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NINJA GAIDEN

A legend returns better than ever

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Ryu Hayabusa, last hope of the Hayabusa Clan, is one of the video game world’s most famous ninja. Last seen in 1995, in Tecmo’s “Ninja Gaiden Trilogy” for Super Famicom, Hayabusa is one of the few old-school game characters who remains vivid in many gamers minds despite a long hiatus.

Hayabusa is back and far better than ever in “Ninja Gaiden,” a game that may possibly be the best new game for Microsoft’s Xbox since its 2001 release. (The only Xbox game that rivals “Ninja Gaiden” is “Halo.”)

The game begins with the annihilation of Hayabusa’s village at the hands of mystical enemies. Ryu is off learning his ninja trade at a nearby fortress when the massacre occurs; but seeing the smoke, he runs to the village and gets a taste of what the battle was like.

This may be a good time to discuss Ryu Hayabusa’s ninja prowess.

First off, Hayabusa is agile. His vertical leap is taller than that of an Olympic high jumper. When straight jumps are not enough to reach an important ledge, he has other tricks up his sleeve. He can jump, run a few vertical feet along certain surfaces, then reach to grab the ledge. If that is still not enough, he can spring indefinitely from wall to wall in tight nooks. Stick him in a tight shaft and this guy is a one-man elevator.

Then there are his fighting techniques. Hayabusa is a good swordsman with a very powerful sword. With it, he can slice and dice like a normal mortal or absorb the soul power of fallen enemies to launch lightning-fast attacks.

Hayabusa also carries projectile weapons such as shuriken throwing stars, arrows and magic.

A big, strong guy with lightning speed, a mystic sword, and throwing stars may sound like overkill, but “Ninja Gaiden” is actually on the hard side — the very hard side, to be specific.

Before going to investigate his village, Hayabusa gets in a fight with a white-haired fellow who possesses massive biceps and nasty Nunchacku sticks. Usually boss characters such as this one are tough all over except for one hidden point of vulnerability. Not this guy. He laid me out flat several times, beating poor Ryu to a pulp. It took me several tries to master enough fighting moves to beat this guy. When I finally developed the skills to block his sticks and slice him, it turned out he was Hayabusa’s friend.

If you think Ryu Hayabusa’s friends are tough, just wait until you get a load of some of his enemies. While many of the enemies are huge and vicious, others are not so strong — they just attack in groups utilizing their partners to keep Hayabusa off balance.

You will find yourself fighting enemies that attack from opposite angles, timing their attacks with perfect precision to prevent you from striking their comrades.

“Ninja Gaiden” does not deserve perfect marks in any area, but it scores near perfect in all categories. The art and layout are an immaculate mixture of traditional Japanese images and modern gaming devices. Granted, it seems a bit strange to see an old-style village and a modern city in the same game, but that’s video games for you.

The music is repetitive — especially as you repeat failed levels — but nice. The voice acting, in the English version at any rate, is above average but below spectacular. All of the elements work.

“Ninja Gaiden” is very hard; but hard games are fine as long as they have the magic to keep you trying. Don’t expect to waltz through “Ninja Gaiden” unscathed — this is a game that knocks you down and leaves you anxious for another try.