17 March 2017

Ninja Gaiden Sigma & Sigma Plus

In June 2007 the Playstation 3, one generation later than planned, received it’s own version of the original Ninja Gaiden, subtitled with Sigma.
The name of Sigma () can be interpreted in a few ways. By definition it means the summation of an equation; a statement that this game holds all the lessons learned from the previous versions and that they are now put together in one final game. This can also be taken to a personal level as the new director Yosuke Hayashi is at the helm this time, being a former apprentice of Tomonobu Itagaki; all his lessons learned from his master are on display in this game.

So far Hayashi had mostly worked behind the curtains, his biggest team effort with Itagaki being on the Ninja Gaiden game for the Nintendo DS; Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword.
As a child he would play videogames himself and one of his favorite moments were the credits. He hoped, and imagined, that one day his name would be among them. When asked about his inspirations he immediately points out Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo fame. But it’s important to note that this is probably in the sense of motivation to pursue the craft, not inspiration in their vision on the art-form. Instead of Miyamoto as his teacher, he had Itagaki watching over him.
Relationships between student and master are very complex, especially in the arts. Going back to the art renaissance in Italy (around the year 1440) students of the paints would often mix the oils for their masters for over ten years and only then, by exception, be allowed to paint one branch or shadow in their tutor’s work. It wasn’t until the master felt comfortable with the skills his student that he’d set them free, but they would always remain of stern judgment. The student was a reflection of the master; if he did bad the master would gain a bad reputation as well. This philosophy extends to the current era where art-academies are known to be one of the more grueling experiences in a student's lifetime but also the most rewarding. Even after getting their diploma they'll often feel the urge to prove themselves even if they’ve already succeeded in doing so.

The Sistine Chapel.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma is the first time Hayashi was at the helm. Akin to a student in the early renaissance to paint one leaf in the Sistine Chapel, with his master already at work on a new piece, Ninja Gaiden 2. He could focus all his attention to the leaf as instructed or he could add his own aspirations in his master’s work and vision.
Letting the Italian metaphors rest for a spell, if Sigma desired to be described with one word it would be 添加 (pronounced Thenka), meaning “addition”. Supplementing the previous additions this game adds another weapon: a twin set of katanas called Dragon’s Fang and Tiger’s Claw (巌龍、伐虎, pronounced Iwao Ryū, Ba Ko), in anticipation of Ninja Gaiden 2 which would originally introduce the weapon. Rachel is also added as a playable character in between certain missions, a buxom blonde sporting an axe with a more slow playstyle. New items and save stations were added and nearly all enemy placements have been re tweaked or changed for the sake of variation. In terms of new content Sigma can easily be considered the longest and most rich game in the series.

If written down in bullet points then Sigma sounds like the perfect iteration of the original Ninja Gaiden. Once Ryu unleashes his new weapon and blood paints a chapel's walls this feeling is heightened. The player traverses through familiar, though slightly altered, grounds and goes on a rampage. Nothing can stop him. One fiend gets the jump on him but Ryu repels with a Ninpo, which now requires you to frantically shake the controller to increase its power. A minor annoyance but it does not take away from the game. Once completed Ryu puts both his katanas away and flies of into the sunset as a silver eagle transformed, justice and vengeance made real. Holding the gamebox in his hands the player will look back on the experience. One will recall that the new weapon’s Ultimate Technique nearly killed a boss in one hit, probably not the intention of the designer. The player wants to press New Game for another go at this marvelous experience. He wishes to feel the thrill of being Ryu once more, but then he recalls the Rachel chapters. While he liked them he felt they interrupts Ryu’s tale instead of complimenting it. The player puts down the game and a year later he revisits it. He starts the game on the now highest difficulty setting but before he can get used to the controls an enemy spawns and kills him instantly. There is no moment to reacquaint. More and more the additions show that they were put into the game but not nearly as well considered as under Itagaki’s watchful eye. This isn’t to say his additions were fruitless, but it is better to add one thing and do it exceptionally well than to add ten things but not examine them closely.

Eventually the player will tire of these minor additions and jump into Mission Mode. Originally introduced in Ninja Gaiden Black these offer short fights against certain enemies under specific conditions. Being separate from the main game the designers could experiment with the weapons the player has and which enemy combinations would appear. If you ever had the fantasy of fighting both the samurai lord Doku while dodging the pain of Alma, this is your dojo. Being offered in chunks with all parts of exploration or additions throughout the series being ignored the game really shines here. There are a few missions in which the player controls Rachel, but unlike during the story the player can skip these. Once all have been conquered the final challenge awaits: a reimagining of the second Hurricane Pack aptly titled Eternal Legend. A tower to climb with the ultimate honor awaiting at the top.

This honor can be yours, and you can display it in a few extra costumes as well. Strangely the Ninja Gaiden series adds costumes with each iteration, but also removes previous ones. Whereas in the original 2004 release one could select the purple gi from the start, become a fiendish blue version of Ryu or a ninja from the future, in Black these were replaced with new costumes. Sigma continues this trend and removes all previous costumes, while adding a few new ones. It’s a strange design choice as the assets are there, though with Sigma one can be forgiven that it might be some strange copyright issue. Still, it’s a noticeable absence of already existing content.

So given as a whole Sigma is Ninja Gaiden Black, stuffed with extras. It’s the definition of a reiteration that has nothing to improve, or sees nothing to improve, and thus adds new things. Going back to the analogy of the student painting the sistine chapel, Hayashi chose not to paint the leaf but instead inserted his own vision into that of his master. The result is one that can only clash.
Though one might wonder what the original artist thought of this, his feelings aren’t as harsh as one might think. In the public eye Itagaki has fired a harsh shot at Hayashi, stating “I'd like to point out real quickly that the playable Rachel in Ninja Gaiden Sigma was something that was done by a junior member of Team Ninja and I didn't really have any involvement in Ninja Gaiden Sigma” and “I think Ninja Gaiden is the story of Ryu Hayabusa and of his journey and, particularly, I didn't think that the Rachel playable aspect in Sigma was done very well”. But what is done behind the scenes shows otherwise. In a strange choice the introduction mission of Sigma had its layout changed somewhat compared to Itagaki’s original. A small mountain was removed to make place for a gorgeous view with trees and a waterfall. While being an addition hailing from Sigma, when Ryu revisits this area in Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden 2's eleventh chapter it uses the same look as that in Sigma instead of Itagaki’s. This could be an oversight or smart reuse of high resolution assets, or the master giving a small subtle hand on the shoulder of his former student. While on a surface level his words will always be harsh to keep him sharp and his legacy intact, underneath he will support him.

Afterwards in 2012 Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus saw the light of day for the Playstation Vita, a portable handheld. Again Hayashi chose to add more content, adding a few new costumes and accessories which change certain stats of the player. These abilities can sometimes stack with the powers gained from armlets and costumes, allowing Ryu to plow through higher difficulties with ease. This again shows little consideration or thought being put into the additions. These also stack visually, slowly turning Ryu into more of a cartoon character.
This extends to the combination of the game with the platform. The original Ninja Gaiden and its remasters used a save-point system, meaning you can only save at certain points in the game. With the Vita being a portable system one could expect someone to play five minutes in the bus or a train and then have to quit. This works very badly with the usage of save-points and the game should have been edited, if even slightly, to accommodate this.

We started the article describing the meaning of the term Sigma. But outside of summation Sigma also has another meaning. It was used to mark objects that were not well aligned, a harsh statement but one that feels strangely apt. Sigma is a strong game in and of itself, but when compared to the baseline offered in the previous iterations it feels like it and its vision are misaligned.
At the time of writing Sigma Plus is the final version of the original Ninja Gaiden to be released, though this is probably going to change in the future. The original Ninja Gaiden was a hallmark of the series but also for the genre at large. It defined a template that many would follow and created a community that none could ignore. Though I, the writer, have remained as objective as possible until this point I ask for your leniency as I put my own opinion into words.

Ninja Gaiden is a game like none other but also one that has gotten worse over the years. While additions were made, some bad and some good, the charm and balance of the original has not yet been matched. Ever since Itagaki went back to his creation with the Hurricane Packs the game started to deviate from its original concept and, respectfully, never looked back. In the 2004 release every pixel oozed love from the creators and this is a feeling sorely missing in the later iterations, both of the original’s re-imaginings but also of its sequels. It’s a series that down the line focused more on quantity than quality, more weapons, more moves, more gore, more varied locations etc. But while none of those were ever as well designed as those present in the original, they are still at the top of the genre. A testament to how great Ninja Gaiden is and how grateful we are that we can experience the thrills of being a ninja in such a way.

どうもありがとうございます Itagaki-様.
Domo arigato gozaimasu Itagaki-sama.
Thank you very much, our master Itagaki.

postscript notes
  • We would see what Hayashi’s real vision would be with Ninja Gaiden 3, more on that in the future.
  • Hayashi is hard to track down, being far less prominent in the media compared to Itagaki. His lack of credits are also hard to point down, whether he worked on the original Ninja Gaiden in 2004 under Itagaki is unclear.
  • A quick mention should go to the levels in the Ninja Gaiden series, mixing both Egyptian, American, Japanese, Turkish and old Christian designs and still making it feel like one world.
  • I found it difficult to mix the examples of Italian art-history with those of the Japanese roots these articles had, I hope it came over correctly.
  • Thankfully it was impossible to find a screenshot or footage of Ryu donning all those accessories in Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus.
  • After this article is published I’ll put all four pieces together as one whole with some rewrites in between.

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