Some advice for game developers: just because the Nintendo DS has a microphone does not mean you have to shoehorn the mic into every DS game. Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword offers hope that producers can figure this thing out while still showing how awkward poorly implemented microphone controls can be.
Dragon Sword once again puts you in the black robe of Ryu Hayabusa, a noble dragon ninja who once again finds his life disrupted by the shadowy Black Spider Ninja Clan. The Clan has kidnapped Ryu’s young ninja apprentice in order to retrieve the master’s blade, the title Dragon Sword. Had this game been made a year ago, it probably would have just used the DS’s buttons for controls, with the touchscreen getting some token usage. But now that the touchscreen has been deciphered, you control Ryu with the stylus alone. Dragging it in front of him causes him to walk, drawing it upward makes him jump, tapping the touchscreen unleashes his shurikens, and slashing at the screen triggers an attack with his sword. You cast spells by using the touchscreen to draw a Sanskrit character. The only function the stylus doesn’t handle is blocking, which you do by pressing any of the DS’s buttons. In combat, different combinations will prompt Ryu to employ various sword techniques, and as with many action games these days, you earn rewards for the style of your attack.
The controls are smooth and responsive, even more so than in previous touchscreen-exclusive games. It can be fun to slice and dice your way through your foes, but since Dragon Sword operates with the DS held like a book, which reduces the width of the playing field, the on-screen action is shrunk down. It’s easy for Ryu to get lost in the hectic battle scenes, particularly when most of the enemies he encounters are the same approximate size (and in some cases, the same color) as he is.
Dragon Sword mostly takes its cues from the 2004 Xbox version of Ninja Gaiden — a game known for its extreme difficulty. But Dragon Sword is neither particularly challenging nor particularly deep. The majority of the in-game events have Ryu getting locked in a room until a gaggle of monsters are destroyed. Most of these enemies are easily disposed of, and fending off wave after wave of them grows tedious after a while. Even when you try to summon the various sword techniques, combat all too frequently finds you flailing at anything that does or does not move. And the boss fights — impressive-looking though the polygonal beasts are — seldom require anything more imaginative than slashing away until the thing dies. It’s the DS version of a button masher.
It might be nice if there were something to break the tedium. That brings us back to the DS’s microphone. Dragon Sword’s “puzzles” mostly involve torches that must be extinguished, windmills that must be powered, or sleeping townsfolk who need to be wakened. Once you remember that the DS has a mic, the solutions are pretty obvious. The act of blowing or yelling into the microphone at that point almost feels like busy work. In time, designers will figure this out.