Team Ninja's stab at bad-arse ninja action on the Nintendo DS has arrived, with Ryu Hayabusa and the demon ninja hordes he must defeat looking tinier than ever in Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. The game is almost entirely controlled by simple stylus motions, using techniques that may already be familiar to DS gamers who have played The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. While the scope may be smaller, the team at Tecmo doesn't appear to have skimped on the production values.
The question is, however, can the white knuckle action of Team Ninja's Ninja Gaiden work on a handheld? We'll tell you what we loved and hated in the review.
Everything's under control: Controlling Ryu with the stylus works like a charm. Slide it for sword slashes, tap it for throwing shuriken and firing arrows, go nuts for Ultimate Technique action. The only button pressing you'll do is for blocking attacks. The d-pad tends to work best, but you can use any button you choose. Hayabusa does what you want, when you want (most of the time).
So pretty: Thanks to some expertly pre-rendered backgrounds, Dragon Sword may be one of the best looking games on the DS. It's obviously not as graphically resplendent as the console versions, but its not as hard on the eyes as other console-to-portable translations.
Sane save points: Team Ninja was nice enough to pack levels with save points that regenerate your health and ninpo. Dying is far less common than in the Xbox and PlayStation 3 versions of Ninja Gaiden, but when you do bite the dust, you'll do little in the way of retread.
Story? What Story? The game may lean toward brief, but part of the reason is that there's very little storytelling fat tacked on. Dragon Sword keeps the pace moving at a pretty good clip, with hand drawn cut scenes reminding you why you're killing scores of lesser ninja, fiends, and demon dogs.
Stellar sound: Familiar soundtrack notes and sound effects ring true, even through the DS speakers. Headphones are recommended, though.
Weak difficulty: Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword is intentionally easier than its console counterparts and Head Ninja mode is certainly more challenging, but boss fights border on dull. You'll revisit a handful of familiar fights, but you'll probably breeze right through them on your first or second try.
Endless hordes: While the boss fights aren't as traditionally challenging, you'll often face a hefty dose of fiends and ninja that take more patience than skill to dispatch. Respawning bad guys in certain rooms may just make you want to find the exit rather than slash slash slash.
Spikes: Those damn spikes... Ugh.
It may not have the visual flair of Ninja Gaiden Sigma or Ninja Gaiden II, but Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword is a solid addition to the series, if only for what Team Ninja has been able to accomplish with stylus control. It's not the bloody, busty ninja norm, but it's still a hell of a little action game. It's faults are minor, though some may balk at the shorter experience—it took me just over six hours to beat—and the good definitely outweighs the bad.
If you're a die hard Ninja Gaiden fan, don't miss it. For on-the-go gamers who typically stick to slower paced Nintendo DS fare like RPGs or adventure titles, definitely check it out, if only for the technical accomplishments. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Oh, and you may be a bit more animated playing your DS than your comfortable with in public but the path of the virtual ninja isn't for the easily embarrassed.
Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword was developed by Team Ninja, published by Tecmo and released in the US on March 25 on Nintendo DS. Retails for $US 34.99. Played to completion on Normal difficulty for review.