With all due respect to Joe Musashi, Ryu Hayabusa is still the most iconic gaming ninja around.
As the face of Ninja Gaiden for more than 25 years, his action credentials are impeccable, which makes the idea of flipping the script and casting him as a villain in a spinoff really intriguing. In realizing that vision though, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z does practically everything wrong.
Loaded with oversaturated colors and garish cel-shading, Yaiba substitutes vulgarity for style while almost entirely ignoring substance. Its title character is a ninja who spends the bulk of his time cursing and making off-color jokes while fighting zombies -- still the video game villain du jour. His assistant Miss Monday is mainly around so that she can hunch into the camera, the better to show off her overflowing cleavage. There's a certain dumb splatterfest appeal to it all, but you can also audibly hear it straining to be a B-movie. It's the Machete Kills of video games.
Dumb as the humor might be though, the combat is exponentially worse. Clumsy and limited, it's essentially the diametric opposite of Ninja Gaiden proper. Yaiba is almost pathetically limited compared to Ryu, a fact that is evident even in the opening cutscene when he is reduced to ninja cutlets by his opposite number and ultimately rebuilt as a cyborg. Yaiba can't jump, use consumables, or lock onto foes, and his blocks are next to useless in the face of the large number of unblockable attacks, all of which serve to make one-on-one duels with powerful enemies a real nightmare.
These limitations are worsened by Yaiba's atrocious camera, which is almost always too high or too close-up. In duels, enemies inevitably get pushed off screen and become difficult to track; in large crowds, Yaiba often gets lost. The camera is fixed, so it can't be rotated or adjusted; and when combined with the lack of a lock-on mechanic, even comparatively simple acts like tossing a zombie can become a major pain. Bad cameras are almost always the kiss of death for an action game, and that is very much the case with Yaiba.
The one time these issues fall to the wayside is when Yaiba is faced with hordes of zombies. Not coincidentally, this is also the one instance in which Ninja Gaiden Z becomes sort of fun. With Yaiba's chain whip, cybernetic arm, and sword in hand, it's good fun to crush, chop up, or otherwise destroy the undead. Typically, the best way to take on a horde is to grab a zombie and start swinging it around, which can clear out a crowd in a relative hurry. It's the sort of action that Yaiba seems to be designed for, and if it had stuck with that approach, it might have been almost passable. But due to its horrible camera and various other deficiencies, the combat system really doesn't work when engaging heavier enemies, of which there are quite a few. Get anything bigger than a regular zombie on the battlefield, and the action degenerates in a hurry.
In such situations, I generally had two options. Either I could use Yaiba's very powerful super mode -- basically a "get out of jail free" card good for destroying one wave of enemies or knocking off more than half of a boss' life bar -- or I could find a way to abuse the element system. In Yaiba, many enemies are broken down into fire, electric, and poison elements that are capable of interacting with one another -- a reasonable idea that is actually implemented fairly well despite being limited in its scope. Whenever an electric zombie appeared on the field with a fire zombie, I could always breathe a small sigh of relief because I knew their powers would inevitably combine to create an electrical firestorm that destroyed everything on the field. Elements also bring a tiny bit of depth to the various weapons that can be collected from larger enemies, adding a rock-paper-scissors component to fighting some enemies.
Where the elemental system falls down is in the numerous puzzles scattered between encounters, most of which boil down to tossing a zombie into an indicated object. There are times when it's a little more elaborate than that -- sometimes I have to toss multiple zombies in a sequence -- but the gist is always the same. Such puzzles are numerous in Yaiba and soon become rote, making the elements less of a good idea and more of a gimmick. Like Ninja Gaiden Z itself, it's just a bit too one-dimensional.
There are a few other good ideas here and there in Ninja Gaiden Z. The branching perk system is fairly extensive and covers everything from the super mode to Yaiba's simple combo system, though the enjoyment of unlocking new perks is tempered by the fact that it's possible to get pretty much every ability by the end of the game. And as is par for the course with most action games these days, there are plenty of collectibles to find including health boosts and elemental resistances, which serves to improve Ninja Gaiden Z's replayability just a bit.
But for every one thing that it does right, it does about ten things wrong, and the awful camera casts a shadow over everything. It all comes to a head around Mission 5, which forced me to contend with everything that is wrong with Yaiba -- the camera, the lack of a lock-on system, the irritating checkpoints that always start a bit too far back, the weird blocking, and everything else. It all put me at such a disadvantage that I basically had to play perfectly to win, and even then, I mostly had to get lucky. My friends, that is not how you design an action game.
What's really amazing is just how much Yaiba is the polar opposite of Ninja Gaiden proper. In every way that the main series is elegant and precise, Ninja Gaiden Z is clumsy and ridiculous. In other words, whether it means to or not, it has much in common with its title character. There's a germ of a good idea here, but ultimately its lost in a mess of garish colors, vulgar jokes, and really awful design. Ultimately, the legend of Ryu Hayabusa will live on, but Yaiba's story is best forgotten.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: At first blush, the cel-shading isn't too bad despite its oversaturated colors. Take a closer look though, and it becomes apparent that Yaiba's graphics just aren't that good. Character models are supremely simple and animation is surprisingly limited, the latter of which is a pretty big negative for an action game.
- Sound: A great soundtrack wouldn't have saved Ninja Gaiden Z, but it might have helped. Unfortunately, Yaiba's music is a forgettable electronic drone.
- Interface: The timing on blocks and counters is way off. Otherwise, the controls are mostly adequate save for a couple instances when the button for latching onto a wall simply wouldn't work.
- Lasting Appeal: To the extent that you would want to replay Ninja Gaiden Z, it has multiple collectibles to find as well as a fairly in-depth ranking system for each enemy wave. Yaiba also has an unlockable "classic mode" in the vein of the original 8-bit Ninja Gaiden that is a reasonably fun novelty.
Though it does a handful of things right, Ninja Gaiden Z is overshadowed by a litany of awful design decisions. There's just no getting around the fact that it's a wretchedly bad action game. Even the most dedicated Ninja Gaiden fans should avoid this one.