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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