Ninja Gaiden II opens with a Neo-Tokyo cinematic sequence that evokes whispers of a Far East version of Blade Runner. Retro-futuristic flying transit capsules, too far evolved to be considered flying cars, float nonchalantly through a cityscape of pagoda-topped skyscrapers. Ground floor is as distant a memory to its residents as buggy whips are to us. Intrigue, the setting fairly screams. Espionage! The complexities of a thinking man's game!
Three minutes later, it's lost any hope of such intricacies. In that time, I have already button-mashed my way into a waist-deep pile of lifeless spider-ninja torsos, with enough time left over to alphabetically sort the disembodied appendages left in my wake. I made the fatal mistake of forgetting, for a few brief, beautiful moments that the Ninja Gaiden series, no matter the promises it makes, doesn't care about my petty human desires for subtlety or depth of gameplay.
It's par for the course for Team Ninja, Tecmo's most successful in-house development studio. Former head ninja Tomonobu Itagaki has publicly eschewed deep plots and character development in favor of an all-encompassing action experience. The result is a sword that cuts both ways. While Ninja Gaiden II's combat is second to none, every other aspect of the game withers on the vine.
Let me boil the plot down for you real quick: Take the Hatfield-McCoy feud and replace the two families with demons and ninjas. Demons hate humans, and they excel at trampling their squishy parts and corrupting the earth. The Hayabusa ninja clan hates demons, and they specialize in keeping humans unsquished and making demons into piles of demon kibble. Whenever demons decide to get uppity and make a land grab, the Hayabusa Clan sends one of its own (typically, perennial protagonist Ryu) on a field trip to do some creative demonic wrist-slapping with whatever weapons happen to be lying around. That's the way the NES did it, that's the way the original Xbox did it, and, if sales numbers are any indication, it's worked out pretty well so far.
To its credit, Ninja Gaiden II's combat system shows all the benefits of being the single aspect of the game given its due by Team Ninja. Each of Ryu's arsenal of melee weapons has dozens of moves and combos, with more becoming available as each weapon grows in strength. More impressively, each weapon delivers a unique fighting style—a sword may have stronger individual strikes, but it is less defensively capable than a staff, whose damage potential in turn is more focused than a kusarigama, and so on. It makes for a refreshingly varied combat experience in an age in which the norm involves a series of planned obsolescences culminating in one end-game super-weapon.
If this doesn't sound appealing to you, don't bother, because it's all Ninja Gaiden II has going for it.
The gameplay has developers and me at an impasse. They think the whole "series of corridors broken up by waves of cannon fodder" gameplay style is still viable; I think Mario 64 killed it off 12 years ago. Meanwhile, the storyline tries to hang an action-movie plot on a football rivalry—last year's roster lost, but this year's going to be different, even though we're doing exactly the same thing. You'll do exactly the same thing, too; slicing up werewolves in the streets of Venice is functionally the same as slicing up soldiers on a flying fortress. The only thing separating the two is the series' notoriously Everest-like difficulty curve.
That wouldn't be a problem if Ninja Gaiden II was merely difficult. What differentiates it from, say, quantum physics is the pettiness with which it piles insult on injury. Not content with the difficulties of shoddy camera controls and a nonexistent lock-on system, Team Ninja decided to exploit these alleged features by putting three dozen foes in ambush around every single corner on every single map in the game.
No peeking, no counter-ambushing, and, thanks to poor map design, no finding an alternate route. Choices consist of A) running at top speed through every potential hiding spot, arms and legs flailing madly in an attempt to get off either a lucky hit or a lucky dodge; and B) alternately tapping forward and blocking while praying that the inevitable red tide of enemy attacks doesn't include a block-breaking move. Neither choice, success notwithstanding, is particularly fun to play, nor do they have the kind of style the Ninja Gaiden series aims for.
Long story short—if you took its combat system, spliced it with Assassin's Creed's movement, and threw in a little Grand Theft Auto IV for variety, you'd have something that would revive my binge-gaming days. Ninja Gaiden II is only half that, but that's okay. I've gotten used to getting a good night's sleep, anyway.