Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection is a great way to revisit some action game classics that have aged well, though the Switch version struggles.
I have a confession to make: I’ve never really understood the praise for Ninja Gaiden. I played the first one on Xbox and hated it: I found the characters bland, the story uninteresting, and the game wildly unbalanced—arbitrarily difficult for the sake of being difficult. That didn’t stop me from playing it all the way through, or from buying Ninja Gaiden II when it came out a few years later, which I enjoyed a little more, but yeah. Me and Ninja Gaiden haven’t always been the best of buds. (Weirdly, I loved the PS2 reboot of Shinobi, which had exactly the same issues as Ninja Gaiden. Ah, the mysteries of the 14-year-old mind.)
Seventeen years later, Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection has shown me the light, so to speak. I’m older, not necessarily wiser, but more ready to meet these games on their own terms and enjoy them for what they are: high-energy action games that are chaotic yet precise, that reward mastery and creativity, with stories that are action-packed and don’t take themselves too seriously, but also manage to be surprisingly subtle beneath all the adrenaline.
The common assumption is that these sorts of collections are primarily for longtime fans who want a convenient way to revisit old favourites, or to introduce old classics to a new audience. But there’s crucial, often overlooked value in returning with fresh eyes and seeing how time can change your view on things. That’s certainly been my experience with Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection.
One of the more interesting things about this compilation is how eclectic it shows the three games included to be when placed side by side, despite the fundamental things that tie all three together. Ninja Gaiden Sigma, even with the adjustments and upgrades that came with the “Sigma” suffix, is still a game that shows the bold, if uneven, ambition of the original game—it’s aged surprisingly well where it counts, but you can also see its limitations in retrospect. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is the game that took everything the first game did to new heights, and polished its idea to near perfection. And then there’s Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, which shows how much a different creative team can change the tone of a thing, even when the fundamental pieces are the same as what came before. Playing all three back to back is an… interesting experience, to say the least.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma is a curious thing to play today. On some level, it shows its age—impressive as it was in 2004, it’s still a game that’s almost 20 years old now. Beyond just age, it was also the first game in the modern Ninja Gaiden era built entirely from scratch, with the limitations to scope that come with that. Playing today, its levels feel artificially constrained, the tools available in an nonetheless excellent combat system feel a little limited, and the difficulty curve feels erratic despite the Sigma update’s efforts to smooth things over.
But Ninja Gaiden has aged surprisingly well where it matters most. The action at its core is every bit as responsive and fluid today, demanding finesse and precision in the midst of some chaotic encounters. Mastering it is a steep hill to climb, but an incredibly satisfying one—there’s nothing quite like going from getting clobbered by a group of basic enemies to flawlessly carving your way through them, completely untouchable, in true ninja style. At the same time, Master Collection also benefits from the additions made to Ninja Gaiden Sigma: namely, “Hero Mode”, which gives you a period of borderline invincibility when your health gets low.
The story is, perhaps, the most surprising in how well it holds up: all the excesses of a tale about a modern-day ninja trying to stop a demon from abusing the power of an evil sword is one that could rightfully come across as terribly cringeworthy today. And yet, Ninja Gaiden’s ability to not take itself too seriously while also allowing some genuine earnestness pulls it together better than expected, and better than I remember from playing the original all those years ago.
The action at the core of it has aged like fine wine, every bit as responsive and fluid today as it was in 2004—maybe even more so. It’s a game that demands finesse and precision in the midst of chaos, and taking the time to explore the intricacies of its combat is a delight. But it was also the first game in a new series that needed everything built from scratch, meaning that for all its ambition, not all of its ideas could be fully realised, and that’s very apparent in hindsight: levels feel constrained, the difficulty curve is erratic, and some of the encounter design feels unrefined despite the strengths of the combat system itself.
Where Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection truly shines, though, is in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. Where Ninja Gaiden’s ambitions were a little constrained, Ninja Gaiden II flourished, building on the original with new tactical wrinkles in combat, new weapons to play with, and refinements across the board to deliver one of the most pristine combat systems you’ll ever see in an action game. Being able to dismember enemies is far more than just about gore and bloodletting, but fundamentally alters the ebb and flow of combat, for the better. Dismembered foes are limited in their abilities yet more aggressive, unpredictable, and deadly, and they’re also susceptible to instant-kill moves. In practice, that means identifying and eliminating wounded foes plays a key role in every encounter, on top of the usual aggressive attacks and active defence that Ninja Gaiden established.
It’s finely tuned to a point of near perfection. Granted, this was largely true of the original, and Sigma doesn’t make as significant of a change to Ninja Gaiden II as it did to the first game (though Hero Mode is still very welcome), but the fact that it plays so well today is testament to how good it was in the first place. And like Ninja Gaiden, the story’s mix of bombast, wry humour, and sincerity helps it age more gracefully than many would expect, with a world-spanning adventure that’s a delight to undertake.
And then there’s Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, which really shows how changes in key staff can change the whole tone of a piece. All the fundamental Ninja Gaiden building blocks are there, alongside plenty of new ideas and more “modern” twists like RPG-style skill trees instead of shops to buy upgrades. And yet, it feels very different in tone, in the story it tells, in the more hectic, less meticulous and refined action. It’s fine, but far from the heights of its predecessors, held back by an overplayed focus on explosive action at the cost of some of the earlier games’ subtleties, and combat systems that are flashy and kinetic but far more uneven and unwieldy than what Ninja Gaiden should be.
I don’t fault its inclusion in the Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection—again, it’s a decent enough game, just not a fantastic one—but it’s certainly the low point of the compilation. But taken solely from a point of historical curiosity, it’s fascinating to witness Ninja Gaiden 3 alongside its older brothers, and to trace the series’ history to through highs and lows.
But for all the praise I have for Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection, both as a whole and for the first two games in particular, I’d recommend not playing on Switch unless it’s your only option. The Switch option is fine, and far from unplayable, but it comes with some big concessions to allow it to actually run properly. There’s a dynamic resolution that sometimes makes an otherwise beautiful set of games look downright ugly when it drops, and even that doesn’t completely eliminate distracting frame rate dips when the action gets heated. Again, if Switch is your only option, it’s not terrible, but if you have the choice of playing on PS4, Xbox One, or PC, go for one of those.
Despite those technical shortcomings and the lacklustre experience that is Ninja Gaiden 3, Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection is an impressive collection that shows why this series is so lauded. From the ambitions of Ninja Gaiden Sigma to the way Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 refined those ideas to near-perfection, these are some of the best action games you’ll play—and they hold up surprisingly well today. I guess I like Ninja Gaiden now.
Title: Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection
Developer: Team Ninja, Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (Steam)
Release date: 10 June 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.