Ninja Gaiden is one of my favorite NES games of all time. It is certainly the one I’ve probably dedicated the most time to. That is due mostly to the unrelenting difficulty in its later parts. For any other game that would be a blemish but in this case I kept trying because I loved the game so god damn much. While Sega’s Shinobi commanded the lion’s share of attention when it came to ninja hijinks Ninja Gaiden was not far behind. Ryu Hayabusa’s first adventure on the system is an undeniable classic and one of its best games.
The game stars Ryu Hayabusa, who is on a mission of revenge. The game’s story opens on a duel between two ninja, Ryu’s father Ken and an unknown figure. Ken loses and seemingly dies in the process. Ryu later finds a letter from Ken telling him to find his archeological partner Walter if he should ever fall. This seemingly simple quest soon spirals into a world spanning journey to save the planet from the Jacquio, a demon from another world who plans to use two Demon statues to awaken an ancient evil and rule the world.
Ninja Gaiden on the NES is a completely different animal from its arcade counterpart. Rather than a side scrolling brawler it is an action platformer eerily similar to Castlevania. Like many I played the Nintendo game first but even with that coloring my perspective it is a much better game than the coin op. It’s not that the arcade game was bad, it was just generic. It is remembered more for its grizzly continue screen than anything else. The NES game is one of the best action games for the system and was also ground breaking for its cutscenes and elaborate story. Both of these elements are still enjoyable today although new players beware as the difficulty can be vicious.
I made the comparison to Castlevania because it is very apparent. The UI is nearly identical and the game has many of the same enemy types, down to its equivalent of the medusa heads. Ninja magic is also performed the same, with ninjitsu replacing hearts. Candles are replaced with various icons that hold the numerous weapons and items. There are your standard point items, health potions, and the rare clock to stop time. The fire shield grants invincibility but at the cost of your current weapon.
There are four weapons in total with varying effects. The Windmill Shuriken is the most useful as you can jump over it infinitely to kill multiple enemies. The normal shuriken are a last resort since they are small and weak. The Fire Wheel is used to attack airborne enemies. The most devastating and potentially game breaking is the Jump and slash. This bad boy pretty much makes you invincible and can shred a boss in seconds. The caveat being you can no longer attack in the air without using some ninja magic. It’s so broken in fact that it isn’t available in every level. If you find it hold onto it!
While the mechanics are similar in terms of its pacing Ninja Gaiden is worlds apart. Ryu is much faster on his feet and agile like, uh, a ninja. You retain some measure of control when airborne which is a god send. But perhaps greatest example of Ryu’s dexterity is the wall jump. Ryu can stick to nearly any wall and rebound. If there are two walls you can climb up. With some skill you can climb on a single wall which is an incredibly useful skill. Mastering the wall jump is crucial as the deeper you progress the more the game comes to rely on it.
Due to the game’s pace it has a very interesting flow. The level design is very measured like Castlevania but leaves room to make mistakes or improvise. Once you know where every enemy is placed you can breeze through it at a nice clip. It’s almost poetic to watch someone skilled at the game (like me!) blow through it in one slick run. But to get to that point requires a time investment.
Ninja Gaiden is a difficult game, not to the extent of Konami’s classic but close. You really need to take things slow at first as enemies tend to spawn at a moment’s notice. There are plenty of bottomless pits and thin platforms with enemies waiting to know you backwards towards death. If you backtrack even a little they respawn as well which is annoying. The bosses are just as tough. Yet despite all this the game still remains overwhelmingly fair. Much like Castlevania and similar titles you will immediately know when you have screwed up and infinite continues make it manageable.
That is until the last Act. At Act 6 the game goes off the rails and throws seemingly every enemy in the game in your path. It borders on insane just how crowded the screen gets to the point where it almost seems unfair. Act 6-2 has gone down in history for its unforgiving design with that hallway causing many a broken controller. To make matters worse if you are killed by any of the game’s three final bosses you are sent back to Act 6-1 to do it over. This is one of the cruelest design decisions in the history of video games and if the game weren’t so awesome I would never recommend it because of it. It really is that bad.
If you are wondering why legions of gamers stuck with it that would be the story and cutscenes. Ninja Gaiden broke ground for its extensive cutscenes after every level detailing the game’s story. The plot remains interesting even to this day making every new cinema a suitable reward for your progress. I won’t spoil it but the ending is more than worth the extensive amount of trouble you will go through just to see it. It took me years to build up the skill and determination to see this to its conclusion and it was time well spent in my opinion.
Brutally difficult at times but more than worth the trouble Ninja Gaiden is still great. The fact that people still talk about it to this day speaks volumes. Stick with it and you will be rewarded with one of the best video game endings of all time. I’m running out of ways to tell you how great the game is. Just go buy it any way that you can, you won’t regret it.