The first Ninja Gaiden, on Xbox, was a game I found boring at first, a technically solid action game with a horrendous camera that was cool but didn't engage me. However, after going back and trying some of the harder difficulty levels, I began to see the brilliance of the game, and it continues to have the best scaling difficulty of any action game that has ever existed. This is probably one reason the game has been re-released in slightly modified forms no less than three times and continues to sell to this day. It was followed up by a bloodier sequel that had weaker level design but retained a lot of excitement with the new weapons and dismemberment despite the toned-down difficulty.
If I didn't know better, I would've guessed Ninja Gaiden 3 had been farmed out.
But then there's Ninja Gaiden 3. If I didn't know better, I would've guessed this game had been farmed out, but it appears that Team Ninja has felt that Other M was merely a stepping stone on its intentioned destination of story-focused mediocrity. Perhaps the weirdest thing about the story is how much there is of it that's just talking heads in conference rooms. The previous two games may have had ridiculous nonsense for stories, but the cut scenes were always action-packed, even if for no reason. This time around we instead have hilariously bad attempts at trying to make Ryu Hayabusa seem like an okay guy who just wants to help out. This is oddly juxtaposed by the gameplay between those scenes, where Hayabusa is continuously carving people up using finishing moves that shower the screen in blood.
This is not to say that the story isn't entertaining because of that contrast, as to leads to some fairly amusing scenes that are so off-the-wall while remaining intensely serious that I can't tell if they're being tongue-in-cheek or not. Early on, a plot point about clones is introduced by suddenly having a dinosaur show up, followed by a boss fight against a cybernetic tyrannosaurus rex that has skin that can transform into metal. In the next chapter, there's a mini game of sorts where Hayabusa must carry a little girl while using quick-time events to fend off monsters. Not normally a strange thing in the world of video games, but here it's laughably ridiculous considering the starring character.
Of course, the story has never been good in Ninja Gaiden, even when it was a pretty novel thing to have cool cut scenes back in the NES games. It's always been something easily overlooked since the core game was so good, but apparently the new way to go is to see how much of the game can be mangled and still have it be playable. The biggest offense here is the controls, which are so unresponsive that I had to load up Ninja Gaiden Sigma and Ninja Gaiden II just to make sure I wasn't getting nostalgic about four years ago. But, much to my chagrin, I was correct: while each move responds just fine by itself, the process ultimately breaks down under increased stress.
One of the biggest offenders is the cooldown introduced for wind run, a move that allows Ryu to automatically jump towards a nearby enemy. Now it can no longer be used in close timing to certain other moves and also quite often chooses to not respond for any apparent reason, which makes me wonder why they left it in at all if they weren't going to bother having it work. That might've been the mentality behind the guillotine throw being removed, as it did simplify some fights but here it seems to be a needless limitation given the already reduced combat options. Certainly not helping matters is that the analog stick literally has no effect for much of combat, with the game deciding what enemies to switch to mid-combo regardless of what direction is pressed or if the player even wants to switch targets. Even the bow auto-aims for the player - it's actually a very helpful addition that allows for incredibly fast sniping of ranged targets, but it also drives home the lack of control the player has.
To make matters worse, all of the close-combat weapons besides the Dragon Sword and claws have been removed for reasons unknown, so the joy of adapting weapon choice to the target is almost completely gone. This is probably so that they can be sold as DLC - the game shipped with only the sword on the disc with the claws as a free download - and also to assist in the game's general streamlining towards removing its identity in order to become as palatable as possible for the people who thought the first game was too hard. Unfortunately, the removal of weapons, trimmed-down move list, and limited enemy selection means that most fights can easily boil down to izuna drops building up to a string of instant-kill attacks similar to Shinobi 2002's tate kills.
As simplistic as they might be in execution, the instant kill mechanic definitely lends an interesting flow to combat that separates Ninja Gaiden 3 from its predecessors. As Hayabusa deals damage to an enemy, it eventually leads to a cinematic view of a crippling attack, at which point the enemy will stumble off or crawl away. The player has two choices now: either follow up by attacking the enemy again and finishing it off (useful later on when encountering enemies that will commit suicide once wounded, like in Ninja Gaiden II) or channel that energy into attacking another enemy. Those powered-up strikes drop even undamaged foes into a wounded state, and as the game continues the amount of targets that can be chained increases. It's a good if somewhat underdeveloped mechanic, but obviously meant to counteract that higher difficulty levels simply add more enemies into the mix.
Another more direct improvement is the complete removal of items, which previously served little purpose other than to serve as a crutch or as a method of cheesing a way through a boss. Instead, the recharging health from Ninja Gaiden II returns, which retains the auto-adjusting size that limits its maximum size based on how much the player is being hit. Added into the mix is that casting ninpo now restores health but is often not a great fallback plan when doing poorly, since at least some consistency and success in combat is needed to build the meter. While these things might be seen as drawbacks and/or just making the game easier, they also lend a more focused feeling onto the combat since exploration is now entirely removed and there's no reason to go digging into menus to interrupt combat. Swapping weapons does use a sub-menu and would've been nicer if the directional pad had functioned as hotkeys instead of bringing up an overlay, but it's the one limitation.
Ultimately Ninja Gaiden 3 is a game that has no real purpose. It removes features from previous games and lacks any additions besides a chain attack and a mediocre multiplayer mode consisting only of short trials. The underlying combat is still good enough even with the slightly broken controls to remain above slower-paced games like God of War III, but it feels like Team Ninja is putting a product out just to have a one there.