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Ninja Gaiden (NES) Review
~by tankMage (August 2018)
Ninja Gaiden is kind of like coconut: some people hate it, others love it, and a few of us are deathly allergic to it. And much like coconut, you really can’t be sure which category you fall into until you try it. I happen to enjoy both Ninja Gaiden and coconut, but I understand that they are acquired tastes. This game has been accused of being cheap and overly harsh, perhaps rightfully so, but it is also a quality platformer that was made by a passionate team. My advice to anyone interested in this title is to try it; you might just like it.
Putting aside the controversy surrounding this ninja action game, there’s no denying the impact it has had on the industry. Ninja Gaiden is famous its cinematic cutscenes, which were a novelty when it was released. As a result, it stands out in the NES library and has often been cited as one of the console’s top titles. People also tend to remember this game for its rather high difficulty level, which has likely resulted in a lot of broken controllers. In my opinion, Ninja Gaiden’s virtues eclipse its quirks, but those who wish to enjoy this title will need some skill and patience. In fact, I’ve always been under the impression that it was created with a certain niche of player in mind, which is why it is often misunderstood.
Ryu is the last heir of an ancient lineage of ninjas known as the Dragon Clan. In the opening cutscene, Ryu’s father is bested in a duel with a mysterious ninja and vanishes. After reading a letter his father left him, Ryu takes the family sword and sets out to find his dad who was last seen in the United States. Over the course of the game, Ryu uncovers a mystery that involves everything from CIA agents to demonic cults. Each portion of the story is told through cutscenes that are similar in style to Manga, but the dialogue reads a bit like something out of an 80’s action movie. The result is a narrative style that holds up in its own quaint way to this very day.
Of course there are plenty of goofy ideas floating around the plot, like demons trapped in statues and ninjas working for the CIA, but the story is told in such a way that it feels consistent. Perhaps this is, because Ninja Gaiden plays its cards with a straight face, which makes it feel like the old comics and movies I mentioned earlier. Team Ninja (the developers) loved to end the cutscenes on cliffhangers, which enhances the sense of tension and makes curious players want to see what will happen after the next stage.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how well the musical score meshes with the cutscenes. Every act is given greater impact by a soundtrack that almost perfectly captures the mood of what is happening. Brief tunes are used to punctuate dramatic scenes, giving them extra oomph. It goes without saying that the music used for the cutscenes was nearly as important as the dialogue, since voice acting in an NES title aside from very short clips was an impossibility. That said, the cutscenes are a bit cheesy, though in an entertaining way that makes you want more.
**Minor Spoilers Ahead**
Not much of anything is explained in the story and everyone has an air of mystery about them as a result, though the motivations of most characters are clear. Ryu wants to find his dad and/or get revenge. The villain, Jaquio wants to…ugh…conquer the world…well luckily it’s a bit more complicated than that. Jaquio comes off as rather maniacal, in fact he’s cartoonishly insane, which kind of works, since his goal is to resurrect an ancient demon and turn Earth into Hell itself. Things get kind of murky at the very end of the game (after you beat the final boss) and while the reasons why certain events happen are fairly obvious, the entire affair feels rushed. Perhaps this is a result of something being lost in translation or Nintendo flexing its censorship muscle, but the overall quality of the story suffers as a result.
With a decent number of detailed backgrounds, unique stage themes, and a variety of bad guys, Ninja Gaiden stands out as one of the better looking NES games, especially when so many side scrollers from the same era look like they were made by copy/pasting the same tiles over and over again. Ryu explores cities, ancient ruins, and even the Amazon rainforest over the course of his journey. Team Ninja even took the time to make different containers for powerups that match the theme of each stage, which range from lanterns to animated insects that hover in place.
Ryu himself stands out among ninjas and wears more stylized garb, which makes him recognizable in a genre that already had a few notable ninjas by 1988. Even his animations are distinct. Ryu runs (rather than walks) with his hands placed on the hilt of his sword ready to strike and somersaults rather than jumping Super Mario style. Tecmo also wisely avoided facing ladders towards the screen, which resulted in a lot of awkward climbing animations in other games, and placed ladders so their profiles were only visible, allowing Ryu to scale them ninja style.
The generic baddies tend to be repetitive and even cliche in some cases. You’ll see a lot of bats, birds, and green army dudes with guns… at least there are no skeletons. The roll is filled out by some more unusual enemies, which offsets the boring ones somewhat; Ryu will have to chop his way through boxers, bat wielding bikers, hunchbacks, and things I can’t even identify. Even better, many of the bad guys have something that’s nearly unheard of on the NES: attack animations. Boxers will lunge at Ryu with a jab, bikers swing their bats at him, and karate guys will perform acrobatic roundhouse kicks when they get within striking distance. These animations aren’t great or anything, but they are a nice touch in an era where most enemies would simply crash into the player to deal damage (of course that happens in this game as well).
The cutscenes have a simplistic, stripped down look to them, which was either a stylistic choice or due to the limitations of the NES… maybe both…. either way they look good and have a lot of atmosphere. The character designs are memorable, with the game’s rather bizarre and mysterious villains being my favorite characters in terms of design. Team Ninja even took time to create speaking animations for many of the characters, though they are very primitive. Some of the cutscenes are iconic and often used as examples of Ninja Gaiden’s graphics, the most famous of which being Ryu gazing at the enemy fortress and a close up of the Jaquio’s grinning face.
As much as I love these cutscenes, it is clear the artist who did them had difficulty drawing certain things, particularly profiles of the human body. While the artist wisely avoided certain angles as much as possible, players will see some really awkward depictions of Ryu at the end of the game, where his neck looks stretched out like taffy. Irene also suffers from a similar problem, but she looks more like she has scoliosis. While this isn’t game breaking or anything, it does detract from the atmosphere to some extent.
The controls are nearly perfect in every way, which is good, because they need to be as responsive as possible. However, I would urge anyone playing this to read the manual or a guide, because certain moves are difficult to figure out through trial and error. Some of these moves, like pushing Down and B to cancel a certain attack are essential to victory. It also takes a while to get accustomed to how Ryu moves and attacks, but the game plays like a dream once you get it down. Obviously, Ninja Gaiden lacks any kind of menu system, but it would have been nice if the devs had included passwords; running through the first five acts over and over again to get to the final one can be tiresome unless you beat the game in one sitting.
Music and Sound
I would say that Ninja Gaiden’s score is the weakest in the NES series, which may be an insult if I were talking about another franchise. Seeing as how each title in this series has a great soundtrack, being the worst isn’t such a bad thing. The music sounds more like something from an Eighties movie than a video game BGM, which makes it perfectly suited to the cutscenes and action packed stages. Much like a movie score, Ninja Gaiden’s doesn’t stand out much aside from a few tunes. Of course, every song is well put together, but overall the soundtrack is more utilitarian than those of later games in the series.
It’s often hard to find NES titles with sound effects that could be considered original or distinctive, because of the system’s limitations. Ninja Gaiden is a fair example of such a title. Ryu’s jumps, sword slashes, and special attacks tend to stand out from other NES games. Even the explodey sound bad guys make when they die are more or less different, but my favorite sound effect is the one used when Ryu picks up a power up, which is a satisfying sort of bloop. There’s also a number of cool jingles that play in cutscenes or when a stage starts. A lot of people (myself included) will probably get tired of some of these jingles, especially the one that plays on the “Game Over” screen.
Might as well get this out of the way first; Ninja Gaiden is a challenging game, especially by today’s standards. Players will need reflexes, sound tactics, and even a little memorization to complete Ryu’s mission. Many have accused this game of being unfairly difficult, but I disagree. Ryu has a fair amount of health, powerful abilities, and infinite continues, so this isn’t one of those games where players will have to painstakingly start from scratch every time the run out of lives and/or continues. With that said, I understand why the difficulty rubs some people the wrong way, because it can be frustrating at times.
So this is a platformer that will have you jumping and slashing your way to glory. If you’re played Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden will be somewhat familiar, though it’s more fast paced. Ryu’s primary weapon is the Dragon Sword, which he’ll need to rely on to dispatch most enemies. He can also jump and cling to walls, which is necessary to master in order to reach platforms or clear deadly pits. You’ll also find powerful Ninpo techniques that give Ryu more reach, like the Throwing Star, Fire Wheel, and Windmill Star. Ryu needs Spiritual Strength to use them, so players will have to cut candles and other objects to find Spiritual Energy as well as Ninpo skills.
Each stage is filled with the usual baddies and pitfalls along with a boss. Enemies fire guns, throw knives, swing swords, and are often placed deviously on narrow ledges. While the regular foes can pose quite a threat, the bosses are often pushovers and most boss battles are rather boring. The first two bosses barely move and will be easy pickins for most players. Later on, the bosses get more dangerous, but aren’t much of a threat until the very end of the game, where the overall difficulty really spikes.
It’s the smaller enemies and the level design that really shine, but they are also a source of grief for many players. Most platformers will let you amble through stages jumping over or killing obstacles without paying much thought to the task at hand, which isn’t the case with Ninja Gaiden. Enemies were designed to respawn if the player steps backwards or stands in certain places, making the game like a puzzle. You’ll need to figure out how to get past a pesky bat or commando without triggering a respawn (which is often the result of getting hit) in order to proceed. This requires the player to plan ahead and move fluidly, which is not all that unusual for such games, it’s just that respawning enemies are more common here than in other titles. Of course, this is something players will either love or hate. Personally, I grew to appreciate it as I learned how to play the game.
Ninja Gaiden has balance and bugginess issues, because some of the special abilities are insanely powerful, buuuut the stages are challenging enough to warrant such things and none of the bugs break the game. In fact many of the bugs, like Slash Cancelling and despawning actually help players who utilize them effectively. Team Ninja notoriously kept a bug that sends the player back to the beginning of the final stage if they die in the final boss rush, which used to make me furious when I played this in my teen years. At any rate, some of the strange things that can happen to players are uncommon, but harmless. At worst they make this game feel rough around the edges.
Ninja Gaiden is an excellent game, but it isn’t for everyone. I did not like it at all as a child, because of the difficult gameplay, but this title grew on me during my teen years and I eventually came to respect it now that I have the patience to sit down and wrestle with it. As good as NG1 may be, the series truly blossomed with its sequel, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, which improved upon the formula in many ways. With that said, this game certainly stands on its own as one of the best NES titles and has something to offer hardcore platformer fans to this very day.
I know I keep repeating myself, but this game isn’t for someone looking for a more relaxed platformer thanks to its relatively high difficulty, but I think everyone should at least give it a try if they like NES sidescrollers. Those looking for a challenge will enjoy Ninja Gaiden, though it’s certainly not the hardest game in the NES library.