Before Demon’s Souls and its successors rocked the world with their steep learning curve and lack of hand holding there was Tomonobu Itagaki’s 2004 Ninja Gaiden reboot. I never had an Xbox growing up, but I had always heard how insanely hard the game was. Sure, the PS2 had its own share of tough-as-nails action games: Maximo, Shinobi, and OG Devil May Cry 3 want you to notice them. But none of those had a cult community spring up around them in quite the way that Ninja Gaiden did.
Here was a game that refused to hold your hand, to provide easy answers for its puzzles, or to even teach players the most effective means of dispatching its intelligent, lethal adversaries. This was a game that reveled in beating the player down and, much like the modern Dark Souls community, the fandom surrounding it can be an intimidating and baffling mix of camaraderie and elitism. People are eager to welcome you to the fold, but only if you can prove yourself “worthy.”
I’ve been playing a lot of Ninja Gaiden Black lately, 2005’s “definitive edition” of the original release. I play most games on easy for the first playthrough, because I like to take my time and absorb a game’s systems and mechanics at my own pace. If I really enjoy the game I will replay it on successively harder difficulties and if I don’t at least the experience wasn’t a total slog. Initially, I didn’t even think about trying NGB’s infamous “Ninja Dog” easy difficulty. I may not start most games on normal, but I’ve finished almost everything that there is to do in Bloodborne. I can handle this older, more linear action game, or at least that’s what I told myself. Even I have my pride, damn it!
I remember hearing from NGB’s fanbase that it added an easy mode, but that the mode was essentially Itagaki making fun of players not skilled or patient enough to persevere on its higher difficulties. Why, I even heard that it forced badass ninja Ryu Hayabusa to wear a hot pink bow. The shame! So it was that after beating my head against some particularly nasty encounters about 7 chapters into the game that I decided with a distinct mix of dread and shame that I would accept the pink bow and start the game over on Ninja Dog.
Imagine my surprise when I found Ninja Dog to be the best “easy mode” out of all the stylish action games I’ve ever played. For starters, there’s the tone. Yes, the game takes a few jabs at the player for accepting defeat, but it’s not done in a mean-spirited way. Ryu’s apprentice Ayane takes over as his master, but there’s not much beyond a few cute jokes here and there added to her tutorials and her face now gracing the title screen. You are still badass super-ninja Ryu Hayabusa: the only person capable of fighting against the forces of evil.
What makes Ninja Dog special among its peers is that it is easier primarily because it gives you more help. It does not play the game for you like the easy modes in Platinum Games’ work, for example. If you play Bayonetta on easy, the game makes absolutely no attempt to teach you how to play it properly and prepare you to eventually escalate in difficulties. Instead, it performs most combos for you, turning a taut and technical brawler into a mindless button masher. Ninja Gaiden Black, on the other hand, genuinely wants you to succeed. Enemies are a little bit softer, but they are still absolutely vicious and their AI is still highly coordinated. They still put up a fight. The game doesn’t accomplish anything for you, but instead gives you more RPG systems to fall back on. That “shameful” pink ribbon I mentioned? It is a completely optional accessory that Ayane gives you to massively increase your attack power. It’s also one of many colored ribbons with various buffs that she gives you throughout the story. Additionally, she gives you more healing items and even talks the game’s shopkeeper, Muramasa, into giving you a discount on consumable items.
In short, Ninja Dog isn’t easier because it dumbs the game down or treats you like a child who will never learn how to perform its finger gymnastics. Instead, it simply gives you more of a safety net. Those extra accessories and healing items act almost like a placebo, inspiring confidence in a player who previously only experienced dread. You’ll find yourself taking more risks and experimenting with the game’s weaponry and moveset, and as a result you’ll not only be having more fun… you’ll actually be learning how to play the game better.
If you get better at Ninja Gaiden Black, the same care that went into Ninja Dog applies to all of its other difficulties as well, all the way up to the legendary “Master Ninja.” Rather than simply adjusting damage and health numbers like so many other action games, escalating the difficulty in NGB fundamentally remixes the game for each playthrough. Harder enemies are introduced earlier on, items become more expensive and you can hold fewer, item locations are altered, and many well-designed enemies in the game don’t even appear on difficulties below Very Hard. It’s a game that rewards mastery with more content to keep things fresh and interesting. It’s brilliant, and it’s something that you’d think more developers would have learned from in the decade+ since its release.
Ninja Gaiden Black is the highest rated game of its sub-genre, exceeding any of the Devil May Cry or God of War games. It’s also incredibly intimidating because of its hardcore reputation. This is a phenomenally crafted action game that has hardly aged a day. It would be a tragedy to miss out on it because some goons on the internet told you to “git gud or get out.” My advice is to swallow your pride: don’t be afraid to slum it as a Ninja Dog on your path to becoming a Master Ninja. Ninja Gaiden Black wants you to defeat it and it gives you all the tools you need to do so… if you’re willing to use them.