Ninja Gaiden 2: Freedom is good, control was better

I’ve prepared some thoughts on Ninja Gaiden 2 (henceforth “NG2″), which I finished just recently. For brevity’s sake, I’ll make two separate posts. This first one is on pacing and weapon distribution.

Some words before we dive in so you can better frame my perspective.

I’m a big fan of the predecessor, but had realstic expectations when getting this game. I knew from reviews that this is less good than the predecessor, and the consensus seems to be that ‘it’s still the best of its breed”. (Which turns out to be a sad testament to the genre, considering its shortcomings).

On the other hand, this is actually a good opportunity for game design as we have two games that are in principle the same, but with a notable difference in quality. By comparing the two, one should be able to find out what ‘broke’ it, and maybe how it could be improved.

First, difference in weapon quantity. NG1 has seven (melee) weapons and NG2 eight, but the latter feels too much while the first does not. By looking at them closely, we’ll notice why.

Pacing and balancing in Ninja Gaiden

The weapons in NG1 could be grouped into three rather typical categories:

  • Balanced
  • heavy (strong but slow)
  • light (quick but low reach and damage).

The staff, Lunar, is an exception, being introduced only later in the expanded Ninja Gaiden Black. The other exclusion in the following graphic is the seventh weapon, which is sort of “hidden”: By upgrading the wooden sword, that is apparently way too weak for any sensible application, all the way up to level 7 (costing a signifcant amount of money), you get the strongest heavy weapon in the game, the Unlabored Flawlessness (it sounds cooler in Kanjis).

Generally, each new weapon in Ninja Gaiden can be easily put into a category and understood as improvement in that.

The Vigoorian Flail works like the Nunchaku, but is clearly to a replacement for it. This is communicated by the Flail’s more agressive visual design and the fact that it can be upgraded, while the Nunchaku cannot, a fact that ensures no investment can be lost.

War Hammer can be upgraded only once and the Dabilahro twice, a subtle but effective hint on the intended preference. Also, they clearly fall into the same category, and you get them at around the same time, so you can actually compare, choose one, and dismiss the other one without worrying about missing stuff.

Even the timing of possible upgrades are tightly controlled by chapter, which is actually very important for the perception of new weapons and turns out to be the crucial thing that went wrong in the sequel.

Weapons pacing in NG2

In NG2, you can upgrade any weapons as much as you have money for. With the high difficulty of the game, it makes sense to max out a certain weapon for maximum effectiveness, rather than distribute your money across the board. This, however, sets up the real problem.

Weapons in Ninja Gaiden 2: no chunking possible. I’ve included my thoughts upon receipt of each weapon.

The weapons are all very different from each other this time, so one cannot mentally group them into manageable categories. Once the player has his favorite in different situations (more on this in a minute), new additions almost feel like a burden for two reasons:

  1. Compared to your maxed-out favorite (likely the Dragon Sword), the newbie starts out underpowered. You need to spend money on upgrades before it feels worth trying at all.
  2. Even then, trying them out means risk, and the game is punishing as it, which does not encourage and reward risks. The long loading times doesn’t afford experimentation either. In fact, for a game that has you die this much (with or without risk taking), making you wait through retries is pretty insulting.

Mental Models

Actually, the simplifcation goes beyond “pigeonholing” the weapons into categories.

The developer might have balanced the weapons in regards of Damage, Speed, Hitframes, Range etc. But what ends up being in the player’s mind when picking a weapon for any given situation is scaringly simple:

  1. Which specific combo (among all weapons) is most effective for the enemy at hand?
  2. As a distant second, the usefulness of the charge attack is considered.

But how come? Here’s my take.

We know this game is not player-friendly, a design that game director Itagaki is apparently “proud” of.

On a closer look, you have to differ between the actual play (where difficulty can be a feature) and reconstruction the fighting system in the player’s mind. Admittedly, it’s a fine line, as exploring the system can be seen as part of the play, though there are two BUTs:

  1. The punishing gameplay does not particularly encourage experimentation.
  2. Omitting to explain the system also means that only a fraction of it will be understood, thereby reducing the huge arsenal to a handful combos.

I attribute the second point to another two factors:

  • People satisfice. We don’t usually strive for the absolutely best solution, but stop at “good enough”. In other words, I don’t study and train with the entire moves catalogue and experiment with every possible attack-enemy combination to find out the best weapon for each job. I use what works well enough (and feel the coolest) until it doesn’t.
  • Humans are forgetful. We are way better in recognizing stuff than in recalling them. Except for the most used combos, I don’t know the button presses by heart. Even when you look them up, there’s only so many sequences you can keep in your short term memory. Anything that doesn’t prove useful in the immediate try will be discarded anyway.

So in this case, more is definitely not always better. Especially when the mental model of its inner working is presumably rather incomplete, adding more elements doesn’t enrich it, but distract from getting the most out of the system.

Also, the notion that the player wants to and should dive into your game is no excuse for poor educational efforts. That is not being hardcore, only old-school Japanese. You can be rewardingly hard without overhelming the player with unexplained stuff, a prime example being God of War.

Core Strength Weakened

Another aspect that hinders the exploration and full exploitation of the huge arsenal is the way Team Ninja increased difficulty to cater to fans of the first NG.

In the original Ninja Gaiden, the most important lesson for the player was: resist the urge to pull off flashy moves, don’t button mash, block everything and be observant.

Basically, the game heavily controls the player’s actions on a moment-to-moment basis, way beyond the usual, less direct control by setting goals. But it works. Paradoxically, by complying to the game’s strict design, you feel in control because that enables you to look through the tight situations, which seem overwelming at first, and identify opportunities for effective retaliation.

That, combined with fluid animation and juicy audiovisual effects, was the core strength of Ninja Gaiden to me. It makes every enemy encounter and triumph count.

Of course any self-respecting “difficult” game has to keep you on your toes, so after that lesson enemies soon start grabbing you. This seems to be the golden triangle — known as Rock-paper-scissors and foundamental to fighting games: Grab beats defense, defense stops offense, offense interrupts grabs. Only in NG, the last part doesn’t work. This is to prevent the player to interrupt all enemy attacks by button mash. But it also breaks the golden triangle.

Grab has no weakness, a dominant strategy not easily available to the player, but used by the enemies in abundance.

The player cannot counter grabs, only run away from them. In NG1, this was a major edge the boss has over normal enemies (and you). It was annoying but bosses being overpowered in certain ways seemed to be acceptable, if only barely.

In NG2, almost every normal enemy has a grab attack, and isn’t shy to use it. With increased enemy counts on screen, the player cannot realistically foresee what can or cannot be blocked. So you’re literally on your toes: you dash around a lot more than before in order to avoid being thrown.

Gone is the rewarding gameplay of being an observant and efficient ninja who strikes calmly.

Moving around like a madman also amplifies the frustration caused by the camera that prefers to show the situation from the side, which prevents the player to estimate distances and keep the overview. Again, the is worsened by the increased enemy count. But even in a boss fight with fewer enemies, the camera manages to totally obstruse your view.

Lesson: If your technology is not good enough to be cool, make up with smart, user-centered design. Oh wait, you should do that in any case.


So, while Ninja Gaiden 2 has more of everything, the additions actually make it a lesser game than the predecessor.

  • The player doesn’t automatically get more out of the system with more weapons. Greater variety is actually harder to grasp and benefit from, if the player lacks the mental model to put all the parameters in context.
  • Needless to say, building that mental model is the designer’s job. Difficulty has to come from somewhere else, unless the understanding is part of the challenge, but then, the rules should support experimentation.
  • By allowing freedom in weapon upgrades, pet weapons can form, making subsequent additions work a lot less well. If they fail to be worked into the player’s way of playing, unused new abilities increase nothing but noise.
  • So, again, the delivery makes a great difference. It’s not enough to implement all the features; significant work lies in how it they are brought to the player.
  • Increase difficulty by enlarging a major weakness of the original game, is not building up its core strength and does not cater to existing fans. Actually it pisses them off.

The next post on Ninja Gaiden 2 will be on level design and other unsorted criticism. Until then, I’d be glad to read some comments.

Yu-Chung Chen

Yu-Chung Chen is a designer working primarily on video games. He studied at Köln International School of Design and has contributed to a number of published games. Currently he works as a freelance UI designer at Keen Games.

7 responses to “Ninja Gaiden 2: Freedom is good, control was better”

  1. transvio

    dive into information techology

  2. jesse

    um about you golden triangle you forgot one crushal part and thet is evadind

  3. Yu-Chung Chen

    I actually mentioned precautionary evading as the “solution” to avoid grabs. But beating some options of the cycle (I’m using the term because it may or may not consist of three nodes, generally speaking) does not make the evasion an integral part of that cycle.

    Actually, evasion has no weakness to neither attack, block, or grab. It beats them by avoiding them altogether, which is being outside of the cycle.

    You could argue that this kind of “meddling” destroys the golden triangle. What I was saying is that the meddling is necessitated by Team Ninja’s implementation of the broken triangle. Of course, it might be a feature… It’d be interesting to come up with a design where the evasion is weak to something.

  4. mike

    If you want a game with a more simple fighting system then go play something else. The complexity and difficulty is why we keep coming back to the game. Learning a fighting system and finding its usefulness is the best part about the game. If anyone wants a simple fighting system there are plenty of games that fill that gap (Assassins Creed Series). No one does it like team ninja and you wanna dumb it down. Why???

  5. Yu-Chung Chen

    I assume you’re talking about the grab/block-complaint. I don’t think it’s dumbing down if the system includes a direct counter for each type of move, as outlined above. I’m just saying that the difficulty should result from the situations and less from crippling the player’s option on a systemic level, in direct comparison to non-boss enemies. Both devices are used in NG, and I’m not saying that liking that resulting difficulty was wrong (heck, I played through both twice), but I’m just pointing out how the design would be more balanced in my point view.

    If there’s nuances one doesn’t get from only a handful of playthroughs, please do explain. Might just motivate me to revisit the game and reevaluate the design :)

  6. Hyabusa Ryu

    I see you completely misunderstand my adventure. Last year in the Vigoor Empire Incident I was inexperienced and had already been struck down by the Dark Dragon Blade that feeds on Evil itself. I was a bit tentative, but persevered and Good triumphed.

    This, however, was entirely different. My clan had already been slaughtered, now my injured father was losing a duel to the death, and the Greater Fiend Elizebet stole the sacred Demon Statue and was attempting to ressurrect the Archfiend my clan had been guarding for so long. I had failed my duty as a Dragon Ninja, and along with everything else, I used my quest as an excuse for revenge on them all. I did not fight calmly, I did not wait patiently for openings. I eradicated them with superior speed, skill, and power. Never again will they attempt such a bold move. This time, I MADE them remember my name. I MADE them respect me. And I MADE them go back to (and stay in) Hell, where they belong. The fighting system wasn’t broken. It was unleashed.

    1. Grey

      Whoa dude, chill. But actually, this guy has a point. In my experience, I’ve found that blocking IS essential, but mostly for the reverse/ furious wind techniques, and the counter-attacks.
      If you abuse reverse/furious wind, and learn to time- and abuse- the counters, and fight aggressively, you’ll rip just about every enemy in the game to shreds, even when they’re in large groups. If they’re izuna-able, just reverse wind when they’re coming at you and start the short ground-based izuna combo, you’ll catch them with the toss, even if the first slash misses, and izuna them, then immediately reverse wind and repeat and you’ll almost always catch the next one with that next toss whenever you repeat because they group around you. If you just land an izuna and try to go straight to another, you’ll get hit. You have to Wind first, but if you do that, you’ll be uncatchable.
      And when you can’t toss them, stick with Y combos from strong weapons and abuse obliterations. Most of Ryu’s Y combos keep him traveling along the ground which will keep you safe from most projectiles and prevent the rest of the group from smacking you because they have to keep walking up and following you throughout your combo.
      When all else fails, abuse levelled-up Inferno and the Flying Swallow and there aren’t many hordes you can’t shred without much trouble. Ultimate techniques, too, especially those that target more than 1 enemy, are fantastic because after you finish it you can Wind to safety and charge another Ulty. I get what you mean about every enemy being able to grapple Ryu, but if you fight aggressively and stay on the move, they never get the chance, in my experience.
      The point I’m trying to make is, don’t be afraid of any non-bosses. Ryu’s way faster and more skilled. Don’t wait for them to grab you, You go get Them!


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