Review by hangedman

Reviewed: 05/13/02 | Updated: 05/13/02

Painful, Unforgiving, Masterful.

Death comes on swift wings.

Whether it’s a staple of many of my reviews or a crutch, I usually point out how much profanity a game can choke out of me. It’s human—well, in the sense that unadulterated anger can pour forth out of a man from an archaic game, but we all know it. I think the most profanity I heard like this came not from me, but a friend of my mother’s: a wiry punk-looking guy named “Dirk” (whether this was his real name or not, I don’t know) as he attempted to sit down and “help” me through a level of Ninja Gaiden.

“I’m pretty good at these games,” said Dirk, picking up the controller. A few deaths later, Dirk began swearing profusely as an eagle swooped in from nowhere and knocked him off into a chasm. “************!” I remember this word being repeated more than a few times—it’s eerie that I wasn’t creeped out more by Dirk’s explosive vulgarity; perhaps this is because I knew even at the age of 9 that Ninja Gaiden deserves it. It’s hard. In fact, it’s really hard. I forget how long Dirk attempted to get past stage 5-2 (known by many gamers like me for it’s nigh-impossible jumps and precarious ledges), but I can only assume that he and his ego left as shattered as my innocence that day.

Ninja Gaiden is ingenious in its simplicity. A side-scrolling action game, much like Castlevania on methamphetamines, Ninja Gaiden shares the same gameplay mechanics: attack with one button, jump with another; use a special attack by holding up and the attack button. Cut down candelabras to collect items that give you points, replenish your life, or provide ammunition for your special weapons, whether they’re ninja stars, fireballs, or buzzsaw-jumps. If there was any further persuasion outside of the easy-to-learn controls, you get to play as a ninja—the coolest type of fighter ever (one needs only to check to confirm this). Although it’s fun and responsive, it is difficult.

Very difficult.

But to say that Ninja Gaiden is difficult is a gross misrepresentation and oversimplification. Many difficult games are difficult through lack of control, cheap enemy patterns, and otherwise maddening stages. Ninja Gaiden shares none of these pitfalls: the control is flawless, the game more than fair, and the stages each requiring a certain knowledge of the layout and enemy placement. The game assumes you are good enough to get to where you got to, so it challenges you even further the farther you get. As I remember from GI-Joe, “knowing is half the battle.” Because Ninja Gaiden spares nobody in difficulty, such is its appeal.

To discourage those that would be turned off by what could be considered near insurmountable difficulty, NG hooks you with a stellar plot: in fact, it was one of the first NES games (if not the first) to use cutscenes, and masterfully done cutscenes at that. The story unfolds with a gripping cinematic of two ninjas running at each other in a desolate field. They jump about sixty feet in the air, strike, and fall to the ground. One ninja collapses. This unfortunate warrior is Ryu Hayabusa’s father—presumed dead, it’s up to Ryu to take the dragon sword, the Hayabusa family’s heirloom, and find out what happened to him. Ninja Gaiden is one of the few games that offers an engaging and genuinely well-written story. In short, it is excellent.

But so are the graphics. Even though 1989 was a very long time ago, don’t let that discourage you. Ninja Gaiden has immense charm in its graphics, whether they’re anime-influenced cutscenes or in-game. Ryu’s animation is plentiful, as multiple frames accompany him jumping, slashing, and running. Enemies come in all ranges with minimal repetition from area to area, all are just as interesting to look at as Ryu himself. Stages sparkle with awe-inspiring backgrounds; each adds a convincing locale to accompany the story.

Equally impressive is NG’s audio, which gives some of the most memorable and well-done music ever. Each track accentuates the levels and cinemas in a way that few games are able to do. Though the sound effects show their age, and after all it was the NES, they’re passable and appealing. The only thing to ward anybody off would be the difficulty

And getting back to that for a minute, NG exorcises anything that didn’t work well for me control-wise in a 2d side-scroller. Comparisons have been made to Castlevania in terms of gameplay, but NG whips the hell out of Castlevania in control. No, unforgiving control does not have to be a part of difficulty, as the NES Castlevanias would have me believe. Ryu’s jumps are easily compensated for in midair, and his attacks are fast: Ryu has god-like reflexes. If you see an attack coming, you can stop it. Projectiles heading your way can be sliced to pieces; so can unforeseen foes that attack you in the middle of a jump, popping up from the side of the screen unexpectedly.

Which is where NG’s insane difficulty comes in. It is not that you have these reflexes should you run into these hairy situations: it’s that these situations are so common that you need to master being able to react in a split-second to oncoming attacks. Though knowing the enemy patterns, item locations, and jumping tricks are essential, so is being able to control Ryu in hectic onslaughts of erratic enemies and vexing jumps. The difficulty curve is steep; it rewards experienced players and those who keep coming back for more. Consequently, I am like a tiny god when it comes to Ninja Gaiden. As a patron of this game for years, I know its nuances and secrets.


For the later levels (frankly, anything after level 4), one needs to exploit the game in order to get anywhere: to stand a chance of beating it, you need to be an expert; you need to know where to jump, how long to wait before jumping, what will await you when you land, and what the best special weapon is to use in that situation. Each level is harder than the last, each boss battle more complex than the one before. The difficulty curve is demanding and immensely rewarding. When you’ve at long last beaten stage 6-2, known by gamers such as myself for being the most notorious of levels in terms of challenge, going through the previous stages seems like a walk in the park.

No game in my memory has this level of challenge—not a challenge that causes anger, but one that causes you to stare in amazement at your god-like abilities, yet continue to struggle and march onward despite the game throwing everything at you, getting more and more difficult until the very end. This is what a game’s difficulty curve should be like: Ninja Gaiden is the end-all be-all of challenge.

Everything about NG reeks of excellence. The premise and story is masterful, the graphics are beautiful and charming, despite the age. The gameplay is tight and refined, yet demanding more skill from you the more it progresses. The sound is absolutely magnificent.

Ninja Gaiden gains my highest possible recommendation. Play it, and you’ll flip out.

OVERALL: 10 / 10
Hard to think that it’s just a video game.

* ninjas are totally sweet.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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