Review by Wiggis
Reviewed: 04/15/14 | Updated: 09/29/14
Annihilatin' 'em all!
Balancing the difficulty level of a video game is never always the easiest task. Make a game too easy or too hard and no one will care about it (unless it becomes a meme like QWOP). However, if you make a game incredibly fun to play while at the same time being difficult without being too much so, you have platinum in your hands. In March of 1989, NES owners were given a home port of the popular arcade game Ninja Gaiden. Well, not a port, because it was reworked from the ground up, obtaining a legendary difficulty level in the process...
STORY: 6 / 10
Upon hearing of the death of his father, Ryu Hayabusa travels to America to find an archaeologist named Walter Smith in order to find revenge and answers. The only help he receives is from his family heirloom, the Dragon Sword.
Not much more detail can really be said without giving too much more away. What can be said, however, is that the story is told in a darker anime style (think Ninja Scroll). Plus, in a gaming landmark, it's one of the earliest titles that features cutscenes between levels. Given their age and limited animations, they still hold up very well, doing an expert job at telling the story. Every time you see one, you just have to beat the next stage in order to view the following cutscene.
Unfortunately, there are two things holding the story back. The first problem is that it's cheesy. Normally, this wouldn't even be a factor, seeing as how most games of this era are cheesy. But in Ninja Gaiden's case, it's not quite cheesy enough. The game takes itself rather seriously, leaving those cheesy moments to be less niche and more head-shaking. The second problem is in the difficulty. NG is so brutally hard that only so many people will actually know how this game even ends, leaving many to wonder if the end is worth all the effort. If you're wondering it as well, the answer is yes. Not only are there games that make you work harder for worse final content, but NG does kick the door wide open for the sequel that followed a year later.
GRAPHICS: 9 / 10
It is truly amazing how well Ninja Gaiden's looks have held up. Character and enemy models are still very well-rendered, environments are pleasing, attacks are impressive and there are a surprising amount of different locations, such as a city, forest, castle and caves. The cutscenes also look very good, using expressive angles, limited motion and shadow effects to convey the story. There's even relatively little glitching. Best of all, you could not ask for everything to blend any smoother.
In fact, the only reason the graphics don't get a better score is because the next two sequels to appear on the NES each look better than this. This Ninja Gaiden certainly set the bar, but parts 2 and 3 surpassed it without exceeding the console's system specs.
SOUND: 10 / 10
Fantastic. This game couldn't ask for a better soundtrack. Every song you hear not only perfectly matches the area you're tackling, but they also do an amazing job at pumping you up for a fight. Even the slower songs do this well. When you're not fighting, each cutscene's song is a perfect fit for the mood the game is setting (even if the dialogue is groan inducing). Noteworthy songs include the Level 1-1 song, the Level 2-1 song and the jingle you hear when you die. Actually, it's immensely fortunate that the death jingle is so well written, because this game makes you hear it a lot.
Rounding out the audio ear love are the top notch sound effects. Every single sound is an incredible fit for the accompanying action. Obtaining a power-up, slicing through an enemy, the classic 8-bit explosion sound, etc. only make an unbelievable soundtrack better.
CONTROL: 10 / 10
Amazingly, there really is no fault in the controls of this game. Seriously. Ryu Hayabusa is the perfect extension of your gaming skill. He moves where you want him to move, jumps where you want him to jump and attacks when you need him to attack. All without fail. Every error is the gamer's error.
GAMEPLAY: 9 / 10
Just like almost countless games of its era, Ninja Gaiden is a side scrolling action platformer. You run from left to right (sometimes you have to climb, or even run right to left) through multiple stages in a level, with a boss waiting for you at the end of every level. Along the way, you can break hanging fixtures to collect secondary weapons, ammo or point bonuses, along the line of the candles from the Castlevania series.
Initially, it all seems like standard genre fare. But it all comes together so beautifully. Slicing through your foes is satisfying, especially since a lot of them can be felled in one swing. Platforming is almost too good to be true thanks to superb level design and the ability cling to and bounce off walls. To top it all off, every beaten boss gives you a new cutscene to view.
To be honest, the gameplay would have been rewarded a perfect score if not for the insane difficulty. Sure, the game begins easy enough. In fact, being able to beat the first level without ever even being hit is pretty easy once you get used to it. But the 5th and 6th levels just rain hell down upon you. Between enemy placement, flying enemies, tricky jumping sections and enemies with guns, you are going to die more times than you can conceive. Yeah, you may be blessed with infinite continues, but losing sends you back to the very beginning of the level. This is especially painful in the 6th level.
See, the final boss is in 6-4. Losing on any form of him sends you all the way back to level 6-1. Where there's no easy area of the 6th level, 6-2 is especially difficult with a specific platforming section that features all enemy types (flying, shooting, those who run towards you) all trying to keep you off the very limited ground you can traverse. Since dying takes away your secondary weapon, you have to try to keep it to that point, which is so much easier said than done. If you do die, you get sent back to the beginning of 6-2, which has no secondary weapon drops up to that point. You can't go back for any, either; you must trek on as best you can.
So, you made it to the final boss. Great job, by the way. Seriously, give yourself a round of applause. You deserve it. Anyway, he has 3 forms. The first is actually pretty easy. The second is frighteningly hard. He floats back and forth across the top of the screen and shoots fireballs (2 at a time) that follow you. The final form is a little easier, but only by comparison to what you just had to fight. Again, losing all your lives here sends you back to the very beginning of the 6th level, meaning you have to survive that insane gauntlet all over again in order to re-reach this insane fight, making it supremely difficult to even build a proper strategy. Wanna know the kicker? You CANNOT bring a secondary weapon into this fight. The cutscene before the first form takes it away! All you have is your sword, your ability to swing it and the honestly heavenly miracle of your health refilling between every form of the final boss.
But I must stress this: with perserverence, skill, luck, determination and infinite continues, it is 100% possible to beat this game. I've done it. The feeling of accomplishment upon delivering the final blow is incomparable. The final cutscene is long without feeling too long and it's conclusionary while still leaving room for a sequel.
OVERALL: 9 / 10
Ninja Gaiden may be one of the hardest games to call the Nintendo Entertainment System home, but it's also one of the most fun. Excellent graphics, perfect use of audio, tight controls and fine-tuned gameplay combine exquisitely, even when compared with games releasing today, a quarter century later. But I cannot stress the difficulty enough. It's harder to beat than almost any current game on the market!
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Ninja Gaiden (US, 12/13/12)
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