RetroSpective – Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden InfoRyu Hayabusa is an iconic character within gaming, taking a leading role in not only the Ninja Gaiden games, but also Tecmo’s famous fighter Dead or Alive.  When most think of Ryu Hayabusa, many these days will think of the excellent Xbox game of the same name, and alongside it memories of controlling the enigmatic Ninja through some of gaming’s most challenging moments. However, neither this title, nor the earlier Dead or Alive, are where Ryu’s story began. You see, Ryu’s story actually begins with the 1988 NES title Ninja Gaiden. A game that shares a lot more than just its name with the latter Xbox release. In fact, there’s a wealth of inspiration here, most clearly the eye watering difficulty.

Let’s just clear this up from the beginning, this is one hell of a hard game.  It’s certainly on a par with Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox, quite possibly even harder.  The game takes many cues from the earlier platforming Castlevania games, and sees you control Ryu Hayabusa moving from left to right wielding your trusty Katana and an array of collected Ninja powers. The format is tried and tested, and brings a comforting amount of familiarity to the experience, something you’ll relish given how hard the game quickly becomes. Nevertheless, there are innovations within the formula, namely the magical powers and the Ninja-like ability to jump and stick to walls, something you’ll definitely need to master as there is a lot of death defying platforming and jumping required here.

Ninja Gaiden Wall Jump
Wall Jumping

The gameplay is fluid and feels very solid, which will give you the slightest belief that you can possibly finish this game, and this is very important. This isn’t the only reason you’ll want to keep playing, as the game’s checkpoint and life system is a definite godsend, usually placing you back to the start of the area to try again, even if you hit Game Over. However, there is no password system or save data mechanic, meaning that once you turn the power off it’s back to the start, and this can be disheartening.

Even more disheartening though, is the cruel mechanic that occurs if you die after reaching the final boss battles.  You see, if you die at section 6-3, you’ll just start from 6-3 again. However, die at 6-4 (final bosses) and the game will ludicrously throw you all the way back to 6-1. A cruel mechanic that really doesn’t need to be there as the game is hard enough already.

Ninja Gaiden Boss 1
The very first boss, and the game proves it’s credentials when it comes to difficulty right from the start.

Talking of bosses, there’s a considerable amount of variety, both in terms of the bosses, and all the other enemies. In fact, enemies are that varied that you’ll regularly have multiple enemies and projectiles flying from literally everywhere, with seemingly little escape. Of all enemies though, the most annoying are easily the flying animals, as it always seems as though there is a bat just where you need to make a death defying jump.

Even worse, thanks to the way the game is built, you’ll find to your dismay that the enemies will constantly respawn. Move just a pixel backwards and then forwards again, and bang, they’re back. All meaning that you won’t get a minute to think, really upping the difficulty as it allows no retreat, and no respite.

Ninja Gaiden Enemies
Enemies Galore

However, the enemies are not the most common cause of death. In fact outside of Boss battles you may even think that the life bar is pointless, with most deaths coming from falling over and over again. This is caused by the way Ryu reacts every time he is hit, whereby he falls a considerable distance backwards. This means that you will often find yourself getting bounced from enemy to enemy until you either die or fall of the edge, with little understanding of what just happened.  The enemies in this game simply don’t give you a chance, and one false move will be your end, and I literally mean one false move.

But just as the gameplay doesn’t baby you, neither does the story. Ninja Gaiden’s globe trotting tale of conspiracy and espionage is an extremely intelligent story. One that has you captivated right from the very first cutscene, yes that’s right, cutscene.  The cutscenes are excellent, as is the characterisation of both Ryu and the ensemble cast, and you’ll very quickly be willing yourself on in order to find out what happens next. Whilst these are short, they are completely engrossing, and whilst I won’t spoil anything, some of the twists make for brilliant storytelling.

Ninja Gaiden Cutscene Small
Opening Cutscene Cinematic

Ninja Gaiden has a story that does many exceptional things that were lightyears ahead of the curve, and certainly weren’t commonplace within games of the time.  These cutscenes may be simplistic by modern standards, but they were revolutionary at the time.  Even more important is that despite this, they’re still are effective today.

The overall gameplay presentation is just as engrossing, accurately portraying all of the areas that Ryu has to traverse, from South American cliff tops, to the streets of America. This really draws you into the world and Ryu’s tale. As mentioned earlier, there’s also a variety of enemies, each one portrayed brilliantly. Although I will admit that I was left wondering why there is a robed mage alongside a commando after Ryu, and why every animal is out to kill him too.  Nevertheless these enemies and the bosses, are clearly animated with the game displaying little rundown, all of which is noteworthy given the 8-bit technology.

Masked Devil Fight
The Masked Devil Fight

The Masked Devil in particular is an excellent emotionally charged boss battle. The character has the feel of a corrupted Shogun warrior, and the music is exceptional, setting the scene for the fight at hand. This isn’t a one of though, truth be told the soundtrack is nothing short of sublime, with many memorable tracks. Tracks that evoke the spirit of the ninja and of traditional Japan, all whilst blending it with Ryu’s current location or situation. There is though one tune in particular that will etch itself into your subconscious, giving you many nightmares. That being the “Death Jingle”. However, even this is well made, and in a perverse way is actually a strength of the soundtrack, as it has today become so synonymous with failure.

And yes we’re back to the difficulty, but when you combine this challenge with the exceptional quality of the gameplay, you can see why people keep coming back time and time again to Ninja Gaiden. Nevertheless, this isn’t all Ninja Gaiden has going for it as the challenge is only part of its charm. Solid gameplay, revolutionary storytelling, and great characterisation, all lead to a rich and intelligent experience, one that treats the player with the respect they deserve. Steel yourself though, as getting to view the final cutscene certainly has to be earned, and this game isn’t going to give you anything for free.  Not even a second to think.

Ninja Gaiden Score

Simon Aubrey Drake

A lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that I've written a thesis on one and lived in the other. Currently on a quest to catch every last Pokémon. Follow me on twitter via @DudeXChill or @RingsandCoins.

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