Friday, July 31, 2020

Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos Review

Developer: Tecmo
Original Release: Famicom/NES 1990
Also Available On: Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console

Unlike Zelda II, Super Mario Bros 2 (USA), and Castlevania II, Ninja Gaiden didn’t go out of its way to do something radically different with its sequel. Ninja Gaiden II is just more Ninja Gaiden. A refined and improved Ninja Gaiden, but still very much Ninja Gaiden. It features new power ups, better graphics, more cutscenes, and less punishment while still keeping the gameplay challenging. The last boss doesn’t send you 4 levels back when you die on him, for example. He just sends you to the beginning of the last level. What a nice guy.

The thing that sticks out to me about Ninja Gaiden II isn’t the graphics or the new power ups, though. It’s the level design that makes this one feel different from the first game. The layouts feel tighter, more carefully designed, and more complex than in the first game. The platforming is much more varied, the enemies are more aggressive, and there’s more verticality to the levels. I often felt like I really had to plan out how to tackle certain areas. There’s also a lot of levels with environmental hazards, such as wind blowing in different directions, slippery ice, water currents that push you back, and a night level that only lights up when lightning strikes. Some of these feel a little gimmicky, and are more annoying than fun or interesting to deal with, but they’re not overdone. Less than half of the levels have something like this, so they’re fine when you look at the game as a whole.

When I first saw screenshots of Ninja Gaiden II, there was a red Ninja following the blue Ninja around. So until I actually got to play the game, I thought NGII had 2 player co-op. It doesn’t, though. The red Ninja is actually one of the new items in the game, the shadow clones. The shadow clone item gives Ryu up to 2 red shadow clones which will follow him around and copy his movement after a small delay and will attack at the same time as the main Ryu without delay. This skill plays a major part in a lot of boss strategies because it allows you to position the clones where they can attack a boss while keeping Ryu out of harm’s way. It’s pretty awesome.

Ryu also gets a new subweapon that lets him shoot fireballs downwards at enemies. It’s not very good if you ask me. Very situational. There have also been some other small and not so small changes to some of the other subweapons. The windmill shuriken always goes through Ryu instead of him catching it, the spinning jump slash technique is gone, the fire wheel is not automatic anymore, and Ryu always starts off with the regular shuriken now, which is pretty nice since subweapons feel much more useful in this game. Ryu can also use subweapons while clinging to a wall now, which comes in handy more often than you might think.

Another pretty big change is how wall climbing works. The first game had a wall cling, but you couldn't really climb a wall unless it had a ladder. You had to awkwardly wall jump your way up to climb a wall. In Ninja Gaiden II, all walls work as if they had a ladder on them. Ryu can climb up and down them with ease. He still can’t get himself up onto any platforms from the wall without some weird wall jump, though. This might sound like a small thing, but it actually speeds up the gameplay a lot and allows the level design to be more creative by being able to have more places where you need to climb.

The first Ninja Gaiden got a lot of attention for its cutscenes. Games weren't really doing that kind of stuff back then until Ninja Gaiden. So for the sequel, Tecmo went crazy with them. The cutscenes in NGII are much longer and better looking than in the first game, and there’s one after almost every stage. The developers were obviously very proud of them because they’re all all over the end credits too. They do look pretty awesome. I especially love the shots of Ryu overlooking the “Castle of the Dragon”. Very Castlevania-ish.

The graphics in NGII are a pretty big improvement over the first game's. Ryu looks exactly the same, but the backgrounds have a lot more detail and animation in them. I especially like the level with the water currents you have to run against. There’s skulls everywhere, the walls look like they’re made of muscle, and the floors look like they’re covered in demon rib bones. You think Devil May Cry 5’s Qliphoth could have been inspired by Ninja Gaiden II? That’s what it reminded me of. The framerate is also much better than in the first game. I didn’t notice any slowdown at all.

The music still uses the same kind of style as the first game. There’s a lot of fast-paced action anime style music during gameplay, and slower, more melodramatic movie score-like music during cutscenes. I don’t like it as much as the first game’s soundtrack, but it’s still pretty good.

I’ll always have a special shuriken-shaped spot in my heart for the first Ninja Gaiden, but I think Ninja Gaiden II is the better game. It’s like the Mega Man 3 to Mega Man 1. Yeah, I went there. It plays like the first game, but does everything better. Except the music, I guess. And from what I’ve played of Ninja Gaiden III, I can probably go ahead and call Ninja Gaiden II the best in the original trilogy.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 Review

Developer: Inti Creates
Platforms: XBO, PS4, PC, NS
Version Played: Switch
Price: $15

This came out of nowhere. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 was announced only a month ago at New Game+ Expo, and it was released just a couple of weeks after. I ranked the first Curse of the Moon number 4 in my GOTY 2018 list, so I was pretty hyped about this surprise announcement. COTM2 features a new quest, 3 new characters, 2 player co-op, and a much more clear-cut structure than the first game. Sounds pretty good, but is it actually a better game? I’m not so sure about that.

If you’re not familiar with Curse of the Moon, it’s basically a mix of some of the coolest Classicvania elements. It uses a party system, like the one in Castlevania III, and character specific branching paths, like in Castlevania Bloodlines. Bosses also have finishing moves, like in Castlevania Rondo of Blood. The main character, Zangetsu, plays more like Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden than a Belmont, but that’s okay because Ninja Gaiden (NES) was totally a Castlevania clone with Ninjas, and Miriam is totally like a Belmont in COTM. Of course, COTM also does some original things that Classicvanias never did too, like the power ups.

In COTM1, you had the choice of killing, recruiting, or ignoring the other characters in order to choose how you wanted to play through the game. You could kill them and give their powers to Zangetsu, recruit them and use them on your quest, or ignore them and make the game as challenging as playing NES Castlevania without save states. COTM2 doesn’t have that at all. Instead, you play through Episodes with preset characters, like Nightmare Mode in the first game. You unlock new Episodes by beating the available ones, so it’s not like you can skip around and play the one you want either. I don’t like this structure. It makes it feel like I’m grinding to play how I want. Not a whole lot changes between episodes. It’s just the same game with different characters. Was the first game’s structure really that confusing for people? Maybe if they didn’t treat a major game mechanic like some huge spoiler, people would have kept replaying the game instead of quitting after 1 playthrough.

The 3 other characters from the first game are back, but they are only available in a couple of Episodes. The new characters are pretty cool. For the most part. We get Dominique, Robert, and Hachi. Dominique is the Nun from Ritual of the Night. She uses a spear, has powerful magic, and controls like something between Eric Lecarde and Shovel Knight. Robert is a gunslinger from Zangetsu’s past. He can wall jump, crawl on his stomach, and shoot guns, but his attacks have a long reloading animation after every shot, and he can’t jump very far. I think he sucks. The reloading animation is too long and his jump is just terrible. He’s worse than Alfred. Hachi is a Corgi in a steam engine mech suit. He kind of feels like a mech suit in Mega Man X. He can break walls with his punches and stomps, has a ton of HP, a hover jump, and a special move that makes him invincible. I think he’s pretty awesome. I mean, he’s a dog in a mech!

The level design in COTM2 feels a lot less forgiving than in the first game. I feel like there’s a lot of areas where there isn’t much room for error and you have to memorize the level. This makes playing on Veteran (with knockback and limited lives) feel about as hard as playing solo Zangetsu with no power ups in the first game. I played through the whole first game on Veteran, but after playing COTM2 up to level 7 on Veteran, I switched to Casual. My progress was going way too slow because of the difficulty. Maybe Veteran would be better as an extra challenge to go back to later. Thankfully, there is no penalty for playing on Casual. Just like in the first game.

COTM2 plays a lot like the first game, but I guess due to the way some of the characters control, you’re forced to use more modern controls with subweapons on a separate button. You don’t have the option to press up and attack to use subweapons, like in Castlevania, at all. I get that Dominique has up attacks, but they could have given us the option to use Up + attack with other characters. This bothers me more than you might think. I’m just so used to pressing up + attack for subweapons.

I was hoping that if they ever made a COTM2, they’d go with more SNES-like 16-bit graphics, but COTM keeps the NES-like 8-bit style of the original. And that’s fine, I guess. The game looks pretty nice. There’s a lot more detail and animations in the backgrounds now, and the screen doesn’t cut off on the sides, like the first game, since it didn’t have to be made for 3DS. The new bosses also look much better than in the first game. The characters all still have those ugly GBC-like color schemes, though. Even the new ones. I don’t get that.

I thought the music was alright. It’s still by Ippo Yamada, like the first game, but most of it doesn’t sound like Bloodstained music, or even Castlevania. It sounds more like Mega Man at times. I think more chiptune renditions of Michiru Yamane’s ROTN music would have worked better. It just doesn’t sound very Goth, Metal, or Classical to me. COTM2 still has some pretty good songs here and there, though.

If you were looking for some kind of explanation of COTM’s ending, or the connection between these games and ROTN, forget about it. This game makes even less sense than the last one, doesn’t even try to tie into ROTN, and doesn’t explain anything about anything. This game is really just about the gameplay.

If you’re wondering about the co-op, it’s not online, so I didn’t play it.

Curse of the Moon 2 is a lot of fun, but I think the more defined structure with the Episode format takes a lot of the fun away. I would much rather have the freedom the first game gave me. I also think the difficulty is way too lopsided. Veteran is too hard to start with and Casual isn’t hard enough. The first game got it right. But aside from those 2 things, this game is great. It’s more of that old-school Castlevania-like gameplay I loved from the first one. I’d love to see more entries in this series, but I hope they’re more like the first game.