Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Gaming Memories: Team Ninja and their new game NIOH

Team Ninja -- that was a name I would often hear, but didn't really know too much about. I'm sorry to say this now, but my only experience with them for quite some time was none other than the demo for Dead or Alive 2 on SEGA Dream Cast. I still remember my cousin coming over and playing the demo disc, and I sat back and watched unsure of how I felt about the game. Did it look fun? I guess. Did I ever plan on asking for the game? No. Back then there were so many other games I wanted to play, and this "Dead or Alive" series just wasn't one of them. That was actually the last time I saw anything related to the series for many years (other than seeing DoA3 and what not in stores), and it wasn't until Metroid Other M was announced that I even bothered looking into them again. I really regret to say that MoM was actually my first full game by Team Ninja, but thankfully that was only the beginning.

Although I had known about the Ninja Gaiden NES games, the modern Ninja Gaiden was a mystery to me. When I bought a PlayStation 3 both Ninja Gaiden Sigma 1 and 2 were games I initially looked into, but something about them just turned me off. Maybe it was the monsters, or maybe it was the story (or "story"), but whatever the case I just wasn't that interested in the games after learning about them. I thought "maybe" one day I'd go ahead and give them a chance, but each time I came close I would turn around and get something else instead. That's how things continued for awhile, but then something unexpected happened -- and that something is what eventually lead me to how things are today.

Starting around 2005 I was a very active member over at the official SEGA forums. After the official Sonic Team BBS became a troll filled wasteland abandoned by the western branch of the company, I moved over to SEGA and spent a lot of my time there. I was a huge fan of the games, there were a lot of nice people there, and I just had fun with the site. Eventually one of my posts there (about a Silver the Hedgehog fan game) is what lead to me meeting my friend (and NGR Writer) GlacialLeaf -- but that's getting a little off topic. It's actually what happened years later that eventually lead me to trying the Ninja Gaiden series for myself.

One day I was randomly invited to a massive MSN group chat filled with SEGA forum members, and two members in particular would constantly go on and on about how great of a game Ninja Gaiden was. I'd argue with them, say that it couldn't be as great (or as hard) as they said it was, and I'd fight with them as they would insist the games I liked were "crap." We argued a lot, but strangely no one ever hated each other -- it's just how things were (in fact, "Gonzo" as he's known became a friend as well... And somewhat a member of NGR...). Of course because of this chat I was stubborn and basically "gave up" NG for good, but a part of me was still interested and everything they had told me about it also made me want to play it even more. I basically contradicted myself, and eventually my stubbornness lost.

After Dead or Alive Dimensions came out on the 3DS, and I wrote my first "real" review for NGR, I finally decided to check out Ninja Gaiden as well. The story and seeing Ryu in DoA was the final push I needed, and on 2-25-2012 (almost exactly 5 years ago) I rushed to the local GameStop and bought Ninja Gaiden Sigma (1). Originally I was going to get the Vita version once it released later on, but I couldn't wait any longer and just bought the PS3 copy... And then I began regretting missing out for all those years.

My first experience with Ninja Gaiden was, to put it simply, pretty great. I liked Ryu Hayabusa as a character, the setting really caught my eye, I loved the wide verity of weapons you had to use, and I REALLY loved all of the different combos and attacks you could pull off. The game gave you complete control over Ryu, and it felt a lot like a fighting game, except in the form of a full adventure game instead. Then there was the challenge. After hearing how hard the game was for basically years, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I slowly made my way through each area, blocking and dashing my way around enemy attack after attack, and I used every single exploit I could find just to survive. Enemies were killing me in a few hits, explosions and flying arrows were limiting my movement, and giant monsters were crushing me left and right. It didn't take long for the "easy mode" option to pop up, but I ignored it and continued to press on. Eventually I began learning how to actually control Ryu and use his better moves, I unlocked new weapons I liked more than the default Dragon Sword, and I upgraded them to unlock new even stronger attacks. At one point I even remember hording the game's currency just so I could constantly have a stock of potions to survive. The game really was challenging, but the more I got into it, the more easier it became. That feeling of progression is something I'll never forget about the game, and by the time I finally took down the final boss and saw the ending credits -- I wanted more (which I had)!

New: Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2  (PS3)
Beat: Ninja Gaiden Sigma  (PS3)

The moment I beat Ninja Gaiden Sigma, I started playing Sigma 2. The night before I had saved pretty close to the final boss, so on my way home from college I picked up GameStop's last copy of Sigma 2. Unfortunately their used copy didn't come with the original box, but as long as I was able to play it I was happy. So that night I rushed home, continued working on Sigma, and then the very next day I finished it and started up 2. It was an instant favorite. Nearly everything about the game had been improved and refined (despite Sigma 2 being the "worst" version of NG2), and I became hooked. For the next few months I would go on to spend a lot of time just going through that game over and over again. I tried out different weapons, I worked on mastering the weapons I was already used to, I ran through stages on different difficulties, and even spent quite a bit of time playing as other characters in the Ninja Trial mode. Also while the game's story still wasn't anything to write home about, even that was interesting enough to me! I spent a lot of time digging deeper and deeper into the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive lore (even spent time reading articles while at school), and before I knew it I had become a full on fan. On top of that, this was also around the time I began having issues with my wisdom teeth with constant pain everyday, so in a way NG2 helped me through that as well...

When Ninja Gaiden 3 released a few months later I got it as soon as possible. While I had heard a lot of bad things about the game, especially compared to previous entries in the series, I didn't let the bad news turn me off. Yes both upgrades and monsters were removed, there was only one weapon to use, and the story forced some strange slow down moments (like Ryu breaking character and slowly killing a guy begging for his life), but I did end up enjoying it to an extent. Compared to NG2? It was a let down in a lot of areas. Compared to other games of it's style? I thought it was a pretty fun one. The areas were interesting to say the least, and the combat was still fast and fluid. While it didn't feel like a full on NG, it was a game I still enjoyed and played through a few times (heck, I think I even game it a good rating in my review). The thing is though, now days my views on this game are the complete opposite. It's a game I would never tell anyone to even look at, yet alone play! As for why though? That's because of something I never expected.

After Ninja Gaiden 3 bombed with fans, Team Ninja did the unthinkable -- they released a new version! Originally this "Razor's Edge" version of the game was exclusive to the brand new Wii U (and the main reason I even wanted the thing at launch), it was eventually brought over to the other main consoles as well. In this version of the game nearly all of the force slowed down moments were removed, the murder scene with Ryu was cut, all of the weapons and upgrades were added back in, gameplay systems that were removed were restored (such as the dismember system from NG2), and even Ayane and Kasumi from Dead or Alive were added to the game -- the former being in the story, and the latter being an extra character to play as in the brand new stage select challenge mode. Everything about this version of the game was such an improvement, and it once again brought me back to the joy I felt earlier that same year. While it still may not be the best Ninja Gaiden game, 3RE did become my favorite in the long run, and it's something I still play from time to time till this day -- although the I do play 2 quite a bit as well...

So, with all of that being said, how about today?

Looking back on Team Ninja and their games, a lot of good memories come back to me. The time I spent playing Ninja Gaiden is some of my best gaming memories from recent years, but sadly Team Ninja has been away for awhile -- making games like Dead or Alive X3 instead (which, personally, I couldn't care any less about). My time actually playing their games was pretty short lived, and all I could do is sit back and hope Ninja Gaiden 4 would come out sooner than later. Then, NIOH happened.

NIOH is a game I actually didn't expect much from. It was compared to the Souls series (which I'm not a huge fan of), and what little time I spent playing the demo didn't seem that great. Still when it finally released last week I spent the weekend trying to hunt a copy down, and I don't regret it. It took a lot of driving, multiple tries at reserving a copy online, and ended with me eventually buying a copy Walmart had in the back for online sale only. It was a lot of work, but when I got home and gave the game a real chance, I found that it was very much worth it.

While it's true NIOH has a stamina and level up system similar to the Souls games, I quickly realized it wasn't a Souls clone at all. If anything, the game felt (or rather, still feels) like a much more grounded Ninja Gaiden! While in NG you have complete control over Hayabusa as you dash, jump, run along walls, and fly through the sky, in NIOH you take on the role of a more grounded samurai instead. William is a normal human and not a one man army, and that's really what the stamina and level up system show. Instead of blocking everything coming his way, and dodging with unlimited energy, he has to watch his movements carefully and expend his energy in the most efficient way -- or rather, you have to. Once you realize this the game becomes a lot more like Ninja Gaiden, and soon that nostalgic feeling of playing NG1 came back to me. Finally after all these years, it was back.

Currently I'm not very far into NIOH, but it has been very similar to how it was back then. I'm taking my time learning the levels, I'm working on mastering the weapons (many of which are similar to ones found in NG), and once again I'm putting my skills to the test as I take on enemy after enemy. Thanks to my knowledge of past Team Ninja games, so far things haven't been as hard as they used to be, but that's not stopping NIOH from being any less fun. Running through the stages slaughtering everything in my way feels great, and learning the best way to fight each one I encounter is something I am really enjoying. Even the annoying one hit kill grab moves from NG aren't annoying me here, and the bosses are forcing me to actually learn attack patterns -- something rarely seen now days outside of games like Monster Hunter or KT's very own Toukiden (and the Souls series of course). On top of all of that, the Ninja Gaiden like level design really helps bring the whole experience home for me, and so does seeing the return of ranged weapons like the bow and items and magic that gets mapped to shortcuts on the D-Pad. It's all so familiar to me, but at the same time it's also something completely new. To put it simply, this is the Team Ninja game I've been waiting for, and it's sure to be something I'll keep coming back to for years to come. (Not to say I'm still not hoping for a Ninja Gaiden 4.)

Looking back at all that's happened over the past 5 years, I'm happy to see at least somethings haven't changed. While NIOH is very much a new game it's own, it's the first game in a long time to bring back the same feeling I got from playing Ninja Gaiden, and I personally cannot wait to keep going with it. Team Ninja really is one of my favorite developers out there, and I hope to see more from them in the near future. (Hopefully that Dissidia game they're working on!)