The Genius of Ninja Gaiden II

There is a lot of hate in this industry–specifically the videogame review business. In fact, we had the GamerNode staff mathematician crunch the numbers, and we discovered that videogame critics are responsible, in some capacity, for nearly 65% of hate worldwide. (The other 35% is divided pretty evenly between the Ku Klux Klan, Neo Nazis, and the wrath every man, woman, and child feels towards Jack Thompson.)

Each time we do this feature, we will select a new game and talk about which of its aspects are truly brilliant. The philosophy here will be to admire the part in spite of–or right along with–the whole.

The point of this feature, which hopefully you’ll be seeing on a somewhat regular basis, is to counteract cynicism, sarcasm, pessimism, contempt, disdain, mockery, scorn, and derision wherever it is found within gaming criticism. These will be articles about what makes great games amazing, and what makes bad games not so bad after all.

Ninja Gaiden II

To start with, Ninja Gaiden II is quite possibly the most impressive game ever created if you only play/see it for 2 minutes. Without even trying, heads start flying all over the joint and elaborate finishing moves are conducted without even knowing that you actually did anything. In short, Ninja Gaiden II succeeds where the first games fails. It makes you feel like a badass ninja right from the outset, rather than viciously punishing you for the first 5 hours.

A long held adage in game design preaches that a game’s controls should be easy to learn, but difficult to master. Ninja Gaiden II could be the poster-child for this saying. This is a fantastic quality of NGII’s design, but it isn’t genius.

What is genius about NGII, then? The game’s philosophy on the juxtaposition of Health distribution and combat. Now, that’s really just a fancy way of saying, "how the game handles giving you health power-ups."

The big craze in game design these days is to copy the Halo 2/Call of Duty 2 method of health regeneration. The concept is simple; the player finds a safe corner and hides for a little while until his health regenerates. Now, anybody who knows anything about Tomonobu Itagaki knows that this simply is not an option for his game. He is the type of game designer who badgers the player if they can’t master the skills necessary to get through his game. Throughout all of the Ninja Gaiden series there’s a pervasive sense of "It’s not my fault if you suck," in the game design. **


Ninja Gaiden II


The only way to regain health in NGII is through the defeat of enemies. Instead of rewarding cowardice and retreat, NGII rewards bravery and skill.

Not every enemy drops a health power-up though, and here is where the true mastery of game design is displayed. The odds of a health power-up are markedly and obviously far greater when the player is low on health and at the end of the battle. The idea behind this is to wear down the player’s health in the beginning of the battle by giving out very few opportunities for health recharge so as to make every encounter a thrilling brush with death. Every enemy encounter brings you to the brink of destruction and then forces you to think and strategize every kill, one at a time, just to get out alive.

In practice it’s not entirely unlike the way Street Fighter II handled its difficulty. In SFII, the challenge would ramp up if the player won the first round of the match, making the second fight far more challenging and increasing the likelihood that the bout would proceed into a climatic and dramatic round three. The execution is obviously different, but the philosophy is the same: ramp up the difficulty to increase the odds that the game will end up in a climactic and thrilling conclusion.

There are a lot of things that Ninja Gaiden II does right; Tomonobu Itagaki is a fantastically capable game designer. I think videogames as a whole would be a lot better off if games were designed with this principle in mind, because games that require you to sneak away and hide for a while to regain health are unnecessarily hobbling themselves with a flawed gameplay mechanic.

**For example: in Ninja Gaiden Black, the player is initially forced to begin the game on Normal or Hard difficulties. They are only given the option to go to an easier difficulty if they die many times in rapid succession. And even then, the player is forced to concede defeat and accept playing on "Ninja Dog Mode."


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Author: Andy Groen View all posts by

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