When I think of ninjas, I usually visualise a disciplined warrior, ready and willing to neutralise any unsuspecting targets quickly, cleanly and as quietly as possible. Not Ryu Hayabusa, the unintentionally imprudent protagonist of the Ninja Gaiden series, who manages to leave more mess behind him than a toddler in high-chair eating beans on toast.
The respected Dragon Ninja would much rather recklessly sprint and somersault around the place, dressed in his shiny PVC black falcon suit decapitating soldiers without batting an eyelid. He gets a kick out of jumping head-first off skyscrapers and dangling from helicopters for absolutely no reason whatsoever. We’re talking about a ninja who starts a fight with the Statue of Liberty, puts down a T-Rex, and during his less fine moments, bullies little doggies armed with a fleet of kunai blades that they are physically unable to throw.
Ryu Hayashi is cool as a cucumber. He’s calm, composed and a little wooden in his personality. But what makes his presence so appealingly absurd is his complete lack of self-awareness about the bonkers circumstances he finds himself in. Well, now he’s back with Dragon Sword in hand, ready to share his previous hack ‘n’ slash adventures in the Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection for Nintendo Switch.
Intended as a sort of prequel to the original NES games, the Ninja Gaiden trilogy is well known for its formidable difficulty, stylish combat and frequently annoying gameplay segments. What makes Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection such a nightmare to explain though, is how the bundle only includes the Sigma variants of Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2, as well as a sort of Snyder Cut version of the third entry to the series.
The Sigma versions have every intention to be definitive portrayals of absolute classics and are still a hell of a lot of fun in their own right. However, knowing what odd decisions were made during development will not only cause snobbery within the hardened fan, it may potentially make the newcomer feel like they are somewhat missing out on something.
The first Ninja Gaiden was reworked twice over since its initial release on the original Xbox way back in 2004. The re-release, Ninja Gaiden Black, threw in a few extra features and even harder difficulty modes to satisfy those who crave the taste of punishment. The remapped Ninja Gaiden Sigma went on to improve the visuals to meet the demand of HD technology, added some quality of life features while, for better or for worse, completely removed some of the additions that were once added to Ninja Gaiden Black and exchanged them with a few new ones.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 faced a similar, if far more apparent fate, by again, improving upon the graphics of its original template while stabilising the frame rate. Unfortunately, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 would tone down the violence substantially by removing the red stuff in favour of purple baby powder mist when chopping off the appendages of enemies. Furthermore, the high enemy count on screen at any time was significantly reduced and apparently replaced with better AI.
Yet the dream of owning the first two titles as they were originally intended is now nothing short of a pipe dream for Nintendo Switch owners. According to Team Ninja, the source code for the original two games and Ninja Gaiden Black has been lost down the back of a sofa and therefore cannot be recovered under any circumstances.
Reading between the lines, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that there’s a little bit more to it than that. After all, both the Sigma versions and Ninja Gaiden 3 were developed in the absence of the original creator of the first two games, Tomonobu Itagaki. He had allegedly parted ways from the Tecmo-owned company on rather bad terms over a financial dispute.
Politics aside, what we do get is a collection that still packs a punch strong enough to be thoroughly enjoyed. The first Ninja Gaiden Sigma feels rather refreshing, especially in a world where Bayonetta, NieR: Automata and Astral Chain exist. Learning to meticulously defend attacks and managing crowd control of the many enemies that Ryu runs into, seems so much more important than we have become accustomed to in these types of games. There’s very little room for error, each encounter feels like a dangerous and tactical event, and once combat becomes hard-wired to the brain and fingers, it soon becomes a rewarding experience that feels incredibly well-earned.
Like any action sequel, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 ups the ante when it comes to sheer stylish combat and pace. Every weapon in Ryu’s arsenal has a life of its own with tons of combat possibilities to explore. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is certainly the most approachable entry to the collection with heath top-ups frequently thrown at the player in Normal mode. The game does start to tip towards style over substance as the action is much faster than the previous game. It’s certainly a sequel that still manages to push its own identity. It’s just a shame that there has been no effort to add the blood and gore that painted the grounds of the original sequel.
The third and final entry, subtitled Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, makes an effort to bounce back with an almost complete gameplay overhaul from the universally panned Ninja Gaiden 3. This far more improved version pretty much goes all Michael Bay on the series with its explosive shenanigans and ridiculously forced long-winded plot. While the magic of the first two titles has started to become bastardised by this point, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge certainly still has its moments. It’s easily the most violent entry in the collection with limbs and gore dished out by the bucket load.
While I can happily live with standard ports for remakes of older games compiled into a rather affordable sale, I found it hard not to pine for potential adjustments that could have been implemented. Not putting in a bit of work to make Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 as bloody as its original sequel does come across as a convenient absence to make the violence in Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge shine a bit brighter. It would have also been nice if development time was put to further use in ironing out some of the more awkward and dated gameplay technicalities.
The package doesn’t quite live up to the name, Master Collection. Any online multiplayer additions that were once shoe-horned into the Sigma games and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge have been made completely redundant in favour of an AI-controlled wingman. This is great if you have an imaginary friend, but those who fancy a bit of human-assisted teamwork within the Tag Battle modes are going to be left pretty disappointed. It’s also worth noting that each game in the digital version downloads onto the system separately. Which, I suppose, does have the obvious benefit of being able to be installed one title at a time for adopters running a little low on storage space.
Players who decide to fork out a bit more cash for the Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection Deluxe Edition will be greeted with yet another separate self-contained download that contains artwork, storyboards and soundtracks of all three games. It’s a very basic addition at best and should have been added by default as a bonus menu in one of the games, or to simply contain the whole thing as part of a singular collective package.
This pretty much sums up the presentation of Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection in a nutshell. Besides an added Hero mode that holds the hands of the less-adept player to experience the joys of Ninja Gaiden, there isn’t anything new here to excite the lifelong fan. At least the games do seem to load quickly and play well enough, minus a few notable instances of noisy pixelation in the visuals within Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razors Edge – especially during the handheld mode. One thing is for certain, Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection does plant a further reminder on how a massive catalogue from a previous generation of great titles can benefit from a system release with seamless portable play capabilities.
The Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection definitely proves that there is still a place in the modern-day for Ryu Hayabusa. Just don’t go expecting a Halo: The Master Chief Collection-style package full of version comparisons and celebrations of Team Ninja’s mascot. Just think of it more like a scattered Super Mario 3D All-Stars type deal with far less effort involved.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo