Number one in my opinion of the best of the action genre belongs to Ninja Gaiden Black. When Team Ninja revamped the Ninja Gaiden series for the Xbox, they delivered a great action game that became one of the best games for that generation. Strangely enough, they decided to revise it and re-release it under the “Black” subtitle, and what we got was one of the best action games of all time.
Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden Black were both developed combat wise to be similar to the Devil May Cry series, with a focus of movement and agility as opposed to trading blows with enemies. Ryu was designed to be an active character and not stay in one place, with the ability to dodge roll and transition into attacking while running. Another decision was to give enemies unblockable grab attacks to punish players who thought they could just block their way through combat. Besides your sword, you would find other weapons that had their own unique combos and versatility such as nunchucks that you could switch to.
Combat was very fast, thanks to very little downtime from both sides and you could end up dead within a few seconds if you weren’t paying attention. Despite the high speed, there was a flow to the combat that you had to pay attention to; enemies would not attack you one at a time and you had to figure out the best times to attack while not leaving yourself open to attacks from behind.
Besides blocking, you had two special moves that you could use to help turn the tide. First was an overdrive attack that could be charged using the currency orbs dead enemies dropped. More importantly, charging the move this way and pulling it off would make you invincible for a few precious seconds while delivering enhanced damage.
The second move was ninja magic attacks that could be assigned and used during combat. My personal favorite was a lightning attack that hit everybody and made Ryu invincible while it was used.
While all this made for a great action game, once again it was the changes made between regular and Black that cements Ninja Gaiden Black as my favorite and strange enough, the developers didn’t go for making things easier.
Most games that get a re-release give the developer a chance to smooth out any difficulty curves and make it more accessible to a greater audience, but not in Ninja Gaiden Black’s case. The developers sped up the combat by increasing the speed of Ryu and removed the ability to counterattack through timed presses of the block button. Previously, this was a way for someone to stand in one place and keep blocking while dealing damage and the developers didn’t want their combat system to become so routine.
Instead, Black forced you to engage with the enemies who still had all their dangerous tricks to deal with, but there was one more thing added. The game introduced multiple difficulty levels: From ninja dog or very easy, all the way up to master ninja or the hardest. And this is where Ninja Gaiden Black earns the top spot from me, as the developers avoided the classic design of bumping up enemy stats to make the game harder. Instead, the game was redesigned for each difficulty level; new enemies were added or replaced older ones, items were moved around, bosses became more dangerous and it really felt like a different game.
The new enemies added had new abilities without simply having more health or damage; the enemy grunt ninjas at the start were replaced with higher tier white ninjas who were more evasive and could attack you with multiple attacks. Brand new fights in the form of Demon Ryu forced the player to fight an enemy with the same moveset as the player and hopefully overcome them.
What made this so amazing is that Ninja Gaiden Black was one of the first action games to deliver a purely skill based progression model similar to the Souls series.
The player has to become better at the game in order to progress and no amount of health upgrades or weapons would change that; just like in Demon’s Souls and how it didn’t matter what your gear was if you sucked at the game.
Later bosses that were added in, forced the player to understand the timing needing for attacking and you really needed to bring your A game to stand a chance.
Ninja Gaiden Black when compared to the other two is the least complicated; it lacks Devil May Cry 3’s technical skill and Godhand’s custom combat system. But it makes up for it with a reliance on pure player skill and adequate rewards of interesting and varied challenges for players who want to go up in difficulty. Godhand almost did this with the adjusting difficulty system, but it’s not the same as adding in brand new enemies and bosses for the higher difficulties and Devil May Cry 3 simply raised enemy stats.
My dream action game would be a combination of these three titles: Having technical mastery, player defined attacks and the speed and skill requirement of Ninja Gaiden Black. At the moment, it doesn’t look like a game along those lines is going to be happening as most developers are looking at Bayonetta 2 and DMC as inspiration. I still have an idea in the back of my mind that I would love to do at some point, but hopefully that’s not the only one for the action genre.