Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection (Switch) Review
In an industry fraught with art history preservation issues, Ninja Gaiden’s legacy is perhaps uniquely troubled. The roots of the series can be traced all the way back to the arcade machines of the late 1980s, but arguably it was only fully propelled into the spotlight with the modern prequel/reboot, 2004’s Ninja Gaiden. The leap to fully 3D action games would go on to spawn two distinctly different sequels, as well as incredibly divisive soft remakes of each title, dubbed the Sigma entries, along with Ninja Gaiden 3’s Razor’s Edge port.
Across the six odd versions of the mainline Ninja Gaiden series, it would change hands from the original auteur of the series, Tomonobu Itagaki, resulting in a vision that feels at best inconsistent. The priorities of each game are different, though, sticking with the core premise of a skilled ninja done wrong by the world now seeking to put it right through unrelenting carnage. With Ninja Gaiden The Master Collection, the Sigma and Razor’s Edge ports of these classics arrive on the Nintendo Switch, bringing with them all the glory and guts of the turbulent franchise.
The Master Collection finds itself somewhere in the middle of the remastered classics market. The game’s themselves boast almost all of the previously available DLC content for each title, including character skins and full-blown game modes. It’s the kind of inclusion you’d be forgiven for expecting as a bare minimum from a collection, which isn’t to say it isn’t good to have them here but they are the beginning and end of the collection’s special additions. Unless you’re willing to pay for more, that is.
The standard edition of The Master Collection does not come with any content to celebrate the franchise’s long history. For things like soundtracks and digital art books, you’ll need to pick up the Deluxe Edition for an extra eight bucks Australian. It’s a mildly baffling thing to hide behind such a meager paywall, not only because it feels like an essential element of any kind of “master” collection but also because the price gap is so minor as to make you wonder why it’s even there in the first place.
There’s also no hint of the franchise’s history before the 2004 title. It’s a shame considering the earlier titles had already been collected in a trilogy port for the SNES in 1995. Small decisions like these end up wearing down the illusive special factor of these kinds of re-releases, making The Master Collection feel like perfunctory ports rather than a celebration of the franchise. As for the ports themselves, mileage varies depending on which game you’re playing and how you’ve chosen to use your Switch.
When docked the performance is buttery smooth, for the most part, each game only showing some wear and tear due to its age rather than the quality of the ports. Ninja Gaiden Sigma’s character models look surprisingly sharp and animations, while notably slower than it’s far more juiced up sequels, remain smooth. The backgrounds are occasionally victim to the kind of soft-focus blurring you’d see on a daytime soap, and the sound design is a little crunchy, but for a game pushing fifteen years old, it holds up nicely.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is visually the crown jewel of the collection though, taking everything good about the first entry and jacking it up to eleven, with one caveat. Again, docked mode is your best option for performance here as the leap in cinematic quality and sheer number of on-screen combatants make for an impressive display on your television. Handheld unfortunately stutters from time to time, dropping frames amid frantic combat, hampering its bombastic charm.
As for Ninja Gaiden 3 Razor’s Edge it sits uncomfortably between the two in terms of performance. Reasonably sharper in technical quality than the others due to its age, but something about this port feels off, the often overwhelming visual flair of the game translating to difficult to parse information and jarring compression in both handheld and docked mode. Performance in handheld aside for all three titles, the mapping of the block to the L bumper is also woefully misplaced. The bumper on the Joy-Cons lacks the necessary depth of click for how frequently you’ll be needing to slam it, making for an oddly unsatisfying gameplay experience.
Technical elements aside, the game’s themselves are a fascinating microcosm of late oughts edginess and masculine indulgence. Our protagonist, Ryu Hayabusa, is every bit the stoic badass self-insert he appears to be, including ill-fated attempts to humanise him as a father figure in the third entry. Along with a cast of revolving door scantily clad women, demonic betrayals and underworld schemes, the core thread of the games is commendable for being so utterly itself, even if I didn’t personally find it all that compelling. The only notable subversion being the audacious sculpting of Ryu’s skin-tight black leather, but I digress.
Core mechanics are as tight as they’ve ever been, or at least I imagine so. Despite being an avid fan of difficult action titles with unique visions (oh hey, FromSoftware, didn’t see you there), I never got around to playing the Gaiden games in their heyday. Or again when they were re-released for that matter. But there is an indelible quality to the core combat that makes itself apparent within moments of starting any of the games. The second entry in particular I found the most thrilling, speeding up the combat of the first game and delighting in tossing an absurd number of foes at you. Then there’s the litany of weapons available to you, which can either dramatically or subtly shift your playstyle nicely.
There are some issues of course, the genre having come quite a ways since these games were designed means modern quality of life improvements are lacking here. The absence of a hard lock-on function is especially grating as Ryu will often auto-target the wrong enemy during frantic combat, making the stringing together of combos a little frustrating. Which is an extension of the overarching problems with the camera, an unwieldy thing that often resulted in cool level design being obfuscated by rubberbanding camera angles.
Given that I’m new to the games the last point of contention with The Master Collection is more academic to me but it’s worth noting that for some the versions included here aren’t exactly the ideal choices. Fan reaction to the Sigma ports is, well, mixed to say the least. These tweaked versions of the games are decidedly different from their original visions, something even Itagaki has condemned in the past. So much like the missing arcade era games, the decision to only include the altered ports in something dubbed The Master Collection is something of a mystery to me.
Despite lacking the fanfare you might expect for a celebration of a beloved franchise, The Master Collection does finally allow more players to experience these distinctly unique action titles. Be sure to play in docked mode for the best performance and ideally grab yourself a pro-controller to better handle a superb core combat experience. Ninja Gaiden might have aged in a few ways, but its mastery of the blade remains undeniable.
+ Timeless action combat
+ Edgy but goofy storytelling and aesthetics
+ Solid performance in docked mode
- Lacklustre collection
- Handheld performance stutters
- Visual issues in Ninja Gaiden 3 Razor’s Edge