Why Ninja Gaiden Black Is the Best 'Pure' Action Game of All Time

If you were to ask me “Mitchell, what kind of video games do you like,” I honestly don’t know how to really answer that question. I feel like I can find the fun in just about any genre, outside of ones that really require some sort of enthusiast or hobby level interest, like simulation car games, sports games, or walking games.

But if you were to say “No, Mitchell, what’s like… your genre. The bundle of games that you’d save on a sinking ship and be forced to forsake all others.” Well, that’s easy: It’s action games. Or if we want to get extra specific, it’s the subgenre that’s become known as “Character Action Games”

Ninja Gaiden Master Collection Reveal Screens

Character action games are my first love in the world of video games. When they’re good, they light my brain up like no other thanks to their challenging yet rewarding difficulty, flashy combat, and moments that just make you feel awesome as the person orchestrating the on-screen chaos.

But while we’ve seen modern sequels and reimaginings of classic series like God of War, Devil May Cry, and Bayonetta, there’s one 3D action game pioneer that still has not seen a new entry in over a decade: Ninja Gaiden. And that’s a dang shame because, in my eyes, Ninja Gaiden Black is the best pure action game of all time.

The Dance of Combat

When talking about what makes Ninja Gaiden Black so dang good, we gotta break the conversation down into three main points. So let’s start with the flashiest of the bunch, the combat, and specifically how it works on both the surface and deeper levels.

While they’re grouped in the same genre, Ninja Gaiden’s combat is actually much different than a game like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, or really like any other game within the genre. But to focus on DMC and Bayonetta specifically, those games have always been about style and spectacle. They’re the types of game where the expression of combat is just as important as the function of combat. You’re knocking enemies up into the air, hitting them with crazy air combos, knocking them away, pulling them back in, and at a higher level of play, you’re extending those combos with jump cancels, swapping weapons on the fly, and letting your creativity flow freely as you fight your enemies.

In my eyes, Ninja Gaiden Black is the best pure action game of all time.

And while some of that is also true for Ninja Gaiden Black (he is a ninja after all, so there’s an innate coolness to his move set) its combat is less about style and more about doing whatever it takes to stay alive against hyper-aggressive enemies. Key to this is the fact that Ryu can do extraordinarily powerful things to enemies that you just don’t see very often in action games. His flying swallow attack allows him to almost instantly close the distance on any enemy, potentially kill them in one hit with a decapitation, and otherwise deal big damage to them even if it doesn’t lop off their head; the Izuna Drop is a one-touch kill combo on most enemies with huge amounts of splash damage; and on top of all that, Ryu also has access to screen clearing ninpo attacks that deal massive single target and AOE damage.

What it all boils down to is that perhaps more so than just about any other action game out there, once you get a handle on Ryu’s abilities and a couple of upgrades under your belt, playing as Ryu Hayabusa is one of the best power trips ever.

And all of that is speaking purely on a surface level. When you start to dig deeper, Ninja Gaiden’s brilliant combat somehow manages to shine even brighter. At its core is arisk reward mechanic involving essence and Ryu’s Ultimate Techniques. Essence comes in three forms: Yellow, a currency used to purchase items and upgrades at the shop, blue essence restores your life, and red essence restores one of Ryu’s ninpo uses.

But the true value of essence comes from the fact that if you start to charge Ryu’s ultimate attack while there’s essence around, Ryu will suck in the essence around him and instantly charge the attack. If it lands, you get a much larger orb of essence with several times the amount of either currency, health restoration, or ninpo restoration. But if it doesn’t land, then you lose that essence. You can even hold down the block button to make it so that Ryu doesn’t pick up any essence, which lets you maneuver around a combat encounter and try to find the best timing and opportunity to use your ultimate technique.

This “dance” is something that’s so wholly unique to Ninja Gaiden, nothing before or since has a combat system quite like it, especially when you mix in Ryu’s many movement options, the various weapons he can use, and his ranged weapon options. You can hop on enemy heads, run up walls, run across walls, cancel jumps out of your evasive rolls, use smoke bombs to lower an enemy’s defense, use a weapon’s unique trait to wall splat them – it all leads to a style of combat that is very dynamic, frenetic, and always feels fresh because there are so many different effective ways that you have to deal with enemies.

And there needs to be, because the enemies in Ninja Gaiden Black are among the most ferocious you’ll ever face. Which leads us to point number two:

The AI

Ninja Gaiden Black’s enemy AI is a key reason why I love its combat so much, and why it still hasn’t gotten stale even all these years later. Many action games have AI that’re very reactive, meaning they like to circle around your character and primarily respond to what you do. They’ll block, evade, counter attack, or maybe just take the hit. In short, they come to life once you start attacking, but don’t typically push the action.

In many other games, they might be more aggressive, but their attacks are very limited and relatively predictable, making the difficulty be more about juggling multiple enemies at once.

But in Ninja Gaiden Black, the operating word for the AI is relentless. They’re constantly jumping all over the place, dashing in, peppering you from a distance, they’ll grab you if you turtle up, and even at the early stages, there’s just an added level of intensity from the enemies.

Even small fights against basic enemies have tension to them.

Now this isn’t to say that this is the “right” way for action games to be. Variety is the spice of life, and the reactive AI might fit a combat system with more parry heavy combat focus, just like how the more predictable fodder-like AI plays to the strengths of a game like Devil May Cry by giving the player more opportunities to absolutely style on their enemies. Plus, there’s plenty of excitement that comes from the mixing of these basic enemies with the tougher enemies that break these particular molds.

That said, man does the hyper aggression of Ninja Gaiden Black’s enemies go well with the lightning fast pace of its combat and Ryu’s mobility centric combat style. Even small fights against basic enemies have tension to them, and the bigger fights that mix-in large lumbering demons along with the quick ones that have the ability to dart in and out super quickly, are edge of your seat fights for survival.


The third key to Ninja Gaiden Black’s gameplay is Ryu’s mobility. No one moves or incorporates that movement into combat quite like Ryu Hayabusa. A lot of this stems from the fact that his jump is super low to the ground, and focused more on horizontal movement than vertical movement. This allows him to quickly jump towards enemies, and enhances the usage of moves like the Flying Swallow, and the guillotine throw.

It also allows for Ryu to really quickly move around a combat space while limiting his vulnerability thanks to the ability to cancel out of an evasive roll with a roll jump. Not only are they invaluable in combat, but they’re also just super fun to use to get around the world.

Above all though, Ryu feels utterly smooth to control. He’s able to go seamlessly from on the ground, to on the wall, to flying swallow, to jumping off enemy heads, to quick-charging an Ultimate Technique. There’s a flow to his movement that’s just a joy to be in control of.

Ninja Gaiden: The Complete Playlist

Every game in the series, starting with 1988's Ninja Gaiden arcade game.See All

Let’s be fair though: if you plan on jumping into Ninja Gaiden Black for the first time in 2023, you should know that not everything has aged as well as the combat. Its story is completely forgettable, some of its deeper systems could have been better explained to ease the on-ramp for new players, its menus are clunky and require you to constantly call them up in order to equip new weapons and use consumables, and navigation through its world could have used some better direction.

But it is also an action game, and when it comes to its action, Ninja Gaiden Black is a masterclass of combat design, and is the one game that I keep coming back to on a yearly basis. All because of this particular blend of deep combat, challenging and aggressive enemy design, and unparalleled mobility options.

Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. You can find him on twitter @JurassicRabbit

About Fox News

Check Also

Diablo 4 Devs Discuss Server Disconnect Issues, First 'Real Patch' Coming Soon

In an extensive Diablo 4 "Campfire Chat" on Twitch and YouTube, Blizzard discussed, among other …

Leave a Reply