it shows a pretty basic way to finish it. I can say for sure that I made as many mistakes and probably wasted as many items on my first couple playthroughs (2-3 I think).

Once you knock her down, each opportunity requires a choice. If I go for a simple X, X, X combo, it should be sufficient, but I can try for the air combo X, Y, X, X, X, X if I positioned myself well and know how long she will be down after the Flying Swallow. If I remain too close, she may use here unblockable grab attack, taking half of my life, or melee me for huge damage. If I’m too far, and she will constantly fling energy balls and giant stone/marble columns from the boss fight room at my face. Thus, I need to learn when to stun her (such as right before an attack) and how long I have to damage here before she starts the assault.

Again, these are split-second decisions that have to be made, and the game is all the better for them. Every mistake made is a mistake of the player, not the enemy; they do not make mistakes. Bosses tend to include varied tactics as well; some require purely ranged means of attack, while others make the player get in close to do damage, and dodge their attacks the rest of the time. Their requirements are stringent, and may require different strategies from regular combat; thus, not only do they provide a stiff obstacle, but variety as well. Ryu controls perfectly; thus, none of this is really a problem. Doing the right thing at the right time IS the key.

However, much ado has been said about the supposedly “terrible” camera angles this game imposes upon the player. In most situations, a designer-chosen camera angle rules the day (unless you are playing Ninja Gaiden Black, but the situation only allows control in wide open areas). In some cases, this makes jumps difficult, or results in a “surprise attack”. However, wouldn’t enemy want to catch you off-guard? Perhaps one does not always have the best viewing angle when making a jump? I find the fact that enemies attack me from behind or an unseen angle not so much “cheap” as I do see them as part of being aware. Like Bayonetta, most enemies give off visual AND audio cues which give the player the right information; it’s up to them to counter appropriately. If you don’t recognize this, of course it’s cheap! Being oblivious to the obvious tools the designers provide doesn’t strike me as a good way to review a game, either!

Ninja Gaiden forces you to keep your guard up, lest a horde of Black Spider Ninjas cut you up and blow you to smithereens with incendiary shurikens. It’s not about how cool you look or how many hits you get; it’s about surviving and living to fight another day. The coolness comes naturally if you play right. These design choices are intentional, not flaws in the design. The game emphasize this “I am a ninja” theme because you are playing a ninja, and anything it can do to contribute to this role play of sorts is much appreciated. Ruthless, efficient, aware – that is the law of Ninja Gaiden, and if you cannot handle it, I suggest playing something simpler.

Another obstacle pertains to the life bar – it does not refill automatically. There are plenty of health items if you use them sparingly, but otherwise one’s life can get quite low, and there is no automatic health generation here (except with the use of a special armlet). The game does reward the player with health after fighting enemies in some cases, as well as money to buy new abilities, but this requires the player to actually win fights and do them without taking any damage. Ninja Gaiden encourages you to get better as you play, and every system in its power enhances this sentiment.

Of course, there are genuine flaws – there is too much exploring, for one. I want to fight some more, and though it is fine to have some downtime, there are stretches of the game (such as the whole early Vigoor Empire sequence) that require too much exploration and work to find simple items. Provide the player with optional fight sequences if he desires the rare items in the game, such as increases in total health. I should not have to search around for hours finding this key or that key to progress – the main mechanic of the game should be emphasized, and nothing else should impede my game time. The puzzles tend to be inane and simple as well. At least they don’t go into the inane and insane puzzles of Resident Evil or the like, but they’re there just because they crammed some Zelda elements in there. Why leave them in at all? Ninja Gaiden could have benefited from a more linear presentation (like its sequels, for example) that placed more emphasis on the combat, providing a wider array of enemies and needed strategy.

These are minor complaints, however; Ninja Gaiden is worth the patience. The more effort you expend, the better it becomes in turn. If you choose to keep playing, it will provide as much challenge as you desire. It truly is the best action game I have played in a long time, surpassing efforts like Devil May Cry 3 (whose battle system had unparalleled variety). I prefer Bayonetta slightly, but only by a smidge. It works because it asks more of the player than we wish to give; learn the system and mechanics, and the game will reward you effort.

And that’s a interesting contrast to Judges. What are you supposed to learn from Ninja Gaiden? How to get the reflexes, coordination, and strategy from brushing against huge mechanical obstacles, basically. At its core, it gives you the vestiges of old game design with a few modern items that detract from the game. What do you learn from Judges? Well, you learn of God’s grace, but also God’s justice, and those aren’t mutually exclusive. God allows Israel to try again and again to fix themselves; Ninja Gaiden does the same.

These aren’t easy changes, but necessary changes. Obedience requires a willing heart, and the ability to relinquish one’s personal desires versus what the situation demands. That’s what a good linear video game does – it doesn’t make you a slave, so much as you’re willing to make the sacrifice required. Does God always reward sacrifices? Not in terms of our earthly scales. It’s difficult to tell what’s a reward, what’s a blessing, and what’s a punishment. Everybody has these concerns. What am I supposed to do when I don’t even know what “obedience” means, and especially if I don’t know what I am obeying, and what I’m doing?

Video games provide a clear microcosm of the same situation. Linear experiences like Ninja Gaiden make things so straightforward that you can micromanagement. The big picture is straightforwardly laid and set out. Is this like real life? The Bible has a clear set of rules, I’d say, yet God gives us freedom (in a sense) to follow these rules. Freedom from the Law means adherence to that same Law in a different form. The confusion arises when we try to place our own standards onto a framework that, though objectively there, we can only perceive through a glass darkly. That is the challenge: to uncover the rules as they are, rather than as we craft them.

It’s serious business, sure, but that doesn’t mean something serious has to be gloomy and downtrodden the whole time. Sin is bad, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be overcome with good. Christianity is a serious game, but it’s a fun one. Anything that involves having the sovereign Lord of the Universe in charge of your life should be, right? The journey and the destination are equally part of the whole. Appreciation for everything comes as a natural result of a new perspective in Christ. We fail, we get back up; we die in Christ, we are reborn again, to try again. The situation in Judges, then, rings a similar tone to the idea of “crucifying Christ again” when we sin. Hebrews 6:4-6 is the origin of the idea:

For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been madepartakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and thenhave fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.

However, s co-heirs, so too do we die and are reborn again with a new knowledge of our problem, if only we learn to trust and obey. It’s an eternal recurrence of the same problem, sanctification repeatedly done because God knows we are not perfect and will not be until The End, as it were.

Lest you think I’m just spouting off platitudes at this point, games have been played for thousands of years, since the beginning of recorded history. It’s not a stretch to say that they have developed along with human civilization AND human nature. Wouldn’t you think video games might be an excellent representation of human though about rules? And Ninja Gaiden, subsequently, epitomizes a certain love of discovery within a narrow set of rules?

Putting God in charge and putting the game designer in charge amount to the same thing: by nature, we don’t want to submit. That’s why I find these games so compelling, then, and why Ninja Gaiden makes its way to the list.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.