You think of challenging games these days, and the titles that spring to mind are likely Dark Souls, Hades, or the more recent Returnal. Ninja Gaiden scoffs at what you consider to be difficult, it scoffs to the max, does a sparrow jump backflip, and gives your face a pro-bono selection of metal piercings with a flurry of shuriken.
There’s hard, and there’s Ninja Gaiden, a series that is legendary for mixing ridiculously brutal action with a reflexes requirement that is usually only achievable by snorting a combination of Bolivian marching powder and a puff of Slo-Mo from the mean streets of Dredd 3D. It’s also a largely forgotten franchise, lost in the mists of time as developer Team Ninja went on to bigger and better things with Musou games, new Dead or Alive fighting games, and its own take on Dark Souls, the Nioh series.
It’s a pity, because at its core Ninja Gaiden is the kind of action game that provides relentless and bloody entertainment. Ninja Gaiden: The Master Collection then, feels like an odd mix of games, because not only does it show both the origins of the series under a more modern lens and how good it could really be, but also the franchise at its lowest point.
Made up of 2007’s Ninja Gaiden Sigma, 2009’s Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 and 2012’s Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, the Master Collection is as barebones a collection as can be, packaging all three games into one convenient parcel of shinobi action and not much else. Ninja Gaiden Black is noticeably absent from the whole collection, due in part to its original code being unsalvageable according to Team Ninja. A pity, because that particular game was the definitive and infamously brutal upgraded version of the original 2004 game, which made Ninja Gaiden a household name in the west.
How do they hold up? Ninja Gaiden Sigma 1 and 2–especially Sigma 2–are still rock-solid action titles even if they look dated at first glance. Lightning-fast offense and edge-of-your-seat slick Willy defense were what made these games special, as they balanced an ice-cool style of play with the power fantasy of being a ninja.
Played on PS5 via PS4 backwards compatibility, the entire package makes good use of that extra hardware to never drop a frame and load up quicker, although there’s no doubt that these are old-gen experiences to the max. Ninja Gaiden’s temperamental camera hasn’t given up the ghost yet, and there’s some other questionably bouncy content on display that reminds you of this type of video game being from another era.
While Sigma 2 may be the crown jewel of this package, Ninja Gaiden 3 on the other hand is more like the black sheep of the family. This is the game with a notoriously strange development history, one that was gunning for Devil May Cry 3’s throne and fell way short of the benchmark. This was also the game that began advertising that a new and improved version would soon be available on the Nintendo Wii U, mere months before it had yet to launch on Xbox 360 and PS3. Wild times.
Fortunately, the Ninja Gaiden 3 included in the Master Collection is the Razor’s Edge version that applied plenty of polish to a very flawed game, making it the best possible Ninja Gaiden 3 game that it could be, although not exactly the best Ninja Gaiden game per se when compared to its predecessors. Ninja Gaiden 3 is still a weird hodge-podge of ideas and frustrating execution, mixing cinematic action setpieces with gameplay approaches that were trying way too hard to be cool. Big “How do you do fellow action game kids” energy.
Two out of three ain’t too bad though and provided that you’re patient enough to deal with Ninja Gaiden’s more anachronistic gameplay design, it’s still delivered on its promise to deliver a shinobi power fantasy. If you can survive the experience, that is.
Last Updated: June 6, 2021