Review by UltimaterializerX
Reviewed: 09/29/05 | Updated: 11/01/10
Good story for a platformer title, but horrendous design makes Ninja Gaiden a barely above average game.
Oft lauded for being one of the most difficult games of all time, Ninja Gaiden is just that. However, a good deal of the game's difficulty comes from flat-out pathetic gameplay design more than anything else, to the point where beating the game feels like a true accomplishment. In this regard, Ninja Gaiden is rare in that one feels a true feeling of having done something special in the gaming world once they actually manage to clear the game; but having both the skill to clear the normal parts of the game and to accommodate the design flaws in actually getting to that point is something else entirely.
When Ninja Gaiden first begins, you view a cutscene that sets the amazing story of the game in motion. Ken Hayabusa is in a battle to the death with a fellow ninja and loses, however the scene soon shifts to the eyes of Ryu Hayabusa, Ken's son. Ryu is reading a letter that his father had written before leaving for the deul, and he hints that he may never return home alive. Ryu has a feeling that his father has died, however he does not know why his father left to die in the first place. Ryu does what any proud ninja would do, which is to sheath his favorite sword, kick ass and take names until his father is avenged.
Ninja Gaiden takes place across six acts, and each act has two or three levels. In between each act is a cutscene that furthers the story of Ninja Gaiden. Cutscenes and a good story in a 2D platformer were extremely rare in the days of Ninja Gaiden's release; most of the companies that even bothered putting stories into their 2D platformers in the first place either did a very shoddy job or weren't very detailed, oftentimes only bothering to tell the story at the very beginning and very end of the game.
But Ninja Gaiden is different in that not only does the game bother telling a good story, it does so with multiple cutscenes that were true graphic accomplishments of their time. The story itself is fairly well-told and detailed, so much so that by the end of the game, you can't wait to go and utterly destroy all of the bad guys.
However, herein lies the issue: getting to the end of the game and beating it. Ninja Gaiden gives you infinite continues that start you relatively close to wherever you die, and this game is still considered one of the hardest ever to beat in the history of gaming. And don't worry about having to test the system to see whether or not you get infinite continues, because you're guaranteed to find out soon enough. Ninja Gaiden was not like the games of today in which games are seemingly designed to be beaten and the game over screen is nigh-impossible to find.
Ninja Gaiden is a high-action, fast-paced 2D platformer in which you must use your ninja skills and ninja weapons to get through each level under a very strict time limit. You're a ninja after all, so the name of the game is speed. The levels will get progressively harder as you advance to the game, to the point where you may very well be ripping your hair out in frustration of how hard things are getting. And then you'll continue over and over again, then proceed to die over and over again until you get good enough to beat the game. Boss battles are especially difficult, because not only do you not start anywhere near the boss if you die, you'll usually have to go all the way through a difficult level or two before getting anther chance at it.
However, while the game being difficult due to there being difficult enemies is a good thing, other parts of Ninja Gaiden's design serve to make Ninja Gaiden difficult not necessarily due to you the player having bad skills as a gamer, but the game itself having some horrible design flaws.
First and foremost, the respawn rates of the enemies in this game are absolutely ridiculous. If you're battling an enemy and step backwards even the tiniest little bit to give yourself an edge, the enemy will simply respawn with ease to your horror right in front of you. This isn't so big a problem early in the game, but in the later levels when you practically have no choice but to go backwards to avoid an attack in order to subsequently avoid death, it makes some sections of the game nearly impossible to pass without either slaving over the game for hours or by simply getting lucky. Worse yet, this makes the most infamous enemy in the game -- The Eagle, naturally -- even more of a terror. There are countless spots in the game in which you have to avoid Eagles over bottomless pits, yet one false move means that you can have two or even three Eagles on your ass. Your odds of staying alive through this are slim to none.
Secondly is that habit that the designers have of putting very difficult enemies on very narrow platforms that are almost impossible to safely jump on. There are only three options in these cases: one, try to jump on the platform and inevitably fall into a bottomless pit; two, use a special weapon to kill the enemy from a distance if you just so happen to have one on you; three, memorize the entire level and jump on the platform before the enemy materializes there. You can literally wind up having to go through Act 6 hundreds of times due to having to commit every enemy's location and every special weapon's location to muscle memory. Add in how long it can take to figure out how to kill some bosses, and you're stuck going through each level a few more times.
Lastly, there are a few overlooked issues with the physics of the game. The most obvious is that Ryu cannot jump backward as effectively as he jumps forward. This causes all sorts of unintuitive player errors through the game, and when couple with the fact that Ryu drops like a brick it makes a difficult game even harder. Any game that makes the gravity of the original Mega Man look relatively normal is simply not good, and the hilarious thing about it is that this feature was seemingly implemented to make it difficult to wall jump when only one wall was present -- yet anyone with the ability to hold a controller could wall climb without issue. There's also the minor issue of climbing a ladder up to another area, but dying if you're accidentally knocked down to the pit where the ladder is. Common sense would assume that you'd simply return to the previous area and climb up again.
Graphically, the game was well ahead of its time. The backgrounds were very well-done, the character sprites were extremely detailed, the level designs made you feel like as isolated as Ryu himself, and the work put into the cutscenes was very obvious. Musically, Ninja Gaiden's soundtrack adds to an overall amazing atmosphere and though none of the tracks stand out as among gaming's all-time best, the soundtrack fits its intended purpose.
The issue with the game is that it was made hard for the sole sake of being difficult, as evidenced by the fact that if you die against any of the final three bosses of the game, you don't start off at the beginning of 6-3, but at 6-1. This is the only example in the game of you beginning back at the beginning of an act after a boss death, and it's proof that some of Ninja Gaiden's design issues were likely put in the game solely to make the game as difficult as possible. I suppose this could make Ninja Gaiden attractive if you're into the most difficult experience possible, but it doesn't necessarily mean that such things make a better game.
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: Ninja Gaiden (US, 03/31/89)
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