As much as it frustrated me Ninja Gaiden is still one of my favorite NES games ever. I wouldn’t have dumped hundreds of hours mastering it just to reach its fantastic conclusion otherwise. Back in the 80s video game release dates were a nebulous concept. You wouldn’t know a game released until it showed up in stores. Ninja Gaiden II was a pleasant surprise in 1990 and I have to say as much as I loved the original the sequel is a better game.
The events of Ninja Gaiden II occur a year after the original. Some time has passed since Ryu defeated the Jacquio and avenged his father. But now a new evil has taken his place. Ashtar, the Emperor of Darkness has appeared and plans to rule the world using the Sword of Chaos. His plan is to use the sword to open the Gate of Darkness. Ryu is recruited by Special Forces agent Robert to stop him and save Irene Lew in the process.
There have been some slight adjustments to Ryu’s abilities and toolkit. You can scale walls freely rather than the flipping jumps necessary in the first game. This change in particular is a major quality of life improvement. Most of the ninja arts from the original return unchanged. These are joined by the Fireball Ninpo, which fires at a 45 degree angle downward and the art of the fire wheel. The fireball ninpo is only situationally useful, leaving the other weapons a better choice. The art of the fire wheel is actually a carryover from the first game. Except here it can be manually activated repeatedly at a high cost.
Veterans of the original will mourn the loss of the jump and slash technique. This powerful item shredded bosses in seconds and was broken. In its place are shadow clones. You can have up to two phantom doubles that will follow your every movement. As an added bonus you can also equip another weapon which they will also use, tripling your firepower. As cool as they are they do not compare to the jump and slash. The majority of the time they actually kill something it is a happy accident rather than skillful timing. But they do have their uses. If you set it up right up you can totally stun lock bosses; the second and third level bosses are perfect examples of this.
One final change that I do not like is ninja magic. Rather than starting with a limit of 99 you begin with just forty. The maximum is increased by finding scrolls throughout the game which are easy to miss. The cost of all spells has also increased. Technically you can and should spam magic frequently as refills are abundant. But it isn’t as freeing as before. I don’t know why this was done as ninja magic was one of the best parts of the original. Having to be more conservative in its use doesn’t sit right with me.
The level design is all around excellent. The environments are more varied and the level designers have become more ambitious. Stage 2-2 features changing wind direction necessary to advance through the level. Stage 3-2 takes place in the darkness, with the occasional flashes of lightning illuminating the platforms. Even something as simple as obscuring your view works effectively in stage 6-1 while also cleverly hiding good items. The boss battles are much more than simple fodder and require a little bit of thought. The overall art direction leans more towards the demonic which makes sense as the antagonists come from the world of Chaos. The creepy dungeons and caves drip atmosphere and help the game avoid relying on the standard platforming tropes.
Overall Ninja Gaiden II is better balanced than the first game. There are less eagles flying about and the game is less stingy with life restoring potions. The game does rely on enemies spawning from behind far too much but that is a minor complaint. It can still get pretty crazy but never descends to the level of stage 6-2 from the original. Now it could all just be my skills blossoming or the fact that I spent so much time with its predecessor but I doubt it. You’ll also be happy to know you aren’t sent back to the beginning of the last level if you die against the final boss. This plays like a game keenly aware of the mistakes made by its predecessor and largely avoids repeating its faults.
In every sense of the word Ninja Gaiden II is a true sequel. It fixes its predecessor’s flaws while offering new gameplay ideas and stellar production values. With a less punishing difficulty even more gamers stand a chance of reaching its finale. This is a fantastic game and probably the best among the NES trilogy.