Team Ninja’s games are ridiculous. These are the guys who decided in the mid-’90s that what was missing from fighting games was gravity defying boobs. Later on, they decided to do away with the fighting altogether and make Dead Or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball. These are the guys who said the biggest draw of Ninja Gaiden II was how it let you remove people’s limbs in hundreds of ways. Team Ninja are cheese peddlers first and foremost, but the first level in the 2004 release of Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox, “The Way Of The Ninja,” is a marvelous anomaly in the studio’s canon. Stripped of excess, “The Way Of The Ninja” is a thriller in miniature that teaches you how to play by telling the story of a novice warrior.
Ninja Ryu Hayabusa’s first adventure is Hitchcock by way of Bruce Lee, a slow build of tension and aggression as Ryu fights evil hordes while ascending a pagoda fortress. He doesn’t look like a badass as the game opens, what with his plush purple pajamas, sitting at the bottom of a bare, rocky ravine. This first area is designed to make you feel like a bit of an ass, as well, while you figure out how Ryu moves. He’s more fleet than the average action-game character, requiring some forward thought as you jump and climb up the rocky slope that’s the only way forward. When you push forward on the joystick, Ryu moves a little farther than you expect him to. As you jump out of the ravine, you learn to anticipate the next moment.
Make it to higher ground, and a pink flower tied to a knife flies into the wall from out of nowhere. It’s an unnerving moment even though the flower simply holds a message telling you how to move properly. Someone with a penchant for lacy weapons is watching you. That first lick of apprehension pops just a few seconds later, when you’re attacked for the first time. Two ninjas in far more intimidating jumpsuits than yours leap out from the cliff above and start slashing away. They aren’t pushovers, and if you don’t figure out how to use that sword hanging from your back—fast—you can die just moments after the game starts. These scrubs will even kick you back down to the ravine floor where you started, and finish you off down there, humiliating you in the process. The message: Be afraid, because you aren’t safe, and be aggressive to survive.
Ninja Gaiden uses that cycle of confrontation—a moment of atmospheric calm followed by a sudden, silent attack—as you climb through the ninja fortress. A room of banana-yellow sliding doors full of hidden enemies is just one of a few clichéd scenes waiting in the pagoda. There’s a hallway with a creepy old suit of samurai armor that holds a key, a dojo room with a hidden exit, and a trap door that sends you down into a bat-filled cave. You know when you walk into each new area that a murder of ninjas is going to burst out from somewhere, but you never know when.
There’s always a second when Ninja Gaiden allows you to think you’re safe, and when the next wave surprises you again, it’s always harder to overcome than the last one. Every time the cycle of surprise and release comes, Ninja Gaiden demands more deft acrobatics. If enemies surround you, you better start using that block technique you’ve been neglecting this whole time. Rather than bludgeon the player with instructions, it just plain bludgeons you until you succeed.
Naturally, there’s a boss waiting at the top of the pagoda. Gaiden lingers before this fight, letting the dread set in. The walk up takes you outside, over a bridge, with a burning sunset view of the valley accented by falling autumn leaves. When you get to the Inner Sanctum, as the game forebodingly calls it, it’s hard not to pause: Do I really want to go inside? I’m just going to go in there and get my ass kicked by something, and it’s going to be brutal. And it’s so nice out here.
The boss inside is a musclebound giant with nunchucks, and just the fact that he’s the first person you’ve seen who doesn’t hide his face is intimidating as hell—this monster has an identity. He can knock you down, punch you in the chest, and send you halfway to your death a single moment. Whittling him down takes all the skill you’ve built up during this introductory chapter, but also a degree of luck.
When you finally gain the upper hand, the fight stops. The bad ass steps back and bows. The whole thing, the pagoda and the enemies and the boss at the top, was just a training exercise for Ryu. You’ve succeeded, though. Now you’re a real ninja. Congrats. A stiff dialogue between the boss and Ryu about his family’s legacy, his training, mystical swords, and blah blah blah ensues. By the time the scene stops and the village below the pagoda is under attack by actual killer ninjas, the tension built over the course of Chapter 1 has been entirely dissipated. From here, Ninja Gaiden’s just another action game with swords.
Toward the end of Ninja Gaiden’s third level, master ninja badass Ryu Hayabusa happens upon a broken window held together with packing tape. After examining the window, we get a little text on the screen, “What a careless job! Are they trying to make fun of ninjas?” It’s a funny moment, an acknowledgement on the part of Team Ninja that their games are indeed pretty silly. By this point, Ryu’s moved from purple pajamas to a leather catsuit, and he’s fighting stormtroopers on a zeppelin—no more Hitchcock, just cheese. At least for that first 15-minute level, Team Ninja made something legitimately ferocious.