You would think that a Ninja Gaiden game on the Nintendo DS would be one that's a lot like the NES line of games in the series: side-scrolling 2D on a horizontal screen using traditional controls. That's how I had always thought of Ninja Gaiden, even with the recent 3D games on modern consoles. Then, Team Ninja does something crazy like making the DS game in 3D, orienting the screen vertically, and having the game use only touch screen controls.
What's even crazier is that it works brilliantly.
What I saw in the brief Japanese demo Nintendo had in its booth (and what you'll see in the even briefer English demo that will soon hit DS Download Stations across North America) is something that I still can't get over. The game uses pre-rendered backgrounds to set some very well-animated characters. The touch screen controls, except for a few errant strokes of the stylus on my part, feel tight and work great. This is helped by holding the DS vertically, which makes it much easier to do the penwork required to play the game.
Moving around is simple enough. All I had to do is touch where I wanted to move. Because of the static backgrounds, camera locations are fixed, though pannable. That means you may sometimes be running toward the camera from a distance or moving along with a camera that's got more of an overhead angle. While a more traditional control setup would have flummoxed me with this camera layout (see: Resident Evil), it was never an issue for me in the few areas I played. It felt very natural.
Combat was just as intuitive. Moving the stylus across an enemy would slash that enemy. You can do horizontal or downward strikes, and the game will animate the appropriate attack. Even if an enemy isn't at a point-blank range for a normal sword strike, if you swipe over an enemy that's a medium distance away you'll automatically move or roll towards them before hacking at them.
Swiping upwards will cause you to jump into the air. If you're in an attacking mood, you have a couple of options. You can swipe downwards on a nearby enemy while airborne to land a jumping attack. If you swipe downwards twice, you'll unleash a powerful Izuna Drop that can clear the immediate area around your landing point. You can also tap the screen to throw shurikens at things, which will cause you to stall a bit in the air with each one you throw. Repeatedly tapping the screen while on the ground will also let you hurl the knives wherever you want.
To defend, you'll need to press any button on the DS. I preferred the R Button since I could hit it with my left thumb as I held the handheld in its book position. Even here you have movement options; by swiping the stylus while guarding, you'll perform a roll in the direction you selected.
The last tidbit I saw in the demo was a Ninpo special move. There's a little icon in the top corner of the screen, and when you activate it you'll need to trace out a simple Chinese character with the stylus. Doing this isn't complicated at all, since you only need to fill in five sections, which is done automatically if you're close enough with the tracing. When activated, a giant ball of fire appeared. It could be controlled by dragging it around the screen, taking out any enemies in its path. It was also key to getting through one little puzzle section, in which a burnable barrier blocked the path to the next area. You needed to fire up the Ninpo and clear the way.
Combat and movement were very fluid. The touch screen controls didn't get in the way of playing the game, which I think is remarkable. And even though the demo was very short, the possibilities for the full version of Dragon Sword are numerous. Not just within the game itself, but also for all games from third-party developers. One of them has finally figured out how to use the DS to its potential. Maybe other companies will follow suit.