Review by Ryan Harrison
Reviewed: 04/16/18 | Updated: 04/18/18
Difficult work, this being a ninja lark.
Big-name franchises on Nintendo systems, sure, I've played more than my fair share and I'm a fan of all the usual suspects – Legend of Zelda, Mega Man and Adventure Island to name a few, and another particular series that had a few entries on the NES in the late 80s and early 90s that I was first introduced to in my teenage years is Ninja Gaiden. The original game is generally well-liked by players, though also notorious for how painfully challenging it gets especially later on. Because of its good gameplay but horrific end-game challenge, the original Ninja Gaiden game has both its fans, and detractors alike.
That said, I found that Ninja Gaiden was one of the more enjoyable fast-paced platformers on the NES that I've played, and its trilogy of games for the console do tend to be somewhat overlooked. From what I've seen, the other entries in the series manage to keep a consistent gameplay style and quality and feel rewarding to play through, though are also often ranked as some of the most challenging games ever to be released for the NES.
The original Ninja Gaiden game for the NES is, surprisingly, very drastically different to the original arcade version that had been released under the alternate name Shadow Warriors. Whereas that game was a side-scrolling brawler-type game, the NES version, released courtesy of Tecmo in 1989 is an adrenaline-filled action-platformer that heavily emphasises quick timing with your jumps and attacks that will often leave you with no room for error and will take lots of memorisation and practice to succeed.
The game's plot is somewhat of your typical 'ninja-on-a-mission' story that throws in the main theme of revenge, with side-themes of kidnap, run-ins with the feds, precious artefacts and an evil force content on taking over the world. When you watch the events of the game unfold via the cinematic cut-scenes that play during the game's opening and between acts, you'll find that the story of Ninja Gaiden is rather entertaining, a little more complex and a whole lot more fleshed out compared to other stories you got from other Nintendo games of the day, which usually involved rescuing a kidnapped princess or retrieving a precious item that has gone missing.
You assume the role of the ninja youngster Ryu Hayabusa, who seeks his revenge on the mysterious killer of his father, which is shown in the game's opening sequence. When Ryu learns of his father's death, he finds a letter that instructs him to take the family sword and visit American archaeologist, Walter Smith, in America. Ryu vows his revenge, though as you play on further through the game, you'll find that there is a lot more going on at work than Ryu was originally aware, and there is a much bigger danger at hand.
Combining the very well-crafted cut-scenes, well-rendered background scenery, level of detail and quick, slick animation, Ninja Gaiden is a graphically superb game that I'd rate as one of the best-looking for the time of its release. The background scenery sees Ryu dash and slash his way through run-down urban neighbourhoods to industrial warehouses, stone temples to ruined castles, and rooftops to dark caverns. The game offers a very good mixture of scenery with both bright skies and gritty, dark indoor surroundings. They are not distracting by any means, either – the only minor complaint one may have would be that some small sprites that can harm Ryu do occasionally blend in.
The designs of the character and enemy sprites in the game are great, too. Ryu looks and animates very nicely with his blue hooded outfit and quick-moving limbs. Certain other characters are introduced to you via the between-level cut-scenes that include mysterious federal agents, rival boss characters and others who are pivotal to the story such as Walter Smith. The number of cut-scenes, their length and the added captions below each slide to act as dialogue accompany the story-telling element of the game very well indeed and was a very impressive feature that was not seen very often in NES games – since in the 1980s, game stories were often treated as an afterthought and were usually restricted to the game's instruction manual.
The enemies of the game come in a good few different forms; within the first few stages you'll get your first sample of the game's combat system as you use Ryu's primary katana blade to quickly slash your way through patrolling guards who merely take a few paces back and forth while flailing clubs around and dashing hounds, before you end up with your hands full against the likes of enemies who tend to lie in retreat and leap out at you when you come close, or robed guys who guard small platforms while throwing projectiles everywhere, meaning you have to have impeccable timing and quickness when you leap over to the platform and deal them a swift strike of your blade and have a safe landing. Do be warned, the further you advance, the more difficult it gets; while every standard enemy can be instantly defeated with a single blow, they're always placed in awkward positions and one wrong move can mean taking a hit and falling into a pit below you; the worst of which are the white birds that constantly chase after you and tend to appear out of nowhere to catch you out when you're trying to make some very difficult jumps!
The music of the game is very fitting and accompanies the action very nicely, and is high-tempo and quick-paced, much like the gameplay action itself. When watching the opening sequence, the build-up between the two duelling warriors, followed by the slow, sombre piece when Ryu learns of his father's death, goes with the cut-scene perfectly, as does the music of many of the other cut-scenes seen throughout the game. The background music, occasionally repeated between stages, nonetheless sounds great, and the boss music is a very fitting theme, too.
The sound effects of the game also do a good job with no standout faults to be picked out; you hear a quick 'swish' when Ryu takes off with a jump and when he lands on the ground or sticks to a wall, and a heavier slashing noise when swiping his sword or using any of the few different secondary weapons that can be picked up. Other sound effects like enemies seemingly instantaneously vanishing with a 'zap', and boss enemies going out with a full-body explosion are also very good sound effects.
Gameplay-wise, the control of the game is faultless in that it responds perfectly (which you definitely need for a game that requires very quick reflexes and perfect timing). Anybody to have ever played a 2-dimensional side-scroller will have no trouble in learning the controls for this game as they follow the tried and tested method of the D-Pad to run using the Left and Right buttons, climbing walls and ladders with the Up button, and descending or crouching with the Down button. With A you jump, B you use your sword, and Up + B together lets Ryu use his secondary weapon provided he has enough energy (displayed in the counter displayed in the information bar at the top of the screen). You'll have no trouble with coming to terms with the control itself, but it will take plenty of practice to master the art of platforming and attacking in mid-air to avoid the many hazards coming your way.
As mentioned, the NES version of Ninja Gaiden does away with the beat-'em-up style of the arcade original and goes for a quick-paced game involving fast-paced platforming and combat, and each stage is on a time limit of a little over two minutes apiece, so you're forced to continue pushing on and think quickly, rather than to take too much time planning your moves. Levels involve travelling in both a left-to-right AND a right-to-left fashion, and involve both scrolling and moving between screens. There are also instances where you have to do climbing, performed by jumping onto a scalable surface like a ladder and holding Up or Down, and some parts where you can ascend by jumping between two vertical surfaces repeatedly.
Ryu's climbing and wall-clinging abilities will play a big part in the platforming actions as there are a few occasions in which you'll have to reach suspended ledges at higher or lower heights that cannot be done with standard jumping, which proves very tricky, and if not done correctly, it just feels even more agonising when you know you have no other choice than to drop off into a pit below to your death and have to re-play through the level all over again up to that point.
Ninja Gaiden is a game that for the average player will take many, many tries to memorise and improve at, as you are never certain what could be coming up when you reach that next screen, or the next tough jump to make. You're always prone to getting caught out by all kinds of enemies lurking between jumps to try and catch you out, in particular the projectile-hurling enemies that patrol ledges, or the flying birds that persistently chase after you. The trouble is that they also constantly regenerate, meaning you can't stick around even after you do kill them. Later on in the game, the challenge goes from tough to just flat out unfair as you get too many hazards coming your way with such a slim chance of avoiding them without sustaining heavy damage, if not cheaply getting knocked into a pit and losing a life.
Also, while there is a 'Continue' feature that allows you to resume playing from the first stage of whichever act you lost your last try in, that you can use as often as you like, which is indeed a welcome feature, it's still of little comfort in the latter stages when the brutal challenge could overcome even the most determined player, and losing just a single life in one of the two final, nigh-on impossible boss battles, results in you being sent all the way back to the beginning of stage 6-1 – no excuses. All I can say in that regard is thank goodness for the 3DS' Restore Point features, otherwise I'd have simply given up and never came back!
Overall, Ninja Gaiden is fun and solid, but in my view loses points for its steep – practically vertical – challenge in the later stages. For me, just having to continually re-attempt the tough spots and final bosses even with 3DS Restore Points was tough and grating enough, so I can only imagine how much of the fun would be sapped out by having to re-play several stages over on the original NES cartridge version!
Anyone who beats the game can take great joy in the fact they have completed one of the toughest action games in the entire NES library, and it is a very incredibly satisfying and rewarding challenge to overcome. It will be a worthy purchase for any NES gamer with a hankering for the intense, old-school 'Nintendo hard' challenge – but if you're expecting to actually BEAT it, I would very strongly recommend downloading a Virtual Console version with Restore Points (3DS/Wii U) so you can save and keep re-trying at the difficult spots – of which there are many. Otherwise, you're in for many, many hours of enjoyable action, but with spirit-breaking challenge that can only be overcome with split-second precision and lightning-quick thumbs!
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Ninja Gaiden (EU, 11/15/12)
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