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Ninja Gaiden (PC Engine)

The NES version of Ninja Gaiden is one of my favorite games of all time. If you were to do an examination of just how much time I’ve spent playing the game it would border on illegal. Of course it helps that the game is pure awesome but it’s also balls out hard.   Of the hundreds of hours I’ve spent most of that was spent on stages 6-2 and 6-3; those who have played the game know why. The Turbo Grafx-16 remake/port never came to the US and normally I would be sad but after playing the game my feelings are mixed. On the one hand it is still the same awesome game I loved but on the other there are many small aspects that have been changed that make it even more frustrating. At its core it is still a good game but not what it could have been.

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For the most part things are still the same from a gameplay perspective. The levels are still laid out the same and aside from different item and enemy placement every now and then veterans of the 8-bit Gaiden will be right at home. The controls aren’t as tight but that has little impact thankfully. Some small UI adjustments have been made, some I like and others I question. You keep your current weapon after completing a level and can also use the fire wheel while keeping a sub weapon at the same time. One change that I’m sure will not be liked is the overpowered spin slash which moves slower now and doesn’t decimate bosses in seconds. Now it is possible to be knocked out of it, diminishing its use. The life bar is no longer divided into sixteen digits which sounds petty however it is harder to know how close to death you are as it is now one long bar.

Peer deeper and you’ll notice gameplay quirks that when added up make the game inferior to the original. The collision detection is highly suspect; this is most notable when dealing with bosses as your hits won’t register. It might just be me but ground based enemies seemed even lower to the floor making them harder to slash. When hit you no longer have a moment of invincibility which makes it easier to bounce between enemies and die in seconds. Pray you are never caught up against a wall during a boss battle. On the other hand some of the more aggressive enemies have been toned down significantly.

These changes make the game a lot fairer in some parts but on the other hand some aspects of the game are even harder. If you thought the Jacquio was impossible before your jaw will drop when you see six fireballs following you. The demon statue was a nice reprieve for those that had the fortitude to beat the Jacquio but now it might be even worse than him. Respawning enemies are definitely a bigger problem here; that hallway still nearly made me slam the controller in frustration, something I haven’t done since the 90s. I was still able to finish the game but I owe that more to the many, many hours spent memorizing every particular detail of the game.   I doubt anyone would have the patience to do that now nor should you.

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And now we come to the visuals, the main reason for creating this port. In this category the game almost completely fails. The game runs at a higher resolution with a much more vivid color palette that is nice in spots but I feel ruins the grittiness of the NES game’s visuals. This is most evident in the sprites which despite the increased power are lacking in detail and are the same size. The cutscenes have similarly been redrawn and fare better in this regard, with arguably better art and direction.

The biggest letdown comes from the games backgrounds. The backgrounds have been redone in a more realistic style that is honestly not to my liking. When it’s good it looks fantastic such as stage 2-2 and 4-2 however the rest look cheaply made. What really mars the presentation even more than the questionable art is some of the most horrendous parallax scrolling I’ve ever been witness to. The backgrounds scroll at a faster rate than the foreground producing a choppy effect you have to see to believe. It’s so distracting that the game would seriously have been better without it.

The soundtrack is completely different and terrible. The few tracks that it has in common with its NES little brother sound like garbled approximations. The new music tracks lack any distinctive flavor and don’t match the action either. Sad as the NES game had a fantastic score that should have been easy to replicate and enhance.

This version of Ninja Gaiden isn’t an outright bad game however the main reasons for it to exist, i.e. the presentational upgrade simply fall flat. Considering its high price you would be better off picking up an NES cart cheap, especially since it is vastly superior.

7-out-of-10

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Moon Crystal

Even on a console as awesome as the NES there were still many games that fell through the cracks or never saw US shores.  For the most part we did receive most of the absolute cream of the crop but there are some glaring omissions.  I still question why Konami left Parodius, Wai Wai World 2 and Gradius 2 in Japan just as an example.  There were a large number of gems we never got to play, most of which have been fan translated.  One of these is Moon Crystal, one of the best pure action games on the system.

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Ricky Slater is shown the Moon Crystal by his father Dr. Slater.  The Moon Crystal holds a sleeping power that is active only during a full moon.  Unfortunately Count Crimson needs the Moon Crystal to power his Lunasystem to bring the dead back to life and kidnaps Dr. Slater to help him complete the machine.  Now Ricky, with the help of the mysterious Rosina must rescue his father and stop the Count.

Once slated for a US release by DTMC (I guess Dr. Franken was more interesting eh?) Moon Crystal was regrettably canceled.  There were a host of Famicom games slated for US release such as Chaos War, Villigust, and Radia Senki that never surfaced, more than likely due to the impending Super NES launch.  Like most of those games Moon Crystal was a phenomenal game that would have fit in with the rest of the ultra-polished games of that late era.  With perhaps the most advanced animation of any game on the system it’s actually even better than many of those lauded classics.

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You’ll find the DNA of several other NES classics embedded in Moon Crystal.  Combine the cut scenes of Ninja Gaiden with Mario’s platforming and add Prince of Persia’s measured animation and you’ll start to have an idea of Moon Crystal’s gameplay.  The animation in particular is the most striking aspect of the game.  While games like Prince of Persia had made strides in this department in practice it was unwieldy.  Here it’s been tempered enough that you can make quick turns and the like without waiting for an animation cycle to stop.  There is still a slight delay in responsiveness but not enough that it ever becomes a major issue.

There are little in the way of power-ups, with the items consisting of a dagger that extends your attack range, winged boots for a handy double jump, a bell for invincibility and various items to restore or extend your life bar.  It works within the confines of the game as the game is perfectly balanced for the most part.  Initially the dagger is found immediately but with each level you’ll have to make do without it for longer stretches.   Those that love to search every nook and cranny of a level will find plenty of hidden secrets and won’t have to worry about a low life bar for long.  Outside of the last level there is no time limit, leaving you free to explore to your heart’s content.

Most of the focus is placed on the platforming, a facet in which the game excels.   Thanks to the ability to grab onto and shimmy up any surface the designers are able to create some fiendishly clever platform arrangements and leave you to figure out how the hell to navigate them.

The level design is superb and takes full advantage of the ability to climb up surfaces; there are many secrets or alternate routes through levels available if you’re willing to think outside the box and notice ledges with a little bit of space to stand.  Whenever a particularly troublesome segment is coming there are winged boots nearby to help out.  Not that it makes it easier, which would be too simple.  Enemy placement can be just as devious as the Ghouls n’ Ghosts series and there are a few head scratching moments in the levels.

While the game is finely tuned overall there is a significant difficulty spike in the last two stages.  Count Crimson’s lab requires near perfect execution if you want to reach the boss (es) with enough life to survive.  Regardless of how skilled you are trying to beat the final bosses with one 5 hit life bar (ideally) is asking a bit much and borders on near impossible.  The Ninja Gaiden comparison runs a bit too closely in this regard if you ask me.

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Beyond the animation the graphics are excellently detailed.  There is some use of parallax scrolling, mostly used for the skyline but it’s still a pretty cool effect in motion.  The standard enemies exhibit nearly the same level of animation granted to Ricky and it’s distracting to watch at times.  The cut scenes never run too long, conveying the necessary information and moving the story along.  The only lackluster element of the presentation would be the music, which is unobtrusive but forgettable.

Had Moon Crystal been released in the US it would easily reside alongside the best action games on the platform.  Fan translator AWJ has released a patch that localizes the entire game but unless you absolutely need to know the plot this is playable completely in Japanese.  Either way don’t miss one of the best action games for the system.

8-out-of-101

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Ninja Gaiden Trilogy


It’s hard to believe that Ninja Gaiden was once a forgotten property during the 16-bit era like Metal Gear and Rygar.  These were all beloved NES classics screaming for an update but none would appear.  In the case of Metal Gear it’s understandable; realistically what advancements to the series could they have added with the Super Nintendo or Genesis?  Not much.   The Ninja Gaiden games, though ball breaking hard were still some of the best games released for the NES so the response was favorable when Tecmo announced a compilation of all 3 games and although it isn’t the legendary collection of 3 classics we were expecting it’s still a worthwhile package for anyone who has never sampled Ryu Hayabusa’s seminal adventures.

The Ninja Gaiden series was released at the perfect point in time to make a splash in the market.   The 80s were Ninja crazy with a ton of ninja movies assaulting theaters and video stores repeatedly.  Admittedly most of these movies were made on a shoe string budget and starred actors and actresses who probably didn’t know how to spell ninja but whatever; we ate it up all the same.  When you look at it through that lens you can see why games like Shinobi, TMNT, the Last Ninja (seriously, I’ve never been able to figure out why Europe went so crazy for this shit), and Ninja Gaiden were so popular.

For the uninitiated Ninja Gaiden follows Ryu as he initially sets out for revenge against the men who killed his father.  His simple quest for vengeance soon spirals into saving the world.  The following sequels find him drawn into the machinations of evil demons who want to harness ancient powers for world domination.  The series became famous for its use of cut scenes between levels to move the plot forward as well as its tight action and high point of entry.  Ninja Gaiden Trilogy takes these 3 games and puts them in one neat package with a number of enhancements and sadly flaws that bring the quality of the overall bundle down but nothing that deter you from reliving part of 8-bit history.

For the most part each game with the exception of part 3 is a perfect match for its NES counterpart gameplay wise.  All of the item locations and enemy placement are the same and the same boss strategies can be employed.  That means the Ninja clones in NG2 can still be employed to do all of the work for you if you so choose and the jump and slash of NG1 is still massively overpowered.  The Ninja Gaiden games were obvious Castlevania clones, sharing the same front end and many of the same gameplay elements.  There are a number of sub-weapons in each game, all of them powered by ninja scrolls, much like hearts in Castlevania.  Unlike that series Ryu isn’t handicapped and is a nimble protagonist, able to scale walls like Spider-Man and is overall faster.

While the first game shares Castlevania’s retarded difficulty, Ninja Gaiden 2 went to great lengths to scale it back and while still hard at some points is fair overall.   Ninja Gaiden 3 saw many cuts for its US release, many of them for the worse.  Ninja Gaiden Trilogy rectifies some of these mistakes but introduces a number of its own problems with the game and is something of a missed opportunity.  Password saves have been added to each game and trust me they are a god send.  Each game isn’t necessarily long but does become frustrating; sometimes it’s best to walk away and come back to it later.  Those of us that spent hours banging our heads against a wall due to the ridiculous difficulty and had to leave the NES on for hours to progress know exactly what I mean.  Stage 6-2 I’m looking at you!

While the gameplay of each game is more or the less the same the presentation has seen a slight upgrade.  Although the graphics are the same the SNES’ higher resolution produces a cleaner look.  Some changes such as the removal of the lightning on stage 3-1 of Ninja Gaiden 2 completely alter the look of the level which is a stylistic choice that can go either way.  All of the cut scenes in each game have been redrawn and benefit from the richer color palette.  There is some light censorship which is baffling as Nintendo of America had eased up on their practices a year ago.  All blood in the cut scenes has been changed to green and the numerous pentagrams and circles of David have been removed.

The music has been recomposed and in my opinion is worse than the originals.  It might be my familiarity with each game’s music having spent countless hours listening to the soundtracks as I died over and over but the added instrument’s in each tune don’t fit and throw off the “feel” of each song.   The sound quality is better but the”soul” of each song seems to be lost in ambient noise.

    

The version of Ninja Gaiden 3 in this collection is the most interesting.  This should have been a slam dunk considering it was based on the superior Japanese version but it instead features a number of problems.  Graphically it turned out worse; most of the parallax scrolling in the backgrounds is gone as well as a number of effects.  Some of the music tracks are missing as well.  Ninja Gaiden 3 is one of the best looking NES games ever conceived and was  a technical accomplishment; seeing it butchered (a bit harsh but…) is sad.

The controls in Ninja Gaiden 3 were noticeably floaty, probably due to the increased vertical scrolling in the game but are a hassle in this port due to their unresponsiveness.  NG 3 was a tough game but it at least had solid controls behind it like the prior games.  At the very least the game has been rebalanced to level of the Japanese version, meaning enemies take far less life from you and there are unlimited continues as well as passwords to save.  If they could have fixed NG3’s flaws it would have really put this compilation over the top but instead it drags it down a bit.

At the end of the day you’re still getting 3 phenomenal action games for one price.  One exorbitantly high price.  Since it was released in 1995 Ninja Gaiden Trilogy was printed in limited quantities and now commands a price in the hundreds of dollars.  While it is good you’re better off buying the individual cartridges rather than paying those ridiculous prices.

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Kabuki Quantum Fighter

This right here is one of the strangest games in the NES library.  You’re probably looking at the box art and wondering what does a Kabuki actor have to do with demons and computers.  The answer? Absolutely nothing.  Ignore that aspect of the game however and what is left is one of the strongest platformers in the console’s collection, one that is relatively unknown due to everyone going “WTF” at the name.

In the distant future a rogue computer virus has installed itself into the main defensive system of planet Earth.  With no other alternatives Colonel Scott O’Connor agrees to use an experimental device to convert himself into data and possibly shut down the virus from the inside.  So why is he a Kabuki actor?  Well his ancestors were so the computer makes him one as well.  Pretty anticlimactic eh?  Although it bears a strong resemblance to certain other games there is enough unique territory explored to set it apart from its contemporaries plus the game is so well executed you won’t care.

If you’ve played Sunsoft’s Batman you’re on familiar ground.  As a Kabuki your primary attack is your hair.  With about medium range you’ll have to get up close and personal in most cases.  After every level you’ll receive a new secondary weapon governed by chips.  The more powerful the weapon the more chips required.  Generally you can save these for the tough as nails bosses because the levels themselves aren’t too cluttered with enemies.  The majority focus is on the platforming, which is done exceedingly well.

Taking full advantage of your ability to hang and swing from ledges the levels are built to put your skill at this to the test.  Easy in the beginning where it isn’t mandatory you can practice to an extent and learn how to time your swings correctly.  The level design is truly excellent and has a perfect difficulty curve.  By the middle of the game there are fewer enemies, shifting the focus to the platforming.  At Round 3 onwards you’ll need to have some semblance of skill because it becomes a no holds barred free for all with enemy placement factoring in as well.  It’s all done very well thankfully and when you get into a rhythm of sorts you’ll fly through even the toughest segments like a ninja.

Speaking of ninjas, the graphics are a cross between Batman and Ninja Gaiden.  The computer virus has mutated everything in its wake, explaining the presence of demons and other bio hazards.  The demons and background elements are a strong match for Tecmo’s classic while the color design is taken straight from Sunsoft.  Its derivative, no doubt, but very well done.  The animation as well is excellent with the bosses as well as Scott exhibiting a range of character.  The music unfortunately limps along in the background.  It isn’t terrible but I certainly don’t remember any of the tracks.

It might be derivative but what’s there is polished and enjoyable.  After you’re done with the Ninja Gaidens, Castlevanias, and Megamans pay a visit to Kabuki Quantum Fighter, you won’t regret it.  Personally I’d have left out the Kabuki in the title, seriously did the average kid even know what the hell Kabuki is?

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Vice: Project Doom

On a system with as many classics as the NES it’s only natural that some games will slip through the cracks.  Whether it’s a lack of marketing, low print run, or sometimes even the death of the publisher there are a number of games that go unnoticed.  Vice Project Doom is one of them.

Vice Project Doom was released by American Sammy in 1991.  In the future the B.E.D.A is producing advanced weapons and equipment.  However they are a front for an alien species that is plotting to take over the world using their new drug, Gel.  While created as food for the aliens it also has the side effect of turning humans into mutants.  Detective Quinn Hart is sent to investigate and also find his missing partner Reese, with a little help on the side.  Although its mainly a side scroller Vice Project Doom is a mélange of elements from at least 4 other games and miraculously pulls off every single one to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Structurally similar to Ninja Gaiden down to the cutscenes between levels Vice is every bit as good as Tecmo’s classic.  The majority of the 11 levels are comprised of side scrolling action levels.  Quinn Hart has access to 3 weapons you can switch between at any time: a whip (looks more like a sword to me but whatever), a magnum, and grenades.  Other power-ups exist that will refill health and ammo and for some inexplicable reason collecting 100 coins will give you an extra life, which just seems out of place.  The action is constant and like all great platformers the controls are impeccable.  The story will take you to an exotic array of locales such as South America; variety is definitely its strongest trait.

That variety comes in the form of 2 first person shooting levels and two vehicle stages.  As much as I hate to make constant comparisons, they apply here.  The driving segments are near identical to Spy Hunter however they are nowhere near as frustrating due to the constant stream of extra life and lack of instant death traps.  The shooting segments are reminiscent of Operation Wolf and are excellently paced, neither too short or too long.  The designers may have cribbed elements here and there but they made sure not to repeat their mistakes as well.  Rather than dreading their presence the differing styles are a welcome distraction from the typical hack and slash action.

So why wasn’t it more popular?  I don’t know!  Even I only noticed it around 1993 or so when I saw cheat codes for it in Gamepro and picked it up at a flea market. It certainly isn’t the presentation.  Graphically Vice is on the same level as many of the classic releases from that year such as Ninja Gaiden 3 and Mega Man 4 with many neat little touches, such as the scaling trash during the driving levels.  The music is also very nice, matching the fast pace of the game.  Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.

Although forgotten by time I’m here to shed some light on it.  Vice Project Doom, although derivative, is every bit as good as the old classics that are held up in reverence.  It occurred to me that Sega is more than likely the rights holder due to their acquisition by Sammy but I doubt anyone even remembers this game.  At least you have me to recommend it if they won’t.

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Ninja Gaiden III – the Ancient Ship of Doom

Pure awesome ninja action.  Ninja Gaiden 3 was the last in the NES trilogy and the greatest by far.  Like Castlevania 3, Super Mario Brothers 3, etc. it improved upon its predecessor in every way to deliver the ultimate 8-bit installment possible.

Released in the fall of 1991, although the third game in the series chronologically it takes place 2nd.  The story finds Irene Lew being inadvertently killed by Ryu.  An obvious frame job, the real Ryu sets out to investigate, starting with the laboratory she was researching.  This setup eventually involves experiments to harness life energy to create Bio Roids and a trip to another dimension to save the world.  The story is far more sci-fi than the fantasy meets real world of the first two games and honestly is a bit too hokey.   This was intentional on the part of the developers to better distinguish it from being a rehash.  That extends all the way down to the enemies you face, with the majority comprising robots and mechs  rather than the demons and soldiers of the other games.  However the Chthulu inspired demons that fans loved still make appearances.

Although the gameplay is largely the same, there are a host of welcome improvements and refinements.  In addition to scaling walls like previous games, you now have the ability to hang from many surfaces and also attack while doing so, although this uses your secondary weapon.   You can drop down and automatically grab on; this is huge and largely helps save you from the problem in past games where flying enemies would appear and knock you off platforms.  Speaking of secondary weapons, a few new ones round out your arsenal.  The Vacuum Wave attacks above and below simultaneously, once again handy for surprise attacks.  The dragon sword increases your standard attack range and as a bonus does not count as a secondary weapon.

In what seemed to be a running theme, the shadow clones from Ninja Gaiden 2 are gone, just like the jump and slash from the first game was removed for part 2.   The item orbs now display what item they have inside, a change I think everyone has wanted from the beginning.  These moves will come in handy as you navigate the new levels that lay before you.

Beautiful but it will kick your ass repeatedly.

The level designs vary the gameplay to a far greater extent than ever before.  There are far more vertical scrolling levels, and some stages reverse direction and scroll right to left.  Many of the levels feature a mix of all 3, giving you something to look forward to at all times.  The graphics are phenomenal; this is definitely in the NES top 10.  There aren’t too many NES games that made as much use of parallax scrolling and even foreground objects as this.

Tecmo’s artists really went to town, and the years of experience with the hardware show.  The bosses are especially a cut above and eschew the game’s sci-fi theme for the demonic figures that made the prior installments famous.  Although the levels are varied and look amazing, the game is wildly inconsistent, owing much to the difficulty level.

In a strange move, the US version was made considerably harder than its Japanese cousin.  Enemies deal far more damage, you have limited continues (can you believe that shit?) and the password system was removed.  Why these changes were made I don’t know as the goal for the game was to make the series more accessible to begin with, and these changes fly in the face of that.  Enemies no longer spawn infinitely, but they swarm you in retardedly high numbers to make up.  Previous games were hard but at least fair, in the sense that if you slowed down and paid attention you could see how you were failing and correct that.  You don’t always have that luxury here.  The removal of passwords isn’t so bad; this isn’t any longer than the second game, but having limited continues is just stupid.

Taking all of that into consideration, this is still one of the top action games for the NES.  The changes made are obnoxious to be frank but don’t make the game unplayable.  They at most hold the game back from being as great as it could have been, much like Battletoads.

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Ninja Gaiden II: the Dark Sword of Chaos

It was a strange time in the 8-bit era when it came to release dates.  No one actively kept track, there wasn’t an EB Games aggressively pushing you to preorder a game or you’d miss out; as far as most kids were concerned games simply showed up in stores when they were ready.  If you weren’t actively reading Nintendo Power or EGM you would have no idea what games were about to release.  In this case I had no idea Ninja Gaiden 2 even existed until a buddy showed up with it one day.

Ninja Gaiden II: the Dark Sword of Chaos was released in the US in 1990 and not until 1994 in Europe.  God they were so screwed when it came to releases.  Taking place 1 year after the defeat of the Jaquio Ryu has avenged his father and saved the world but all is not well.  A new threat named Ashtar has appeared, the man behind the Jaquio’s appearance.  He has designs on ruling the world by using the Sword of Chaos to open the Gate of Darkness.  Ryu is recruited by US Special Forces agent Robert Sturgeon to stop him with the added incentive to save Irene Lew as well.

Ninja Gaiden II improved on its predecessor in every way with far better graphics, sound, and slightly less frustrating gameplay.  Tecmo rightly saw that they had stumbled onto a winning formula and were keen to capitalize on it.  By fixing the glaring flaws present in the first game Ninja Gaiden II is simpler a better game overall.

Gameplay is identical to the first game with many improvements.  Your move set has been expanded as you can now scale walls freely, a drastic quality of life improvement.  Most of the weapons have returned with the overpowered Spin Slash the sole exception.  New to the series are the Fire Dragon Ball, a downward fireball that can be used when stuck to a surface and the biggest addition: Shadow Clones.  Ryu can have two Shadow Clones that follow him and mimic all of his actions, even using Ninja Magic.  They are tricky to take advantage of as they stop when you do, even leaving them suspended in midair.  At times you’ll place them by accident and see them kill enemies completely by coincidence but soon you can set them up to trivialize many boss encounters, to the point where you won’t even have to lift a finger.

The strangest change is a limit to your Ninja Magic which can only be increased by finding carefully hidden scrolls in the levels.  My guess is this was designed to limit how much you can spam Ninja magic with two clones doing the same which would be overkill the more I think about it.  Regardless of the reason Ninja Gaiden II will still pose quite a challenge.

The level designs have received a major overhaul and have become more adventurous.  Environmental hazards dot some of the levels affecting your controls, adding another element to consider before you make that jump.   Constantly changing wind and rain can affect your jumping height and distance and you’ll need to take advantage of it to proceed.  The coolest effect would be the lightning on stage 3-1 that temporarily illuminates the environment to reveal the platforms concealed in darkness.  There are fewer instances of hawks and birds waiting to knock you into bottomless pits this time around although they still occur.  The bosses are far more difficult than the first game unless you exploit your shadow clones although some of them are recycled from the original game.

Maybe it was my experience replaying the original Ninja Gaiden for countless hours but the game overall seemed less challenging.  The difficulty curve is more gradual, only reaching the ridiculous heights of the first game in the latter portions.  That isn’t to say you’ll breeze through the game, far from it, but it’s less trying overall.  I think the criticisms of the first game’s end scenario were taken to heart and the game is better for it.

This s a true sequel in every sense of the word in terms of correcting the original’s faults while pushing the gameplay forward.  The graphics are exceptional, the cut scenes better, and the difficulty less annoying.  If you’ve played Ninja Gaiden you know what you are getting into.   This is definitely not to be missed.

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Ninja Gaiden

The Shinobi series is often seen as the pinnacle of classic ninja action gaming and for good reason with many high quality releases to back it up.  But nipping on its heels is the Ninja Gaiden franchise which enjoyed resurgence in popularity in 2004 and is still going strong to this day.  It’s interesting to examine just why the Ninja Gaiden series is mentioned in the same breath as other retro classics and why it still endures to this day.

Ninja Gaiden was released in 1989 for America while Europe got the shaft, having to wait until 1991.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the majority of series fans this game was their introduction rather than the shoddy arcade beat em up.   You control Ryu Hayabusa who is on a mission to avenge his father’s death.  His simple quest soon becomes a mission to save the world from the Jaquio, who plans to use two Demon Statues to reawaken a Demon and rule the world.  Ninja Gaiden was unique for its combination of fast paced action and cut scenes that drive the story forward at a time when they were usually reserved for CD based consoles.

An action platformer like Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden is much faster paced with an assortment of weapons at your disposal.  The interface is almost exactly the same as the Castlevania games so anyone familiar with those can jump right in.  Like Simon’s whip Ryu’s sword is more than capable of defeating most foes but you have access to 4 secondary weapons: throwing stars, larger throwing stars which function like a boomerang, the fire wheel and the overpowered jump and slash.  Scrolls collected throughout the levels are used to power them much like Simon’s Hearts and generally you’ll always have a large supply.

Unlike the gimpy Simon Belmont, Ryu is agile like a ninja should be, moving at a fast clip and retaining some measure of control after leaping.  You also possess the ability to stick to any wall or vertical surface, with this ability dominating how you traverse most of the levels.  The game is split into 6 Acts with multiple parts, with the plot unfolding in between every level.  The level designs are a large reason why this game is mentioned in the same breath as such classic series Mario, Castlevania and Mega Man.  One other element that is shared in common with Castlevania is the difficulty.

It’s not an exaggeration when I say very few will ever make it to the ends of this title, with that number dropping considerably in terms of beating the game.  Things start out simple enough but by the middle of Act 2 the enemy placement becomes devious, the jumps harder, and number of enemies higher.  Think of nearly any cheap gameplay element from the 8-bit era and it’s here in full force.  The most annoying are the bats and hawks that much like medusa heads appear at the worst possible moments to knock you into a pit.  Thorough memorization of the levels is mandatory to even hope to complete them.  By Act 6 the game goes ape shit and throws everything and the kitchen sink at you; it becomes so ridiculous it’s almost comical.

The worst and virtually legendary element of the last Act forces you to complete the entire level all over again if you lose to any of the final bosses.  The funny thing is with the exception of the last 2, the bosses are a cakewalk in comparison to the levels themselves.  If you manage to reach them with the game breaking spin slash you can take them out in 1 second.  But that’s the rub, you have to reach them first.  In some respects it boils down to trial and error but not to the extent of something like Battletoads.  Your tenacity will determine how far you go; even with unlimited continues the game might break you.  But I can guarantee you the ending is completely worth it.

The production values help ease the game’s retarded challenge.  Even after 20 years this is still one of the top NES games in terms of graphics with very few games surpassing it.  The lush backgrounds are in stark contrast with the smaller character sprites.  The cut scenes were simply mind blowing; this was the first NES game to feature them and it set the standard for many years after.  The intro has gone down in video game history as one of the greatest of all time; in the video game world this was virtually a silent ninja film.  These cut scenes can run pretty long surprisingly, I don’t know how Tecmo did it but hats off to them.

Sure the game is hard but you will have the time of your life playing it.  No matter how many times you’ll die, and trust me you will, you’ll come back for more.  It can be unfair at times, but in every situation you can determine what you did wrong and fix it.  At the end of the day that’s what matters most.  This is not only one of the best NES games of all time but one of the top action games of all time.  Everyone should play it, no questions asked.

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Shadow of the Ninja

Natsume were a force to be reckoned with on the NES, with their games reaching near Sunsoft levels of quality.  The only thing holding them back from the upper echelons of the development community would be that they did not publish their own games until 1990, a bit late in the console’s lifespan.

Shadow of the Ninja was released in 1991 and immediately drew comparisons to Ninja Gaiden.  It’s the year 2029 and the Emperor Garuda has taken over the world.  Ninjas Hayate and Kaede are dispatched to take him down and restore peace.  In 1 or 2-player coop you’ll face Garuda’s forces across 5 levels on your way to the final showdown.

Your 2 ninjas move at a zippy pace and exhibit a level of agility most platform characters could only dream of.  Like Ninja Gaiden 3 released the same year you can hang from any surface and pull yourself up or down.  The levels take full advantage of this mechanic with many tricky sections that will require you to make snap decisions in the heat of the moment.

You start off with a katana that has pathetic range but can be upgraded to numerous different armaments, each with their own quirks.  Throwing stars pack a punch but are limited in supply and default back to your previous weapon once spent, a trait shared with the bombs.  The grappling hook will be the primary weapon used, not only for its range but because of the additional damage it inflicts when it retracts.

It’s hard to avoid comparisons to Ninja Gaiden as the two games are similar.  There aren’t any annoying hawks or bats waiting to knock you into pits but the game does have its share of irritating enemies.  There are soldiers who bum rush you and push you into whatever pits or enemies lie in wait.  Killing these bastards ends up not worth the frustration.  By the third level you face robots that break in half when hit and use both parts to attack you unless destroyed properly.

These two enemies also serve to highlight one of the biggest issues with the game: the hit detection.  It’s bad enough your katana is near useless but flailing about without your hits registering is infuriating.  Even with the grappling hook finding the exact sweet spot is maddening.  You only have one life and 5 continues; wasting them on what should be routine bad guys is just stupid.  The game isn’t very hard overall as it is a bit short.  The 5 levels are divided into 3 sections each, but some of these are shockingly brief.  The only real tricky parts are figuring out the boss patterns.

Like Shatterhand which was released the same year Shadow of the Ninja is a graphic powerhouse.  The rain effect on the first level would be copied by many games after and is incredible considering the hardware.  Many of the backgrounds are impressive such as the skyline on the rooftop stage or the airport.  The animation is suitably impressive and on the same level as Ninja Gaiden 3.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this game was made using the same engine as Shatterhand as they share a similar look and use of color.  Regardless it makes excellent use of the hardware considering its limitations.

Although comparisons to Ninja Gaiden might be unfair it can’t be helped as the two games have many things in common, making them nearly interchangeable.  In fact they are so similar Tecmo would ultimately buy the gameboy port and repurpose it as Ninja Gaiden Shadow.  It doesn’t quite reach the heights of its competition but it still manages to entertain.

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Shatterhand

Once upon a time the house that Harvest Moon built used to make some of the most awesome action games known to man.  That factoid is probably blowing the minds of a good lot of you reading this but it’s true.  Natsume during the NES era were home to some incredible games that gave the likes of Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania a run for their money.

Shatterhand was released for the NES in 1991, pretty late in the system’s life.  Aside from having one of the corniest box arts ever, it was actually a licensed game in Japan, though that was stripped for obvious reasons during localization.  Set in the future you are a police officer who has lost both arms during a battle with Metal Command, the game’s protagonists.  2 cybernetic arms later and you are tasked with taking down Metal Command once and for all.  None of this is explained in game; you have to read the instruction manual to get the back story not that it’s necessary.

Gameplay like most sidescrollers consists of you beating the snot out of any and all enemies in your path.  Your primary means of attack are your fists.  With your meaty mitts you can punch the bejeesus out of everything in your way no matter the shape or size.  Walls?  Doesn’t matter.  Giant robots?  They can get it too.  Bullets?  Get that weak shit out of here!  Your standard attack can produce a more powerful hook if done in rapid succession.  This punch is slower and can be repeated for more damage but needs to be timed based on the situation.

For added firepower collecting Alpha and Beta letters hidden in boxes will assemble a robot guard once you have collected 3 of them.  8 different bots can be assembled with varying powers.  Collecting the same one again will make it fuse with your body for 15 seconds, boosting your attacks exponentially.  The money dropped by enemies can be used to buy full health, extra lives, or stronger punches at set points in each level in pinch.  Along with the ability to hang and climb from fences in the background there is no situation you are ill equipped to handle.

There are 7 stages total with the game opening up after the introductory level.  From there you can tackle the next 5 in any order you choose before tackling the final stage, a lot like Mega Man now that I think about it.  As it was released in 1991 Natsume had ample time to study similar games that came before it and it shows.  You are far more agile than Simon in the Castlevania games and unlike those games there are no endless pits or flying enemies conveniently placed to knock you into them.  There’s even a gravity level that functions a lot like (who else) Gravity Man’s stage in Mega Man 5.  The boss battles are challenging just like in Ninja Gaiden but fairly balanced; the patterns are easy enough to recognize but surviving still depends on your reflexes and reaction time.  Shatterhand truly plays like an expert concoction of the best NES action titles distilled into one fantastic package, one that is easily up there with the best of the genre for the platform.

The graphics are incredible, making use of parallax scrolling in some stages, an effect not often seen on the NES.  The bosses are right up there with the Ninja Gaiden series in terms of design and challenge.  The level of detail in the backgrounds is extremely high and the animation is leagues above most other games 8-bit games.   If Shatterhand is a perfect synthesis of every action game for the NES in terms of gameplay then it’s also the same graphically.  Simply put you’ll be hard pressed to find many games for the system that can compete technically.

If I were to sum the game up I would say it’s totally balanced.  The levels are long, giving you ample time to build up money and sample your powers.  There are enough power-ups that you can put together at least 2 bots to assist you and see which ones you like the most.  The game is never cheap with checkpoints spread evenly and platforms to buy health and armor appearing right when you need them.    The bosses kick the difficulty up a notch and even then you can identify their patterns quickly enough.  This is a perfect example of the designers giving all of the games idea’s room to be explored, a lesson plenty of other games could learn from.

So where did the Natsume that could create games like this go?  I won’t bemoan the fact that they milk the Harvest Moon cow in order to make money but it’s a shame they can’t balance their output with games like this, especially when they were so good at it.  It’s a shame this went under the radar but being a late 1991 release it’s understandable.  Don’t let that stop you from trying out one of the NES finest action games.

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