‘Ninja Gaiden Master Collection’ review: three big slices of ninja action chart the highs and lows of a classic series

Re-enter the dragon

The opening cutscene of Ninja Gaiden 2 ends with protagonist Ryu Hayabusa surrounded by evil spider clan ninjas. Suddenly you’re in control, and without hesitation the enemy starts carving chunks off your life bar, ninjas hacking away with Wolverine-like claw blades. You were expecting a tutorial? This is it. Lesson one: always be ready, and keep your guard up.

At their best, the 3D Ninja Gaiden games released between 2004 and 2012 are a triumph of such audacity. Mean and punishing in their methods, they’re the Cobra Kai of close combat games, ordering you to strike first (etc.) and be as daring in your fights as they are in design. They think nothing of locking you in an arena with dozens of ninjas, a couple of tanks, or a cyborg t-rex, before leaving you to katana and shuriken your way out. But equally Ryu is a devastating killer, thrilling to marshal as you chop these threats to pieces.
Yet the series isn’t always at its best, not least due to a convoluted history of revised re-releases that sometimes fumble its fragile brilliance. This Master Collection contains the reworked versions of the trilogy: Ninja Gaiden Sigma (2007), Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 (2009), and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge (2012). While it’s a substantial package with plenty of highlights, it ultimately charts the pitfalls of trying to adapt uncompromising vision to evolving expectations.

Indeed, it says something about the franchise’s bumpy progression that the first game is still the most well-rounded. I was swiftly reminded while playing Sigma that Ninja Gaiden was, next to Resident Evil 4, one of the most complete action experiences of its generation. The combat is the star, for sure, but its commitment to variety remains impressive, whisking you from its opening in a traditional Japanese village, before you fight your way through a hi-tech airship, an imperial city, ancient underground ruins, a military base and more. It alternates pace between its blade and nunchaku fights with exploration, platform navigation, projectile battles and swimming, and winds back on itself to repurpose key locations with surprising new demands.

As for the combat, Ryu is a master of poise and venom, blocking, rolling then striking in deliciously fluid chains. His dodge instantly shifts him around a foe, leaving them swinging at air. His range of combos and weapons are tactically valuable, to manage groups, break guards, or launch enemies off the ground. His wall run into diving slash, closing down gun toting enemies in an instant, channels supreme anime style. Always, of course, against that audacity – packs of enemies somersaulting in from all sides, an attack helicopter taunting you to Rambo it from the sky with a bow and arrow.

Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection
Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection. Credit: Team Ninja

Still, it’s not without problems. For one, its wild imagination runs embarrassingly dry when it comes to female characters. In particular, poor Rachel – a fiend hunter dressed in leather bondage straps, whose boobs have greater expressive range than her face – seems to have been modelled on a sex doll. And despite being cast as a tough demon killer, she invariably gets captured and tied up to await rescue.

It’s symbolic of a game that’s badly dated in a range of ways. The camera is a standout culprit – liable to flick round 180 degrees when you breach invisible trigger points, or simply refuse to frame the action. In one boss fight against a pair of giant worms, either can spend a significant portion of the battle attacking from offscreen. Add to that swimming and first-person bow controls that surely never made sense to anyone, plus a health recovery system that turns item management into an obtrusive meta-game, and it gets unwieldy. The final few levels are also a mean slog – as much hard work as simply hard. While I enjoyed the trip back regardless, I couldn’t help wishing that this game especially had received a more substantial makeover here, to revitalise its underlying class.

Then again, I should be careful what I wish for. Because Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 shows how modernising reforms can backfire if not handled with care. I know how frustrating the original Ninja Gaiden 2 could be, notably again because of camera issues, and enemies pelting you with projectiles from offscreen. But in over-smoothing the rough edges, Sigma 2 turns an assault course into a water slide. Like a cardiologist attempting surgery with, well, a katana, it ends up removing a piece of the patient’s heart.

It takes a while for the issues to surface, though. Simply because the flow of the fight in Sigma 2 remains sublime, evolving from the first game with a dismemberment system that adds depth, even if it’s bloodless implementation here misses some of the old cathartic brutality. The selection of weapons is also a series high – whether tearing through gangs with vicious claws, pummelling with swift tonfa blows, or swinging huge circles with the chain of a kusari-gama, each has distinct advantages. Not to mention a sense of fluidity and impact still only matched by peak Bayonetta or Devil May Cry.

It’s able to keep you alert with slaps of that trademark audacity at times, too. Like when you have to fight the actual statue of liberty. Or when you’re accosted by about a hundred ninjas as you ascend the steps towards a temple. Even a few new missions in this version where you play as different female characters – all cringeworthy in design, sadly – offer a fun change of combat style.

Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection
Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection. Credit: Team Ninja

But some conspicuous omissions ensure Sigma 2 tires itself out. For starters, it’s almost pathological in its focus on combat. Ninja Gaiden 2 was less varied and structurally playful than Ninja Gaiden, with a linear progression of locations and a lot of similar bosses. Sigma 2 then strips out any residual need to explore, unlocking critical paths automatically, and erasing anything noteworthy from optional routes. It also renders the in-game economy redundant, doling out great quantities of currency then restricting its use to restocking health items, with weapon upgrades made free but rationed on a one-per-stage basis.
The most significant absence, however, is a good percentage of the enemy. There are fewer in each battle, and while that does help in bringing visual clarity to proceedings, it comes at the cost of the original version’s pulse-quickening, giddy carnage. Similarly with features like the auto-aim bow – it’s less of a headache but less enjoyable to use proficiently, manufacturing windows of position to squeeze off accurate shots. The result is a chain of mindlessly samey fights without a worthy challenge.

Still, it could be worse, as I soon recalled when moving to the final piece in the Collection. Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge welcomes the failures of Sigma 2 like old friends, and invites a few new ones along for good measure. At least in this case, Razor’s Edge is the best version of the game available, but then Ninja Gaiden 3 was so feature-light that isn’t saying much. It’s still easily the weakest in this package.

Most noticeably, it completely erases any lasting pretence of exploration or varied pacing. Razor’s Edge is a series of battle arenas linked by empty rooms and corridors. There are no chests or items, and currency is only gained through combat performance, to be spent on a skill tree, which includes moves that were previously part of Ryu’s default repertoire.
The action itself meanwhile ignores that the explosive violence of the first two games was underpinned by finely tuned systems. Bloody dismemberment is back, but mainly just helps to make a bigger mess, alongside a whirling camera and disorienting execution attacks. Timings are loose, so sometimes I hit the button to trigger a finishing move only to see the enemy grab me instead. Sometimes in the blur of limbs I didn’t even realise, losing track of Ryu’s position altogether. Most battles dissolve into frenzies of endurance, with a little luck determining the outcome.

Indeed, Razor’s Edge is arguably the hardest of these games, because it’s so inflexible. Magic attacks recharge sporadically and are the only way of regaining health during combat. Then after a battle, you get a health rebate tied to your performance, which might leave you wandering into the next rumble with very little left. This draconian approach makes Sigma’s old-school item juggling feel enlightened, and sums up a rigidity that demands you step in line rather than express yourself.

It’s the result of a game that consistently embodies the wrong kind of modernisation. QTEs that flash up without warning don’t gel with the series’ consistent, instinctive control method. Occasional stealth sections see you sneaking up on individual enemies that you elsewhere butcher by the dozen. Tutorial tips appear mid-action when you’ve no hope of reading them. A plotline about Ryu working with the CIA takes itself far too seriously for its own good. It’s like the pointless, big-budget Hollywood remake of a cult Japanese film. At least the main female character turns up properly dressed.

Master Collection is thus a three-game tour through a classic series where one game feels dated, another feels compromised and the third wasn’t much good to begin with. Not ideal. And certainly, if you’re an Xbox owner, you may consider playing the first two games in non-Sigma form via enhanced backwards compatibility instead.

Yet I had some fine times slicing my way through the series again. Especially since – as you’d expect – all three games run very smoothly, with minimal loading times. And even the first hasn’t aged badly in visual terms, due to a clean-textured style that scales neatly into HD. Most of all, the visceral combat when they deliver is still as masterful as it gets. Nothing else makes it feel so good to be a ninja.

Ninja Gaiden Master Collection is available now for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC. We played the PS4 version on a PS5. 

The Verdict

Ninja Gaiden Master Collection is an accurate representation of a uniquely exciting series that never quite found the perfect balance. There’s plenty of content here and on top form its combat remains supremely sharp. But the first game deserves a more extensive remaster these days, and the second is poorly represented by its weakest version. Not quite a master collection, then, but still a pretty good one.

Pros

  • Three substantial campaigns plus bonus modes
  • Ryu’s ninja skills and weapons are as thrilling to use as ever
  • The first game is packed with variety
  • Slick performance across the collection

Cons

  • The first game shows its age
  • The second is too trimmed down in its Sigma form
  • The third just isn’t very good
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