Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor. Tecmo has changed up the gameplay formula in a number of ways, generally improving the game, and there is much less focus on memorizing each level to avoid gotcha moments. The cinematics that made Ninja Gaiden stand apart are back and even better.
The most dramatic gameplay change is that you can now get up to two shadow ninjas that will follow you around, similar to options in Gradius. These are especially helpful during boss fights, though their ability to duplicate ninja powers without an extra cost can be a huge advantage even in normal stages. And even when they aren’t actually helping very much, they just look cool.
Ninja powers have also been heavily revised in Ninja Gaiden II. Their costs now vary more, and it is possible to find items that will fill your power completely. To go with that change, you now have a maximum that can be upgraded as you progress through the game. The result is that ninja powers tend to see a lot more use during normal gameplay, especially later in the game where the effects are the most dramatic.
Also changed are the wall mechanics. You can now climb any wall you can grab, so you’ll do a lot less wall-kicking. The game uses some creative level layouts to take advantage of this. The types of stages also vary much more than in the original, adding mechanics like wind, slippery surfaces, and running water. It’s all a bit gimmicky, but it does give each level a very distinct personality.
The type of challenge has changed since the original Ninja Gaiden. There, you were expected to memorize monster spawn locations and learn the best path through each level. That is largely gone, though there are still plenty of potential one-hit kills, particularly in the last few levels. Ryu’s reaction to getting his is so dramatic that any hit on a small platform is liable to end in death. but instead of unfairly placed enemies, Ninja Gaiden II tends to throw large amounts of enemies at you. The result is frantic action, and while execution is still key, it feels like you at least have a chance the first time through a given area.
The only real problem with Ninja Gaiden II is that it’s just not as memorable as its predecessor. The story is largely a rehash, but the primary difference is that you won’t have to play certain sections dozens of times to learn them. With unlimited continues still available, this isn’t a particularly hard game to finish in a short time, especially if you can beat the original. Still, it does play nicely into nostalgia, including having normal enemy versions of most of the first game’s bosses. And the dramatic finale and gauntlet of bosses may be more memorable than they were the first time around, if only because you’re more likely to actually see them.
I’m not sure if Ninja Gaiden II is a better game than Ninja Gaiden I, but it’s much less hostile toward the player, and that makes a big difference in my book. There is more opportunity for creativity, as the game is more about handling dangerous situations than learning to avoid preset traps. And the mechanical changes make for a more interesting core gameplay loop. It may not quite reach its predecessor’s highs, but it avoids its lows as well.