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Platform Nintendo DS
Release Date JP: March 20, 2008
NA: March 25, 2008
EU: June 26, 2008
AU: June 27, 2008
Developer Team Ninja
Publisher Tecmo
Ubisoft (Europe)
ESRB T - Partial Nudity and Violence

There are two characters who appear to be hot anime chicks wearing nothing but body paint and funny masks. The violence isn't anything extraordinary; no blood but lots of flashes and noise.

Description:
Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword is the first Ninja Gaiden title to appear on DS. It is intended to bridge the story between the original for Xbox and the sequel that is on the Xbox 360. If you've played the first one, you'll notice a lot of the same settings and characters, scaled down for the DS.

Distinguishing Features:
The entire Team Ninja (of Dead or Alive fame) was on board for this title, including Tomonobu Itagaki. Also, this title embraces two of the DS's more eccentric features: all-stylus controls and a side-by-side screen orientation.

Review:
I was able to complete the game on Normal in about eight hours, only dying two or three times. Much like its Xbox counterparts, most of your deaths are going to come from boss fights. If you're familiar with the Ninja Gaiden series for Xbox, you're also familiar with the controller-snapping difficulty the game embraces. It's an ultimately rewarding experience, especially when you finally figure out the trick to a particular boss, but until then you're swearing under your breath and going "This is it, one last time and I'm putting this down and ACTUALLY flagellating myself instead of letting this game do it for me." Reports of people hurling gamepads and other near-to-hand objects are not uncommon. Fortunately for the DS, the difficulty level has been toned down a bit. In fact, I would recommend playing on the harder difficulties for anyone experienced with the Xbox version. However, these are only unlockable on completion of Normal mode.

Outside of the fighting, it's a fairly standard action game. There are a couple of easy puzzles (hint: Use the microphone) and a shop to unlock extra moves and spells at. Unlocks are purchased by killing enemies and collecting the essence that they leave behind. When you complete a level, your kills, successful Ultimate Techniques (UT), and clear time are tallied up, and you are given Karma and a rating based on your performance. Karma is just another name for high score, and is used for the global rankings. The rating ranges from Ninja to Master Ninja; once I'd really picked up the combat system I didn't get anything lower than Master Ninja on Normal difficulty.

The sound is well-done, if a bit repetitive. The music is pretty forgettable. I didn't actually notice it most of the time while I was playing. Cutscenes are either shown through very detailed still images or animations within the game engine, plus text. The animation itself is very fluid, and the models have some very impressive texture work to make up for the low polygon count. I didn't notice any slowdowns during the game, and I was able to keep track of Ryu without much trouble.

The control system caused a bit of a stir when it was announced. In fact, everything except guarding against attacks is controlled by the stylus. If you want to move to a location, simply press in that direction with the stylus. You attack enemies with your sword using quick, short strokes, and throw shuriken by tapping them. You can jump with a simple upward stroke, and you can dodge by holding down Guard and tapping in the direction you want to move. The game features Ryu's student, resident hot ninja woman Momiji, during the prologue of the game as a training sequence, which is just enough time to grasp the basics of combat before moving on to Ryu's combo-heavy style.

In order to play the game, you hold the DS sideways, so the screens are side-by-side, sort of like a book. Since you can guard by holding down any button you want, including the shoulder buttons, you can change your grip on the DS if you need to. I actually found that the most comfortable way to hold it was in the palm of my hand with my thumb on the shoulder button, or flat on a table with one finger on the D-Pad.

The combination of the controls and the Resident Evil-style static camera feature probably the only actual complaint I can come up with. Since you're limited to a single viewpoint, if one of the enemies steps in front of the other, Ryu will assume you want to attack the one you can see and not the one you can't. However, most of the rooms are designed in such a way as to prevent this and in the rooms that it can happen in, both Ryu and the enemies move quick enough that it's nothing more than a minor hitch. I can't even recall a single time that this lead to a player death, and tends to work in your favor more often than not since keeping multiple enemies off balance is the key to winning combats.

The box features one of those "WFC Compatible!" logos on the front, but don't let this fool you into thinking you're actually getting anything interesting. There is a global ranking system you can connect to through WFC that pulls your total karma from one of your saved games and compares it against everyone else who's uploaded their score to the rankings. It then returns your global rank and stats, as well as a list of the top twenty players. However, I suspect there's some issues with the system as the top five players had completely topped out on karma despite having playtimes of only a few hours and zero player deaths. It's neat, but useful only as far as having proof that you're better at the game than your buddies are.

Final Verdict:
This is an extremely solid action game, and would have been one of the DS's "killer apps" if it had been released closer to the DS's launch. In fact, other developers who are working on action games need to take several large cues from the combat system and quit goofing around with gimmicky spellcasting or unintuitive controls. It's simple enough that I can play this while waiting in line for something, put it into sleep mode for an hour or two, then open it back up and carry on like I never closed it in the first place. Along with Tetris DS and Contra 4, this title's earned a permanent spot in my rotation.

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