Review by xenodolf
Reviewed: 02/22/10 | Updated: 02/26/10
Good times - whether you're throwing Jason Voorhees through a vending machine, dodging traffic on the freeway, or staring down a spinning buzzsaw.
Like most gamers who started out in the 1980s, I had my fix the Ninja Gaiden experience on the NES. Unlike many of them, however, my first taste of Tecmo's ninja adventures was not an 8-bit action-platforming experience but rather the original entry to the franchise - an arcade beat 'em up. While the series is still around over twenty years later, too much platforming has crept into the ninja action and I can't find myself willing to play any of the games start-to-finish in good spirits. This first title remains my favorite, and I have gone through such lengths as to buy Ninja Gaiden: Black on the original Xbox to play it again - and its presence on the Virtual Console was part of why I bought a Wii.
Traveling from Japan to America on a small boat (which is pretty hardcore in itself), a ninja must fight gangs through several cities to destroy a cult led by the descendant of the prophet Nostradamus. The opening cut-scene involves this ninja having an aerial duel against one of the Jason Voorhees look-a-likes, and story-boards between stages show the ninja having a little "down-time" (drinking tea, waving at window-washers, etc.). There is basically no narrative and dialogue during the game and the ending is rather lackluster and anti-climatic. Ninja Gaiden gets points though for upholding the unwritten 80s rule that a game/movie needs a ninja to battle in the good ol' USA with no thought given to either side actually using modern weaponry (ie. guns).
Ninja Gaiden has sharp graphics and good animation for a game originally released in 1988. The sprites are very crisp looking, and aside from a few levels - all of the stage backgrounds are complex and detailed. The ninja enters every level by leaping up toward the screen which shatters in some 4th-wall breaking effect before appearing normally on the walking plane. The course of the game takes you through a variety of urban and outdoor environments, so you'll end up seeing well rendered billboards, metropolis skylines, wooded canopy, and some violent stained-glass depictions. There's a decent variety of enemy designs: including the hockey-masked thugs I frequently mention, stick-fighters, motorcycle riding bikers, sumo wrestlers, ninjas, martial artists, a trio of acrobatic Vega-like claw-fighters, highly-muscled mermaids, spear-men, hooligans hanging from the ladder of a gyrocopter trying to club you as they swing by, fat oafs wielding what looks like a tree trunk to beat you with, and a massive Shao Khan-type antagonist with a sword in each hand. The game over screen is quite infamous (even 22 years later) for its depiction of the protagonist(s) tied down while an audience of demons watch - with a spinning buzzsaw descending as the insert coin countdown clocks by. Ninja Gaiden was also one of the first games that had enemies just hanging out and chillin' before the fists started flying, which makes the transition into battle feel more organic than simply having people always walk onto the screen out of nowhere. About the only thing I disliked in terms of graphics were that several of the stages had some muddy backgrounds (the final level looks much rougher than most of them) and most of the storyboards between each stage seemed crudely drawn compared to the rest of the game. It is also worth mentioning that Nintendo (in their usual religious suppression) removed the Star of David from the carpet in the last level.
The soundtrack consists of synth-laced hard rock and a bit of ominous organ/choir music in the final level. Sadly, two boss themes were removed from this port of the game due to how blatantly similar they were to Black Sabbath songs. The combat noise in this game is pretty decent, with lots of crashing sounds from heaving enemies into the destructible environment. The only thing I was never fond of were the cries of pain from both the enemies (who barely have a death rattle) and the protagonist who simply goes "oooo" when killed - even when he's getting sawed in half during the game over screen.
You're given the option of using the Wii-Mote, the Classic Controller, and/or the Gamecube controller to play this - and since I hate using the Wii-Mote and didn't have a Classic Controller yet, I was forced into using the apparatus from Nintendo's previous console. It wasn't too bad of an experience, as you can change the button layout from the menu. The original arcade experience and the slim Xbox 1 controller felt better though, as I had to map the grab button and insert coin button onto the X and Y buttons respectively. The throw maneuver was a bit tricky to unleash 100% of the time, especially in large groups of enemies - and there was about a half-second lag between me virtually inserting new "coins" at the continue screen and getting the due credits. My only real complaint lies with the original design of the platforming section in the woods level, which has you flipping over infinitely spawning mermaids onto far-apart bars. I died about 7 times before I could get the ninja to properly latch onto the bars correctly and make it onto dry land. While it only took me about 40 seconds on the Wii, I couldn't imagine having to waste more than a dollar in quarters at the arcade attempting this.
Ninja Gaiden plays like a soup-up version of Bad Dudes, with a two-tier plane system allowing you to jump up and down from the street level onto rooftops and scaffolding to lure enemies away from their packs and set up traps in the form of wall-rebounds, throwing them into destructible objects for extra damage, or gripping a bar and whipping out gymnastic kicks like that girl from Jurassic Park 2. You can unleash a three-hit combo and launch and air-to-shoulder throw that heaves all but the heaviest of opponents across the screen (and into pits/ravines if you time it right in certain stages). Breaking objects with the bodies of your foes (or your own if you aren't careful) reveals health restoration items and the coveted katana - which cuts through enemy defense for about 15 solid seconds or until you die. Most of the levels feature urban elements, meaning you get to brawl to the sights of rampant advertising of boxing matches and Tecmo-themed graffiti, or dodge and speeding cars whose drivers apparently have seen enough ninjas fighting in the road to not bother applying the break pedal. Enemies exhibit decent intelligence and will try their hardest to surround you, and with over a half-dozen bad guys able to squeeze onto the screen at once - you have to apply your own set of tactics to survive. While a lot of the 80s brawlers have to been viewed in a nostalgic fashion to accept the limitations of their hardware and design, Ninja Gaiden holds up quite well compared to games like Double Dragon or Bad Dudes. I take issue with that platforming section in the woods level I mentioned under "Controls" (Tecmo loves messing up their beat 'em up action with needless platforming as the series would go on to showcase). I also wish the second level (with the cars whizzing on by) would have been done better, as while you take damage from colliding with vehicles - the enemies can be throw into or even walk into traffic without being fazed in the least. Back in the 80s, Ninja Gaiden was pretty much the definitive brawler before Golden Axe and Final Fight rode into town. Most of that strength is transferred into its Virtual Console reincarnation - and until Nintendo can get beat 'em ups to appear in a more accelerated fashion - Ninja Gaiden will remain in the upper echelon of the scrolling-fighter genre.
Replay value 5/10
With two-player local co-op and an immediate appeal to 80s ninja craze, this game has an OK amount of replay value considering there's nothing different to been seen in alternate play-throughs.
Ninja Gaiden was the first game I downloaded onto my Virtual Console when I set my Wii up and - judging by the listing on Wikipedia - one of the best beat 'em ups you can digitally own at the moment. Tecmo's scrolling-fighter has certainly has aged better than many other brawlers from the years before and after its initial 1988 debut, and aside from a bit of censorship and missing music the full arcade experience is intact here. For the asking price of $6, you couldn't find much better in value or entertainment. I recommend you purchase this title if you haven't already.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Ninja Gaiden (US, 12/21/09)
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