The early 2000s were an amazing time for Japanese games on consoles, and a terrible time for Japanese games on PCs. Capcom released some infamously bad ports of Resident Evil 4 and Devil May Cry games around 2005, which were originally on the Playstation 2. Meanwhile, the best character action game ever made was released on the Xbox, which used the same hardware and software architecture as a Windows PC… but Ninja Gaiden Black, sadly, never came to our platform. I played it and loved it more than a decade ago, but replaying it on the Xbox One X with Microsoft's new backwards compatibility feature convinced me of two things:
1) Holy shit, Ninja Gaiden Black is still an incredibly good game.
2) Emulated original Xbox games look and run fantastic at 4K, and are the first games to have me truly excited for the cross platform potential of UWP apps.
Microsoft's first wave of original Xbox backwards compatible games include a few classics: Ninja Gaiden Black, Star Wars: KOTOR, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Sid Meier's Pirates!, and Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge. There's also BloodRayne 2, but moving on.
Prince of Persia, Pirates!, and KOTOR all released on PC back in the day, and those are naturally the better versions to play a decade and a half later. But Ninja Gaiden and Crimson Skies are both absent on PC, and are both wonderful in very different ways. They were also both developed by teams that are no longer together.
That's no surprise for a Japanese game like Ninja Gaiden, but it's almost criminal for Crimson Skies, which was developed by MechWarrior legends FASA and is actually the follow-up to a PC game. Crimson Skies is all about the kind of arcadey flight combat that has just enough depth to be really engaging, but doesn't require a flight stick and pedals to control. It doesn't shoot for realism, but it's damn fun, and aerial combat games are still in woefully short supply. The 1930s setting reminds me of The Rocketeer and TaleSpin and swashbuckling pulp adventures and that vibe is sadly rare in games, too.
I don't have a disc lying around for Crimson Skies anymore, so instead I've been playing Ninja Gaiden Black on the Xbox One X, which is free to download as part of Microsoft's monthly Game Pass. And good god, has it held up remarkably well.
From the get-go Ninja Gaiden treats you like the ultimate badass and a pathetic baby. That might sound contradictory, but it's not: you're immediately empowered with the abilities to run up and along walls, across water, and you're killing other ninja in seconds. But a second of careless button mashing, a missed block, and suddenly those ninja are laying into you with just as much damage as you can dish out. A few hits and your health bar is shredded. The first boss is a brutal wake-up call that you ain't shit, and then it turns out he was just playing around with you: he's your teacher, and he hasn't even broken a sweat.
Black's combat system demands impeccable defense and smart timing with combos, but there's so much more to love than that. There's the hub-based city design, filled with hidden pick-ups that help you bulk up your ninja skills, and the satisfying familiarity it brings as you learn its layout. I'm nostalgic for this era of Japanese games where you progress by looking at a weird statue that's holding a key in its hand, and to get that key you inexplicably have to put some antique teeth in the statue, and those antique teeth are in a chest in a cave full of vampire bats because why not. I'm not saying this is good puzzle design, I'm just saying it's an aesthetic, and that aesthetic is great, weird Japanese games.
Technically, Black was one of the best on the original Xbox. It runs in widescreen and had some incredible CG cutscenes for its day, which still look better than most from that era. The emulator Microsoft's built for original Xbox backwards compatibility has done incredible things, though. It renders games like Ninja Gaiden in 4K, which can't magically replace 12-year-old textures, but can make the game look remarkably sharp. In a couple hours of ninja killing I haven't noticed any framerate issues or oddities as a result of the emulation.
To my knowledge, there's no Xbox emulator on PC that comes close to being this good, and Microsoft obviously has a huge advantage with access to documentation and original source code. The emulation community will never have access to those things. It's taken GameCube/Wii emulator years to run most games in high resolution without glitches or slowdown or compatibility issues, and it's the most impressive emulation project on the PC. Being able to play a game like Ninja Gaiden Black on the Xbox One, and having it simply work, is an enormous achievement.
Above: it took me a few tries to take this guy down. I'm rusty.
I don't know how much work it would be to move that emulation over to the PC, but I feel like the hardest part is done. The Xbox One runs on a version of Windows, with a similar architecture to the PC. Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform apps are built to work across devices. And while we're not crazy about them, Microsoft has at least fixed the most egregious issues. There aren't many Xbox One games that make cross-platform purchases especially exciting, but if Microsoft brought this emulation to PC, it could eventually add hundreds of games to the PC library.
I can rattle off plenty of games I'd love to replay emulated this well on the PC. Burnout 3. Jet Set Radio Future. MechAssault. Soul Calibur 2. TimeSplitters 2. Unreal Championship 2. Panzer Dragoon Orta, one of the best videogames ever made. Hell, I'd play Brute Force for a laugh.
Japanese games have recently started to thrive on PC, and we've seen recent ports of some great Xbox 360-era games, from Dark Souls to Valkyria Chronicles to Bayonetta to Dragon's Dogma, find new audiences. Original Xbox games are almost certainly too old, at this point, to see those kinds of ports. But if Microsoft brings its emulation to the PC, they'll live on forever.