Part 27: Ninja Gaiden Vanilla
This LP has focused primarily on showing the differences between the two best versions of Ninja Gaiden, Black and Sigma. However it's still important to recognize the very first version of the game released in 2004, as even before being perfected in Black the game was critically very well received. It may be surpassed, but there's some interesting features or artifacts that make it worth checking out for curiosity's sake.
And yet, even with the 20 minutes of highlights I got from this version for the video, that still isn't enough to cover the rest of the major topics of this version, so after watching be sure to read more for interesting info pertaining to things like Team Ninja's online support (yes, online, but not multiplayer).
The Features Left Behind
While Black keeps the original game intact while adding a bunch of new stuff, there were some features or systems that were totally altered or left to the wayside. These including:
The Ninja of the Future: While Black features a ton of alternate costumes for Ryu, this one was ditched for reasons that I'm pretty sure Team Ninja at the time agreed on. Mainly it looking incredibly tacky. The only other place you'll see this outfit is in DOA2 Ultimate, a full remake of Dead or Alive 2 as part of a collection of the first two games for the OG Xbox. That version is actually where the DOA series began to incorprate whatever Ryu's current Ninja Gaiden outfit was at the time into the DOA series, so you'll see the Legendary Black Falcon, the classic Ryukenden outfit, and yes, Ninja of the Future. At least in Black the Dragon Sword gets reskinned into the Plasma Saber, but that eventually becomes its own weapon in subsequent versions, so not everything about the concept is thrown away. Just the shitty outfit.
The Armlet of Tranquillity and a Cursed Sword: A seventh armlet only available through scarab rewards, this regenerates your health by about 2 hit points per second. Of course, it's effect in combat is pretty minimal since damage can stack really fast, but outside of those instances, this can negate the need for elixers if you're that patient or don't care about getting a good time at the end of a chapter. Why does it exist then? Because of a feature pertaining to a weapon that we will see in action once Ryu's journey resumes in the main playthrough. Basically Doku's sword, the Kitetsu, had a feature where your health would be drained, at about 2 hit points per second. You can probably see now that the Armlet's primary purpose is to negate the health drain entirely. Still, at the expense of using any other armlet, it is kind of pointless, so the armlet was not only removed, but the health drain from the Kitetsu was removed as well. That said, it's other unique traits are left intact, so it still remains a pretty cool sword.
Ninja Ryukenden: Obviously Ninja Gaiden was a name familiar with many prior to this incarnation, all the way back on the NES as a trilogy, which was originally called Ninja Ryukenden in Japan (whereas the modern NG games in all territories are just called Ninja Gaiden, meaning Japan does not have to worry about confusion about who's talking about which games). During the main playthrough, you can unlock all three original games and access them from the main menu. These games are taken as they were from the SNES Trilogy release, which were at the time not majorly updated in anyway, but still play as you would expect. A nice feature that these versions have is that you can input button codes at the continue screen to access specific acts in each game. But no manual save states, not like more modern retro game rereleases tend to do.
That said, these would not be brought into Ninja Gaiden Black, as Itagaki wanted to instead include a classic Ninja Gaiden game that had not received any home version prior: The original arcade version. Although it's more of an arcade beat 'em up and not Castlevania inspired sidescroller like the NES games, and as a result I'm not nearly as fond of it. But still, it was included largely because Tecmo had never tried to bring it to home consoles in its entirety. So if you're curious to play the game (legitimately, of course), there's either hunting down an arcade machine, unlock the game in Ninja Gaiden Black, or buy it through the Wii Virtual Console.
Successive Play: Ninja Gaiden, unlike a lot of other Character Action games, tends to not allow carry over of upgrades and weapons across playthroughs. The playthroughs are clearly designed around being played and completed starting from nothing. However, the vanilla version lets you save your completed save and start at the beginning again. Most of your stuff is reset, and the difficulty can't be changed, but you retain your golden scarabs. What this means is that upon reaching the first Muramasa shop, you can get some extra elixers, upgrade items, and the Armlet of Tranquillity. Honestly, when I first heard about "successive play" I was somehow expecting a more substantial new game plus kind of setup. But this ends up feeling kinda superflous, and it being removed in Black and onward is something I don't mind. Heck, Ninja Gaiden II on the 360 brings back Successive Play in a way that feels way better designed, as you not only get all your weapons at the start, you can choose to retain your upgrades or not, at the cost of being able to post your karma score to the leaderboards.
The Master Ninja Tournament
The Original Xbox pushed online support for video games pretty hard when the system introduced Xbox Live a year in, and the service had been used in a variety of ways. Online multiplayer was obviously the big reason, while other games opted for free, bite sized bonus content or additional levels and the like. Ninja Gaiden's use of online on its surface was to provide leaderboard functionality, but the Master Ninja Tournament offered so much more during its first year. More importantly, it was lay the foundation for creating the perfected version of the game that is Ninja Gaiden Black.
Simply put, from the main menu you could access a menu option that required an Xbox Live Gamertag. At the start, this is where you could see your ranking as well as everyone else's on the leaderboard. It was also through this feature that Team Ninja held contests to see which players in the major territories (America, Europe, and Japan) could get the highest karma score. These were held in rounds, with the first one simply being who could get the best scores in the base game.
But it's what came afterward that really made the game interesting, adding more life to the product and seeing Team Ninja devote time and effort to further refining what is ultimately a single player experience, the type of game that would normally be left untouched while a proper multiplayer mode would receive this type of support. The Master Ninja Tournament would continue through two pieces of DLC Content called the Hurricane Packs.
Hurricane Pack 1: Ninja Gaiden Remix
Team Ninja's first major DLC push was to put out a harder, remixed version of the game. Now, in Ninja Gaiden Vanilla, whether or not you played on normal, hard, or very hard, the campaign stayed largely the same. Item locations and enemy placements were untouched. There was no remixing the same way that Devil May Cry did it for the action genre. Hurricane Pack 1 rectified that, introducing a ton of new enemies, weapon, item placements, and costumes that made their way into Ninja Gaiden Black on the disc. But one extra addition to this piece of content would remain exclusive to the Hurricane Packs, and unfortunately forever lost to time save for the few bastards out there that still have their saves.
The Intercept Maneuver.
Basically, if you're familiar with abilities like Royal Guard in DMC3, or Moon of Mahaa Kalah in Bayonetta, this is Ninja Gaiden's version of that, in fact predating both of them as the first Hurricane Pack released in August of 2004. Pressing Block right as an enemy hit connects will not only deflect the attack, but put Ryu in an overwhelming advantage as he can immediate go into an attack of his own. And I don't mean like the counter attack that's already in the base game, I mean you can transition straight into a regular combo. And wait, it gets better. If essence is nearby when you perform the Intercept, pressing Y will treat it like an On Landing UT in which the essence is immediately absorbed and you'll go straight into the attack. So why was it removed? If you're familiar with how the games play, you can already guess based on what I've described.
Enemies in Ninja Gaiden are at their most vulnerable when they are during an attack animation, as there's no defensive property to those animations. It's esspecially true for bosses, and if you can perfectly intercept those attacks during, say, Murai's fight, that fucker will have no chance as you hit him during recovery. Now granted, precision timing on these kind of moves still makes it hard for players to get a grasp on, but in the right hands it's a game changing move that does undo a lot of the strategy that comes from playing the game. That said, I wish I could have tried it myself and I still lament to this day not having an OG Xbox prior to the Xbox Live shutting down for that system. Would've added more to the video that I put together for this update.
Hurricane Pack 2: The Eternal Legend
A month later, the Master Ninja Tournament itself came to a head after 2 rounds that Team Ninja held a Finals Competition at the Tokyo Game Show that year, where the top scoring players from the three territories got to play an entirely new combat level by the developers, with each player competing for the title of "the One True Ninja." You can watch a summary video here where the competing finalists faced against waves of tough enemies from the first hurricane pack, along with two completely new bosses. As it turned out, this piece of content was not just going to be for the finals, but rather would be playable days later on peoples consoles.
The content from Master Ninja Tournament Finals was actually a portion of a major combat guantlet called The Eternal Legend. Completely separate from the main game, the basic plot is that Ryu must fight through waves of enemies in the fiend realm to resuce Rachel who's been imprisoned in carbonite (seriously, she's imprisoned in like a stone slab or some shit) by the Ancient Twin Fiends Nicchae and Ishtaros. Now, while Ninja Gaiden Black onward has the mission mode where fights have to be finished in one go, Eternal Legend is far different due to the length and variety of the challenge. The mode is separated into 5 rounds, and between each players can save their progress and spend essence at Muramasa's shop to upgrade the specific weapons and items of their choosing. This content at the minimum takes somewhere around 45 minutes, so the save checkpoints are quite nice to have.
Now, while it's not a total game changer like the first hurricane pack, this one still served as a nice addition as people who had likely been playing Ninja Gaiden since release had already got everything they wanted out of the campaign. Many players, myself included, tend to reach a point where the only thing left to test their skill and ability is to double down on combat and providing new challenges that push those skills further. Ultimately, this addition would serve as the basis for the Mission Mode in future versions, as it encompasses everything hardcore players want out of the game: It's strongest elements distilled to be as pure as possible.
And there's your history lesson from a guy who completely missed the opportunity to play it during its heyday. But it's still a fascinating thing to look at as far as post launch support for a game with no competitive multiplayer or other persistent online features. Now while this emphasized a lot of the stuff left out of Ninja Gaiden Black, most of it still exists in future versions and the post game updates will go into far more detail. For now, it's all about finishing the main game from here on.