Chances are that even if you don’t know much about Ninja Gaiden, you’re at the very least aware that it’s a series synonymous with high difficulty. When the original hit the NES back in 1989, we have to imagine it lead to the demise of many controllers – we vividly recall rage-quitting on at least an occasion or two – and the sequel, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, would prove no less challenging when it released a year later. Now that it has made its way to the 3DS Virtual Console, should you put your expensive portable console at risk to maniacally slash through this nin-venture, or are you best off losing Ninja Gaiden II to the shadows?
The story begins with beautiful cut-scenes that feature fantastically detailed artwork; especially considering the era when the game was released. To get things in motion, Ryu Hayabusa is informed that love interest Irene has been captured and he must head to the Tower of Lahja to save her. The presence of a story in this impressive capacity gives you that extra motivation to push through the hardest of levels; it’s truly a reward of sorts, even in today’s world of cinematic-heavy fare. Pleasant visuals become a trend once the game commences, as anyone who has played the original Ninja Gaiden should immediately take notice to how much smoother and more refined the graphics are this time around.
One of the minor complaints regarding controls from the series’ first instalment has been fixed, and even built upon a bit. Instead of the restrictions while wall-jumping, you can now not only cling to walls like before, but also climb them upwards and downwards, alleviating many often unfair complications. This mechanic isn’t as smooth as it could have been, but it’s more satisfying and generous this time around. Basic movements such as jumping and sword attacks are still here and solid, and pressing up and the attack button will allow you to use special weapons that become very helpful for those seemingly out-of-reach or dangerously-placed enemies. It’s still surprising after all these years how you really do feel swift as a ninja as you traverse the intricacies of the terrain while laying your foes to rest.
However, one thing that we feel is a tad bothersome is not being able to change direction once in the air, which can lead to a handful of heart-crushing situations. Take level 2-2 for example; here you’re introduced to a new gameplay dynamic in the form of shifting winds that affect the movement of Ryu. Instead of platforming around at a brisk speed, you’re forced to slow down and time your next jump – or any movement – with the pattern of the wind. Initially, this is a nice shake-up, but once respawning enemies, projectiles, narrow pathways and swift combat come into play, it can quickly become a maddening affair. Take one wrong hit — which propels you backwards with momentum and occasionally right off the edge of a cliff – and you’re surely going to apply pressure to the beautiful chunk of technology nestled between your sweaty mitts.
These frustrations aren’t major, but they’re frustrations nonetheless, and are present in a game that already offers up a mightly steep challenge. Thankfully, like any other Virtual Console release, the restore-points allow you to boot the game down and recover your progression at any point. This feature means so much more in a game of this difficulty, and works in harmony with unlimited lives. So even if you get hung up, there’s no issue with taking a break and resetting your emotions before getting back to it; a luxury that wasn’t possible in the days of the NES. The transition to the 3DS isn’t all good though, as it’s worth mentioning the discomfort of using the systems low-placed D-pad for extended periods of time. We attempted to give the circle pad a shot, but it didn’t offer the same high level of precision the gameplay requires. We know this isn’t hardware review, but for some reason the demand on your thumb, unique to this game, made the experience much more uncomfortable than other games that beckon to be played with the D-pad. We aren't holding this against Ninja Gaiden II — we're merely expressing our concern.
The level design is assuredly well-thought out this time around, featuring a mix of side-scrolling and verticality which injects a nice sense of scale and makes the environments more pleasant to traverse. Memorable moments are sprinkled throughout the journey, keeping things fresh and rewarding, and even the sound is fitting and fun, with tunes that will bounce around your head long after you’ve closed your 3DS and ventured back into the real world. Ninja Gaiden II is a good game that’s almost a bit too ambitious for the limitations of its time, but somehow it prevails through adversity and offers up an exciting adventure. If you’re going to cozy up with this one, make sure you’re ready for the hefty challenge and a few cheap deaths; there’s a ton of fun to be had here as long as you’ve done the necessary mental prep going in.
Ninja Gaiden II sneaks onto the 3DS Virtual Console in an honorable fashion, but considering the nimble reflexes needed to survive its hardships, the placement of the D-pad on the handheld might lead to some serious hand cramping. We aren’t holding this against the game, necessarily; it’s just something that you might want to be aware of before diving in. Everything you remember is here intact, so if you just want more Ninja Gaiden on the go, then you can’t go wrong. Newcomers may want to be wary, though, as there is often a wicked challenge on show that will demand patience, practice and perseverance. Don't expect this Ninja to hold your hand...it's tough love all round.