Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus Vita
Few game developers have gained the infamy and cultural awareness of Tomonobu Itagaki. As the mastermind behind Dead or Alive and the current gen revival of Ninja Gaiden, Itagaki is a developer with a respectable gaming resume and isn’t afraid to rub it in everyone’s faces. From trash-talking the competition to brandishing a replica katana during interviews, to waxing on about his enormously-endowed “daughters” to avoiding allegations of sexual harassment, the shades-wearing developer has proven himself as a continuing source of entertainment in and out of his games.
While Ninja Gaiden 2 was his last outing with publisher Tecmo, it was also his greatest success. Building on the solid foundation established with the first game, Itagaki’s sequel was a refinement in nearly every aspect and fully reveled in everything that made the developer a hit with hardcore gamers, while also adding enough blood and boobs to bring out the adolescent male in all of us (as well as plenty of actual adolescent males). No one could do the series justice like he could, a fact made all too painfully clear with the dismal follow-up, Ninja Gaiden 3 (a game so criticized that it resulted in a “fixed” enhanced edition less than a year later).
Unfortunately, it seems Tecmo and Team Ninja still haven’t learned how to make a good Ninja Gaiden game without their hotshot developer, if this latest port of Ninja Gaiden 2 is any indication. On the surface, all of the content from the original is intact, as well as the additional scenarios and modes from the PS3 re-release, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. In fact, the Vita version even re-inserts the missing blood and severed limbs from the PS3 version, which would ideally make it the best version of the acclaimed sequel to date. However, this handheld port falters in the one area where it matters the most: the framerate.
While both the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions maintained a fast and fluid framerate, the Vita re-release feels like treading through water by comparison. From the simplest movements to the precise button combinations, everything in Sigma 2 Plus feels clunky, choppy, and, worst of all, imprecise. For anyone familiar with the series on consoles, Ninja Gaiden is a game where everything feels like it is running on fast-forward: enemies are relentless and merciless, attacking you from all sides and rarely standing still to meet your retaliation. Even on the lowest difficulty, players must learn to be twice as fast and twice as brutal in order to slice their way through the endless armies of ninjas, demons and dogs in each area.
The complaints in this version appeared early enough that Tecmo issued a response suggesting to tune the camera speed to maximum. In truth, this fix only results in a small improvement that does little to remedy the overall problem, especially during heavily-populated areas (namely Chapter 3’s perpetually-raining cityscape area). Even if patient players manage to adjust to the slower speed, the technical problems for Sigma Plus don’t end there. The textures have also suffered a significant downgrade, with the overall visual quality so blurry and unfocused that it feels like watching a YouTube video set to 360p. This also results in several situations where you may have difficulty ascertaining the distance between yourself and a platform you must jump across (or using a nearby pole or wall).
While it is not certain whether the Vita’s hardware or Tecmo’s porting skills are to blame, the fact remains that the handheld’s screen is too small to handle all of the intense action going on. The original game had its own fair share of camera problems, but the amount of off-screen attacks and crooked angles seem doubly as frustrating on the Vita version. Another problem on the hardware side is the lack of four shoulder buttons. To use long-range weapons like the bow, players must instead tap an on-screen icon. Not only is it much slower to pull out your weapon as a result, but it also takes away the ability to do a quick draw attack (accomplished by quickly tapping the shoulder button), a seemingly minor yet still useful technique.
Massive technical issues aside, Tecmo still deserves some merit for putting the entire Ninja Gaiden 2 experience in a handheld. The stages and enemies contained within are all carried over in full, with the latter proving just as relentless as before. Though Ryu does have the ability to sever limbs with his mercilessly sharp weapons (which also give him the opportunity to finish off maimed opponents with a single button press afterward), even crawling enemies will attempt to cause one more act of desperation in the form of suicide explosions. There are also the dozen boss encounters that grow with increasing ferocity and absurdity, from mutated spider warriors to giant trolls. The Sigma version also adds even more encounters, including a gigantic living Buddha statue that is somehow even more random than the fire-breathing armadillo.
For the Vita version, two new modes have been included along with the original’s Chapter Challenge. Tag Missions is an offline version of Team Missions, allowing players to play as one character while the AI controls the other. Ninja Race involves playing through the campaign’s chapters with a time limit that ends the game once it reaches zero. In order to keep the timer going, players must kill all nearby enemies and collect their essence (originally meant to restore health or charge up Ultimate Techniques). It’s an interesting mode that is more thought-out than Chapter Challenge (which merely has you replaying areas to gain the fastest completion time), but like Team Missions, the overall inclusion is pointless without any online features or even a leaderboard. In fact, booting up Sigma 2 Plus informs you that all network features have been disabled while playing, making all of these potentially competitive modes feel completely pointless.
Ultimately, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus is a case study that just because a game can be ported to a handheld doesn’t mean it necessarily should, especially if it suffers from downgraded visuals, spotty framerate and imprecise controls. Newbie players who never played the console versions may end up less frustrated out of ignorance, but a game that originally relied on tight controls and smooth gameplay should not have to endure such drawbacks just for the sake of going portable. It may earn points as a novelty to have the game on the go, but the cost of portability is too much of a disservice for a great action game optimized for consoles.