Review: Ninja Gaiden Master Collection

9 Jun 2021

If you’re anything like me, you’ve always looked at bone-crushingly hard games with equal parts respect and abject fear. From the NES days to now, we’ve always had that one game that other gamers point to as the pinnacle of difficulty. For some it’s the Souls franchise. Others point to the usual suspects like Contra, Cuphead, and Ikaruga. No matter what you consider to be the standard bearer of difficult games, bringing up the exploits of one Ryu Hayabusa is usually going to enter the conversation in one way or another. It really doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the NES trilogy or Reboot trilogy, it’s almost a given that difficulty will come up in the conversation naturally.

Unsurprisingly, fans of the Reboot trilogy have been hoping to see these games come to modern platforms. While the games in this collection were stretched across three console generations in its initial run, any sort of port to modern platforms always elicits confidence in the property and gives gamers old and new a chance to show more support to a franchise they love. In the case of this compilation, all three titles included can be regarded by most as the most complete version of each entry.

Since this will be a review of these three titles, I’m going to adopt a more compact version of the usual review format seen here for each game. Because of that, each game will have its own section dedicated to it. However, there are similarities unique to this compilation that are worth mentioning here for the sake of brevity in the actual review. Since we’re dealing with straight ports of each game from their original release, they’ve all been given the upscale treatment and will at bare minimum run at 60FPS depending on your hardware situation. Owning a next generation or mid-generation refresh console like the PS5 or PS4 Pro will give you the option for 4K resolution, as will capable PC hardware. Because of the aforementioned bone-crushing difficulty, all titles also feature a very casual friendly Hero mode for those who would much rather experience the story and not beat their heads up against the wall just trying to advance further in the game.

With that out of the way, it’s time for us to venture into Hayabusa Village and hack and slash to the best of our ability. Developed by Team Ninja and published by Koei Tecmo, Ninja Gaiden Master Collection will be available on June 10th on prior generation PlayStation and Xbox consoles (PS4/XB1, playable on PS5/Xbox Series X|S), Switch, and PC (Steam). The Steam versions of each game were played for this review.

(Re?)Return of the Super Ninja (Ninja Gaiden Sigma)

Deep in the secluded wilderness of the Hayabusa Village lies a dark weapon known as the Dark Dragon Blade. Generation after generation kept it under protective watch seemingly unaware of its true power. Though it doesn’t take long upon firing up the opening moments of Ninja Gaiden that everything starts to go south for the Hayabusa Ninja Clan and the namesake’s young ninja to find said village under siege in search of said weapon. Alerted by the kunoichi Ayane after a spar with his master, Ryu slices his way to the source of this violence only to find the Greater Fiend Doku wielding the very blade he swore to protect. Quickly outclassed, he sets his sights squarely on Doku and the destruction of the weapon with the Dragon Sword he wields.

What follows is a somewhat simplistic story of redemption and revenge, but it fits the energy that surrounds it. This isn’t a game that wants to tell a layered story, but rather present something that lines up with the gameplay. In a way, some might draw some comparisons from its NES originals in the way they use a “less is more” approach with surprising effectiveness. While it won’t win any awards for any level of depth and subtlety, it still manages to throw some twists your way. Compared to the games that came out when it initially released, the plot does have some things going for it in terms of spectacle. Though when it comes to a story, sometimes you just want a quick hit situation that will suffice when you seek that energy out. With this specific Sigma release, you will play through chapters featuring Rachel. She’s introduced in the story naturally, but does serve as a way to pepper some highlights in the main plot.

One of the advantages of a straight port, at least when it comes to well regarded title like this one, is that the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach does apply here. Certain fans of Ninja Gaiden Black, the even harder version of the original, might balk at the fact that they can’t push themselves to the absolute limit difficulty-wise. But make no mistake, this is still Ninja Gaiden.

The difficulty is still head and shoulders over the vast majority of titles available today, and it’s not afraid to let you know that you better get your skills up. Though the aforementioned Hero difficulty serves as a bit of a casual “training wheels” mode. Being able to auto-guard and use Ninpo techniques endlessly near death is a nice concession for those who balk at how hard these games are. Compared to any difficulty above it, it’s absolutely a breeze in comparison. But even total beginners would consider it no slouch. Save points are not extremely scarce, but also not abundant. It’s worth mentioning this because finding yourself re-traversing from these points after each death is common, and those used to the absolute dearth of autosaves will find themselves having to cope with this system. Consumables are able to be used without pausing the game, so that helps.

Generally speaking, the flow of natural play will have you moving between combat encounter to combat encounter exploring the environment for various tasks. If you’re not going toe to toe with various manner of foes and obtaining their Essence after they’re defeated, you’re solving semi-simplistic puzzles to move forward. However, if you’re looking to expand your arsenal, it’s absolutely essential that you go off the beaten path to find these weapons. The level design isn’t overtly obtuse enough to throw you off, but it’s not going to drop it in front of you either. This does extend to certain heath and combat consumables as well, though these can also be purchased through Muramasa’s shop stands strewn about each chapter. Thankfully, these are placed well enough that you can use the Essence you’ve gained to purchase consumables and buff the weapons in your possession. Competence in combat will mean that Essence will come easier to you. So it goes without saying that “git gud” is a baseline statement here.

Regardless of whether or not you’re using the fast Ryu or the tank-like Rachel, it’s essential you learn how to plan your combat effectively to move forward. Using guards, dodges, Ninpo, heavy/light attacks, ranged attacks, and charge moves in a way that keeps the heat off you is basically a requirement to getting through each encounter. Make no mistake, this game lets you know that it’s not messing around. So quick reflexes, fast planning, and not mindlessly mashing attacks out are important for victory. It’s nice to see that this gameplay is still as solid as ever, but the concessions made for casual fans are nice as well. Throw in extra modes like Ninja Trials and a pretty bog standard Survival Mode, and the content here is a nice package overall.

Visually speaking, it still looks like an Original Xbox title. Not that it’s anything awful to look at these days, but this was the kind of game that was impressing folks with the smooth framerate and detailed visuals for the time it was released. Sure, Sigma is a port of a PS3 game that itself uprezzed the game to 1080p. But even then, this game was more of a gameplay concession feature add than an out and out visual overhaul. Because of that, this port may not stand out extremely on a 4K display with the appropriate hardware. But the smooth framerate generally makes up for that. It wasn’t often that I was running into frame dips and the like. The textures may not be super smooth, but it doesn’t look like someone’s first project in Unity either. It’s aged surprisingly well all things considered. However, some of the pre-rendered cutscenes seen throughout have not aged all that well in comparison with the in-game visuals. Sometimes it comes off looking like it’s almost 240p, and that’s not going to look good on a 4K display.

Sound-wise, it’s fine. The soundtrack is a nice mix of stuff you’d expect from ninja-type games, mixed with a healthy dose of butt rock at points. While I know it’s a bit sacrilegious to say that it didn’t quite grip me in the way other game soundtracks might, it’s indicative of its time and isn’t especially egregious to listen to. Voice acting may have the air of what some would consider the level of ’80s kung fu movies, but it’s delivered with the air of seriousness some would expect from a game like this. Compared to later games in the series, this is actually a welcome tone in comparison.

Overall, what else can I say about a game that’s still held in high regard today? It’s still a damned good game to play through, it’s still hard as hell (most of the time), and the presentation still holds up (for the most part). Really, if you find yourself picking up the collection for this game alone it’d be money well spent. Obviously the strongest game in the trilogy, and I feel like I’m not too off base in saying as much.

More Slicing, More Action, More Ryu (Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2)

Usually when I think of the tone and plot of a Ninja Gaiden game, the first thing I think of tends to fall into the category of “master ninja faces a serious evil with a tone to match.” In the case of this game’s predecessor, the descriptor felt apt. While II/Sigma 2 marked a shift away from that particular tone in the series, it still handled itself in a manner befitting the previously set tone…for the most part.

Set a year after the events of the first game, CIA Agent Sonia is in search of Ryu in Tokyo. Stumbling upon the recently opened shop operated by Muramasa, she inquires his whereabouts and finds herself kidnapped by the Black Spider Clan. Being the rival clan from the prior game, it comes as no surprise that Ryu emerges to come rescue her. While unsuccessful in doing so initially, he learns that the Hayabusa Village is once again under attack. Instead of a demonic blade, the Black Spiders are in search of a statue that will aid in resurrecting the Archfiend.

After some drama in the village, what follows for a fair chunk of the game involves Ryu traveling to various global locales in pursuit of this statue and encountering three Greater Fiends along the way. While I don’t want to give too much of the story away, most cutscenes tend to highlight more of the action that tends to lack the overtly serious tone seen in the previous game. Much like Sigma, Sigma 2 does offer the chance for the player to engage in some story bits that expand the greater plot. Instead of just Rachel, the shrine maiden Momiji and Ayane also have playable chapters throughout. While brief, the expansion of the story could be a welcome break for some. Regardless, I found myself enjoying what unfolded despite being a little less serious than its predecessor.

Gameplay-wise, the name of the game was definitely “streamlining.” One thing that fans of the first game will notice right away is the lack of exploration seen from there. This isn’t quite on the level of Final Fantasy XIII‘s “go forward in a narrow corridor” levels of linearity, but the focus on combat over exploration is definitely noticed here. You’re still using your ninja platforming tools and series of melee and ranged attacks to move from one encounter to the next, but here it feels more like a means to an end than it is something that you can use to enhance the experience.

The concessions may be a bit of a sticking point for some. Save points are a bit more abundant and quick, and do heal you fully on an initial save. While the game still bears the level of difficulty seen previously, some may welcome the chance to take a breather in this way. The same techniques employed previously will help you win the day against the usual odds. The Hero mode concessions from Sigma make a return here, which does help open the game to more casual players. While not as threatening as it was in Sigma, having that option here is welcome for those who just want to sink their teeth into the experience without losing their minds. Having a button showing you where to go may irk some as well.

New to this title is the addition of fast weapon switching on top of the previously established consumable switching as well. One big difference here is that the action pauses to give you a chance to switch/use what you want and get right back to slicing when you’re done. Which is good because the weapon selection seen in Gaiden returns here and is expanded upon. Having the chance to not have to hit the pause screen to swap weapons like this is a welcome addition given how many they throw at you here. Ninpo is adjusted a little bit here, though the perspective and execution will change depending on which one you’re using.

Included are a couple of extra modes that are pretty decent value adds. Chapter Challenge is a score-based mode that is exactly what it says it is. Get to slicing and get graded on your performance. Pretty simple, pretty fun if you’re up for pushing those skills for that high rank. Ninja Race has you going through select stages on a countdown, defeating foes to gain time pickups to keep yourself going. It’s a fun distraction, to say the least. Included costumes are able to be selected before each story chapter or included mode, which is nice to have as well.

Overall, the action is still as competent as ever and some of the things seen in Gaiden (weapon buffing through essence, etc) do make their way back here. Despite the streamlining of the level design and other elements, Sigma 2 still feels like a continuation of the playstyle seen from what came before. This is good, because the formula of “explore, hack, slash, and buff” still works here. So getting into this game isn’t much of a stretch compared to what came before it.

Visually, it does reek of being from the generation it spawned from (X360/PS3). Not that that could be considered a bad thing, because many of the visuals seen here are still pretty striking even 12-to-13 years later (that honestly hurt to type). The fast and fluid motion seen previously still pops today. The big sticking point for some fans would be the gore level being severely reduced in the Sigma version of this game. The 360 version featured quite a bit of it, and some found the stylistic choice of scaling that back in the PS3 version to be a bit of a controversial move. In execution, however, seeing various limbs and such glow bright blue definitely seemed to blend in more with the overall visual style anyway. Bloom and all. Personally, I don’t find myself needing gore in games to enjoy myself while playing, but some may still take issue with this omission

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the soundtrack and sound design here, though I also find myself not seeking out anything about it either. Though the music does tend to fit the mood and tone that’s been set overall. Sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it gets intense, but it generally hits the marks it’s going for. Sometimes the voice acting can get a little hammy at points, the execution occasionally leans into that at times. But it’s not the worst I’ve heard either. Combat doesn’t exactly lend itself to repeated lines, and it’s just a generally decent experience there.

While some of the elements seen in its predecessor have been omitted for the sake of brevity, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 still carries the torch of what came before it close at hand. It’s still a solid and strong game to play given that fact, but those expecting a pure experience here might leave a little burned. Definitely not the strongest game in this pack, but still worth giving a shot overall. Getting to unsheath the Dragon Blade again here feels rather satisfying.

Shinobi (Drastically) Changed (Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge)

Finally, we come to what many consider the most controversial entry in the compilation. The tone seen in Sigma 2 at least attempts to revere what came before it, but Ninja Gaiden 3 barges in the door ready to make as much noise as it possibly can. Really, the best way to quickly describe this game to someone would be, “It’s loud, it’s obnoxious, and it probably crushed a couple of empty PBR cans on its forehead before it walked in here.” Compared to the prior two titles, which did at least attempt to keep the tone serious-ish with what they were working with, they really leaned into the “badass ninja doing badass ninja shit” angle here.

Opening in Hayabusa Village, Ryu is approached by representatives of the Japanese Self Defence Force. They inform him that the Regent of the Mask, the leader of a terrorist organization, is demanding that Ryu personally meet with him in London lest the worst may happen. Upon arriving there, Ryu cuts his way through military equipment and various other mercenaries before eventually encountering this mysterious foe. In the middle of their encounter, the Regent essentially curses the Dragon Sword with the “Grip of Murder” and merges the now tainted blade directly into Ryu’s right arm. Left untreated, it will fully consume his body and eventually take his life. The angle with this curse is that the Regent wanted to make sure Ryu feels the pain of those he cut down in his past endeavors.

Much of the plot here revolves around Ryu not only encountering and cutting down a great many foes, but also finding a way to rid himself of the curse placed on him. The Regent is a constant thorn in Ryu’s side, but the Black Spiders are still around causing him trouble as well. While the story here is competent and the extra chapters featuring Ayane are fine, sometimes it just feels like I’m reading a teen fanfiction starring Ryu. While the occasional ridiculousness from prior games were present, here the plot just feels flat out wacky in comparison. It would be different if the games started out this ridiculous and we knew what to expect by then. But that’s not the case. Some might draw comparisons to the tone shift in DMC: Devil May Cry, or if Bayonetta somehow shifted from badass super witch to a super serious Snape-like character. It’s whiplash inducing, to say the least.

The core hack-and-slash gameplay is still present and accounted for, but the similarities past that and Ninpo execution are about the best we get here. New to the party in combat is a smattering of quick time events, something not seen in prior titles at all. Again, this in and of itself is not a bad thing. It just doesn’t scream “this fits in with the gameplay we’re used to” either. If you’re not using them for the brutal Steel on Bone attacks, you’re using them to scale walls with your kunai weaponry. It just feels out of place, and the attempts to appeal to an even wider audience is on full display here.

That isn’t to say that the fan backlash from the initial release wasn’t taken to heart. Hardcore fans lamented the lack of difficulty in the PS3/360 versions of this game, and Team Ninja took that advice to heart pretty handily with the Razor’s Edge re-release. Though the increased difficulty does not change the fact that the gameplay is extremely streamlined in comparison to Sigma and Sigma 2. Because of that, the linearity is pretty exacerbated here. What ends up tweaking me the most is just how repetitive it can be at times. In prior titles, you really needed to think on your feet and strategize more than you do here. While you can’t exactly rest on your laurels either, the repetition can and will get to you eventually.

If this game wasn’t bearing the Ninja Gaiden name, I’d say that it’s a pretty competent hack-and-slasher that can get a little repetitive at times peppered in with some arbitrary QTEs. But because this is a sequel to one of the most highly regarded franchises in gaming, I can’t say that it holds a candle in comparison to its forebears. The gameplay is an improvement over its initial release, yes. But even with the extra modes, it just doesn’t feel like it has the heart that people have come to expect from this franchise. It’s all flash and spectacle, and it’s honestly a bit disappointing.

Graphical presentation is on par with 2. But given that the port initially came out on Wii U and eventually the then-current generation consoles, it definitely looks the part. The aforementioned flash and style is almost always on display here, and it isn’t always endearing. Some could squint their eyes and pretend they’re playing a Devil May Cry game if they really wanted to, because that energy is kinda felt on many levels here and it just feels weird to even make that comparison at all. The consistently smooth framerate is nice, but the overall art direction is just off a little bit for me. Like it has the budget of a AAA game and somehow cranked out something that looks like it came out of a 3D modeling class final exam.

The sound design is definitely laying on on the flash and “look at me I’m hardcore” angle of the whole package as well. The music is aggressive and obnoxious, and it’s pretty constant throughout the game. Yes, the crunchy guitar work has precedent within the series. But the amount of it here still feels like it’s trying too hard to be as hardcore as absolutely possible. Combat dialogue backs this up as well. Each encounter with mercenaries and such are often peppered with copious screaming and liberal use of “colorful metaphors” over and over again. Mind you, I’m not the kind of guy that minds a bit of coarse language in my games. But here, it just doesn’t feel right. Every time I heard it, I found myself rolling my eyes and wishing that the guys in the booth had more lines to scream into the mic.

While this is definitely the low point in the collection, it’s still a competent game. It’s repetitive, it can be banal at times, and the overt obnoxiousness of it all can and did get on my nerves. But if I had to choose a version of this game to put in a compilation such as this, going for Razor’s Edge is about the best experience you’re gonna get from this specific game despite all its shortcomings.

Ninja Skyscraper Kids

Anytime I find myself diving into a re-release of a game or compilation of them, I always have to keep in mind that bringing them into modern times isn’t like upscaling a classic movie into a format that didn’t exist when it was filmed. Much of the time bringing it up to modern standards and visual fidelity can be quite the challenge. That’s not even considering the fact that sometimes just bringing a straight port of a game can be a mountain of difficulty. Regardless, I’m just happy to see that Team Ninja felt the need to bring the exploits of Ryu Hayabusa to a new audience for better or for worse.

Still sporting tough as nails gameplay and brimming with the fast-paced ninja action the series is known for, picking up the Ninja Gaiden Ultimate Collection is a safe recommendation based on the strength of the first two titles alone. Ninja Gaiden 3 may still be the low point in this trilogy, but that shouldn’t deter those new to the series to give Sigma and Sigma 2 a fair shake. Both of those games still withstand the test of time, and in the case of the Switch version is something fun to play portably as well. In the grand scheme of remakes and ports, you could do a lot worse than these three games. If Team Ninja finally decides to work on a fourth entry in the series, I’m hoping those who end up devouring this collection will be well rewarded.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Koei Tecmo.