Ninja Gaiden is regarded as one of the most finely crafted action games of the last decade, and its reputation is not without merit. Sitting high atop the Metacritic rankings, it is critically acclaimed for its deep combat system comprised of a variety of weapons and techniques to master, coupled with a ferocious difficulty level and competitive scoring. Among the action game community, it has become the centrepiece in its genre alongside the likes of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta.
Originally released in 2004 for the Xbox, the first iteration of Ninja Gaiden was a highly successful 3D reboot of the old NES series of the same name, which has received several upgraded releases over the years in the form of Ninja Gaiden Black for Xbox, and a more significant enhanced port to the PlayStation 3 called Ninja Gaiden Sigma. With the launch of the PlayStation Vita, developer Team Ninja have seen an opportunity to once again re-release the Sigma version of the game onto the new handheld. At first glance it seems like the ultimate melding of a classic game with new cutting-edge technology, but sadly this port is not without its share of problems.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus plays exactly the same as the Sigma iteration which it is based on – everything featured in Sigma, including all its added content such as extra bosses, weapons and game mechanics, are accounted for in Sigma Plus. There are no levels cut from the lengthy story and all the bonus missions are included as the cherry on top. It always was a neat little package for a single player game, and now it is available in its entirety on the go.
However, while the near perfection of the core Ninja Gaiden gameplay remains unchanged, the controls feel slightly unwieldy in Sigma Plus, like a strange mix of delayed response times due to the game running in 30 frames-per-second, and over-sensitivity due to the Vita’s tiny analog sticks. It feels troublesome just to move Ryu around the level, and it’s exacerbated by camera functionality which has always been passable at best throughout the series. All the issues the camera previously had with manoeuvring through tight spaces and keeping enemies in view have sadly been inherited from its console brother, and are made more disorientating than ever on a portable screen.
Sigma’s problems with the secondary character, Rachel, due to her strange ballet-like fighting style and retreads of the same levels, have also been translated to Plus – these sections continue to kill the game’s pacing so much that it makes you yearn for a Rachel-free port of Ninja Gaiden Black instead, so perhaps having no content cut from the game is actually a negative in this instance. The implementation of touch screen magic attacks and gyroscopic archery in Sigma Plus are, as you would expect, even more pointlessly distracting. Make no mistake, some of the gameplay additions introduced in Sigma such as the quick item select and the twin swords are appreciated, but by and large Sigma was a case study for more content not necessarily making a game better.
Visually Sigma Plus is a mixture of impressive graphics with disappointing performance. Comparing it to Sigma on a PS3, it manages to look like the same game shrunken down on that gorgeous screen, which is quite the feat in itself. Compared with many games for the Vita which aren’t even running in the device’s native 960*544 resolution, Sigma Plus stands out with pin-sharp, anti-aliased visuals which frequently stun with its marriage of rich colour and fine detail. That being said, the trade-off for such visuals is lower performance – framerate has been halved from the original game’s 60 frames-per-second. Although there are many arguments in the gaming world for a prettier 30fps game being preferable to an uglier 60fps game, a fast-paced and precise action game like Ninja Gaiden is not one of them. Responsiveness, the most important aspect for NG gameplay to flow like it does, inevitably takes a hit in Sigma Plus.
Another downside is that Sigma Plus does not take much advantage of the Vita’s large cartridge capacity, so some sound effects are lower quality due to compression. It’s also worth noting that the Japanese dub is now missing in the EU PSN version tested. While many players will probably not care (and deride those who do as Japanophiles), it really does come down to an incomprehensible but appropriate language being slightly less irritating than hammy English acting.
With the same brilliant Ninja Gaiden experience lying beneath performance and control issues, how much satisfaction you get out of Plus depends entirely on how well you can adapt to its shortcomings. It is possible to eventually get used to the sluggish controls after adjusting to the different timings of the combos in 30fps, and by gaining a new-found appreciation for the quick-center camera trigger, but it never manages to replicate that flawless feeling which 60fps offers and as a result rarely manages to evoke the same combat highs that fans fell in love with.
Granted it’s not a total disaster – there is still fun to be had with the game even if Ryu cannot be as graceful as you want him to be. The saviour of Sigma Plus is definitely the fact that the underlying original game is so strong. The addition of trophies adds some worthwhile incentive, creating something for fans of the series to work on while waiting for a bus (or wherever else a portable game takes them). The aforementioned inclusion of the bonus missions is also ideal for these situations because their short 5-10 minute bursts of gameplay compliment the portability perfectly. In fact, perhaps a ‘greatest hits’ game dedicated to putting all of the series’ missions onto the one cart (with a 60fps rough and ready port of Black on the side) would have been preferable.
Compromised on a technical level, Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus is not as polished of a port as it deserved to be (and probably could have been if the publisher was not so adamant about shipping the game in time for the Vita’s launch). Some solace is taken in the fact that, at the very least, we finally have a workable version of a 3D Ninja Gaiden game running in the palm of our hands, but it still leaves you feeling let down by the whole sloppy affair.
It’s difficult to say exactly who should buy this game. Many of the flaws of Sigma Plus would go unnoticed by a first-time player and they would end up playing a stellar game. But to recommend this particular version over the full Sigma experience on PS3 in 60fps and HD, or even the purist option of Ninja Gaiden Black on Xbox Originals, would be a disservice to the series. Fans will enjoy Sigma Plus even less than a first timer will, but with some adjustment could eventually appreciate its portability. Either way, nobody should be paying full price for Sigma Plus, so the bottom line is wait for a price cut or rent it. After this lacklustre release and the very poorly received third game, the fall from grace for the series is saddening.