The Ninja Gaiden series is one that is an important part of gaming history. Its reputation for challenging gameplay is almost unrivalled, a precursor to the excellent Dark Souls series with its refusal to exchange quality for more accessible gameplay.
With this in mind, I was nervous about undertaking the task of completing all three games for this review but I am happy to report that not only was it more accessible than I thought it would be, but the difficulty is absolutely worth it – for three fantastic games that aren’t spoken about enough.
In the modern era, many questioned whether a series such as Ninja Gaiden is outdated, doomed to never return to its former glory. This collection proves that the series is special and I hope it is a precursor to a new entry into the series down the line.
STORY: Michael Bay meets Ninjas
I was honestly waiting for Mark Wahlberg to show up whilst playing through these games, especially the third.
In all seriousness, the narrative is serviceable, nothing special and that’s honestly okay. I didn’t want to be bogged down with an expansive story, I just wanted to wreak havoc as an all-powerful ninja trying to save the world or avenge somebody and that’s what it is.
To summarise three games worth of story, the effort is made but it never becomes anything more than giving license for Ryu to exist. Team Ninja have placed their focus on the exuberant combat and it pays off dividends. As someone who hadn’t played the series before, I was taken in almost immediately, the combat felt fantastic and at points had me smiling like an idiot.
I think the crux of my opinion of the story comes down to the opening mission of Sigma 2, in which you fight a giant buddha statue. Its existence is not explained but it makes for a hell of a set-piece. These games are full of these moments and frankly, it’d be a boring series if they weren’t.
Ryu is a serviceable protagonist, thinly characterised but seemingly universally known for his fantastical exploits. The man is a machine and everyone around him knows it. There are a number of other playable characters and they switch up the narrative nicely and the gameplay a little, but some feel like alternate skins whereas others play rather differently.
Sigma acts as a great jumping-on point for the series. Its original exclusiveness to the Playstation inhibited many from experiencing the game and so this collection being on all of the major platforms is fantastic, although I was disappointed that there was no upgrade planned for next-generation consoles. It cannot be forgotten, this is for the most part a port of three PS3 games to current consoles.
Gameplay: This is what you came for
Oh, the gameplay is simply fantastic. Each game has a truly visceral feel to its combat; every sword slash, every metal claw and even every bow shot feels amazing. I cannot emphasise enough how impressed I was with the combat. I struggled to start with and the hero mode (which is the easy mode) coasted me through until I got a handle on the combat.
I’ve never been very good at fighting games and the combos and button inputs are as long as my arm, but with patience and perseverance, I felt myself becoming better; even as I write this I’m beginning a replay of Sigma 2 on its hardest difficulty. It subtly rewards you for getting better. Many will bounce off the trilogy berating it for being hard, but if you take the time to learn the systems and especially the parry/dodge the beauty of it is clear.
Waves of enemies fall at your feet as the incredibly violent and gore-filled action takes over, the stress-relief that these games can enable is incredible. Each plays similarly, with the third being the most different, its emphasis on ranged combat with the bow felt great, to begin with, but frustrated me quickly. There were far too many ranged enemies that detrimentally interrupted the flow of combat.
The trilogy features a list of weapons that all feel great, although I’m a sucker for a classic katana, so I rarely took it off except to trial each different type. The difficulty cannot be glossed over, it’s present and it is hard especially at the beginning. The pure number of enemies can become frustrating and having a combo interrupted and then getting hit whilst trying to recover is annoying. For a hack and slash, there is a lot going on and the camera does not exactly help. Once you learn when to reposition the camera it becomes better, but even now the camera frustrates me on occasion, especially when surrounded by enemies.
In terms of bosses, I was pleasantly surprised. Whilst some are single-tone and simple, others are more intricate and detailed. Larger bosses and enemies, in general, can be frustrating, especially in dodging. That being said, the human-sized bosses are, for the most part, incredible tests of combat proficiency which I looked forward to every time. Each has so much personality and creativity spewing from them that I was surprised. Enemy variety generally is not great in these games, but the bosses were a welcome change of pace both visually and physically.
Graphics and Audio: A product of its time
Audio-wise, the trilogy is fine – nothing particularly special or noteworthy but what is there works. There were no issues of note. The soundtrack on the other hand is indeed noteworthy, fitting the gameplay like a glove. It is heavy and in your face, mirroring the combat. Whilst some tracks are certainly better than others, generally speaking again I was very impressed. The collection comes bundled with an art book and the soundtrack for the games which was a lovely touch that I appreciated.
The standard of music is fantastic and a crucial part of the experience, but I was frustrated that the game doesn’t allow for you to play Spotify on the PlayStation version whilst playing, one of only two games I know to do so (the other being Death Stranding, because of course it is). Sometimes I just wanna kill some mobs whilst listening to Dua Lipa, okay?
Unfortunately, this small gripe began my descending opinion on the state of this collection. The three games are marvelous, there should be no doubt about that – however, the collection is literally just a port to modern consoles. I’m glad the collection can finally be played by Xbox, Switch and PC players – albeit I’m informed there are major issues with the PC port.
Graphically, the games do not look great. They are a product of their time and really needed sprucing up and it is such a disappointment that this collection didn’t even get the remaster treatment that they deserved. Team Ninja have been accused of shelving this series in favour of Nioh and this does little to avail those accusations.
Even something as simple as accessibility needed to be addressed with this collection and just hasn’t. The camera and move sensitivity cannot be changed and most of the options that are there cannot be changed in-game, you have to exit to the menu. It is just these little grievances that frustrate me, as I just know the collection could’ve been special and restarted the heart of Ninja Gaiden.
Ninja Gaiden Master Collection was reviewed on PS4. Review code provided by Koei Tecmo.