When I heard the word ninja as a kid, all kinds of cool shadow-leaping wonders filled my imagination. I’d think of a black wrap-around costume, exquisite swords, whisper-quiet—almost superhuman—tumbles and flips, and, of course, those ninja stars that could be pulled out of nowhere and sent zipping through the air with a flick of the wrist.
But I would inevitably leave the bloody filleting that those stars and ultra-sharp blades could cause out of my imaginary picture. I guess the thought of wraithlike assassins actually assassinating was a little too grisly, even for my rough-and-tumble, blow-things-up kid sensibilities.
Team NINJA, the production company behind the video game Ninja Gaiden II, however, has no such queasy threshold. In fact, for this crew, ninja means slicing and dicing as much flesh as possible, while leaving behind oozing piles of gore, severed limbs and Rorschach test-shaped bloodstains on every surface.
The Cruelest Cut
Ninja Gaiden II is an unapologetically hard-core hack-and-slash game. And as such, it doesn’t really care to spend much time worrying about anything as trivial as ninja-sneaking, shadowy intrigue or, for that matter, a storyline. So the tale of the evil Spider clan stealing a precious artifact and using its magic to unleash monsters on the world—from New York City to Mt. Fiji—is offered up quickly.
Gamers then get on to the real show as they climb behind the black mask of ninja master Ryu Hayabusa, the only one who can slay all these sword-slashing ninjas and razor-toothed demons. And slay them he does, leaping into action in level after level of platform-jumping, wall-running, blisteringly fast butchery.
And what would butchery be without the proper cutting tools? Ryu starts out with his trusty dragon sword and throwing blades, but picks up a number of other weapons along the way—such as a short-handled scythe affixed to a chain, and claw-like talons that attach to his hands and feet. Each weapon offers about 50 or more brutalizing attacks, counterattacks and defenses.
Take a Deep Breath
Gamers can also exercise magical attacks when they find themselves in a particularly tight spot. These include an Inferno Ninpo that sets nearby opponents on fire and Piercing Void Ninpo that wipes out scores of bad guys with a blast of whirlwind blades. These preternatural cure-alls, so to speak, come in handy since foes are legion, and include a menagerie of demonic dogs, winged demons, giant worms, sword-wielding she-fiends, huge dragons, brutish werewolves and mechanically enhanced monstrosities that have no one but you on their dance cards.
When your black-clad killer takes a break from frenzied disembowelment, gamers are offered a different sort of heat—in the form of game designer Tomonobu Itagaki’s trademark female characters who sport swaying, overflowing curves, all crammed in skimpy outfits.
But then it’s right back to the fight. And the decapitating, limb-lopping slaughter carries on and on and on. The violence is so viscerally over the top, in fact, that virtually every game review out there has made mention of it. Atomicgamer.com, for instance, warned, “Be prepared for gore like you’ve never seen; blood flows like an over-active geyser and limbs fly like fleshy confetti.”
“Carnage is unusually well detailed and sprays everywhere,” opined the critic from scifi.com. “After Ryu sweeps through an area, torsos and severed limbs lie in piles of ruby-soaked disarray. If carving up the forces of evil like a butcher makes you queasy, be aware there’s no way to dial back the bloodletting.”
Popmatters.com concurred with, “It’s ludicrously over the top, like the Black Knight battle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but messier and not as comical. There’s so much blood and gore that it’s hard to take seriously.”
Don’t Lose Your Head
But Itagaki was very serious when he pumped Ninja Gaiden II full of all this wholesale bloodletting, justifying his choices by saying it was a retelling of medieval Japanese combat. “Some people might think of decapitation as being excessively violent,” he was reported as saying on gamesindustry.biz. “But … when you decapitate someone you’re killing them instantly. … You’re basically giving them a very quick and easy death.”
So much for my childhood fantasies of bloodless ninja acrobatics.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.