Ninja Gaiden (NES)

Ninja beats giant purple lobster every time. It’s called science, people.

I can’t believe I haven’t talked about Ninja Gaiden yet. It’s only one of the definitive action-platformers on a system renowned for them and one of my personal favorite games of all time. I did cover its two direct NES sequels last year, but I never played either of them back when they came out. No, this original entry (which just turned thirty years old this past week) is the one I grew up with. I recently played through the entire trilogy over Thanksgiving, so I figured this is as good an opportunity as any to remedy my oversight. What do ninja have to do with Thanksgiving? Nothing, of course. It’s just an odd little tradition I’ve stumbled into to fill the downtime while I’m getting dinner ready. I’ll make up some bread dough, play through a few acts of a Ninja Gaiden game while it rises, pop the dough in the oven and play a few more acts while it bakes, then finish off the last boss as the loaf is cooling on the rack. Beats the hell out of the Macy’s parade, that’s for sure.

Contrary to what one might assume, the Ninja Gaiden series was conceived with an American audience in mind. Word had reached the management at Tecmo that ninja were a massive fad over on our side of the Pacific, thanks to cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and action movies like…well, everything Sho Kosugi ever appeared in. They tasked a pair of internal development teams with creating two distinct games: A beat-’em-up for the arcades and a Castlevania-inspired action-platformer for the NES. Despite having little in common other than a general ninja action theme, both games would bear the title Ninja Ryūkenden (“Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword”). During localization, this moniker was deemed too much of a mouthful for us gaijin and became Ninja Gaiden instead. Supposedly, this new name was chosen just because it sounded cool. It certainly makes no literal sense. “Gaiden” means something along the lines of “side story,” yet the games themselves aren’t actually spun off from any previous work. Hence, there’s no “main story” for them to refer back to.

The titular ninja here is young Ryu Hayabusa, who receives a letter from his father Ken during the game’s opening prologue. In the letter, Ken states that he’s about to fight a duel to the death against an unknown opponent. In the event he should fail to return, he instructs his son to take up the family’s sacred Dragon Sword and travel to America in order to meet with an archaeologist named Walter Smith. Vowing to discover the reason for his father’s demise and avenge it, Ryu sets off for America.

Ninja Gaiden makes a powerful statement right out of the gate with this opening scene. The very first screen of the game, depicting Ken Hayabusa and his unknown assailant squaring off under a full moon, is presented as a cinematic panning shot, complete with flashy parallax scrolling of the ground tiles to sell the illusion of a moving camera. This transitions to a series of quick cuts between close-ups of the masked combatants’ faces and running legs, then finally another long shot as the two ninja leap skyward and clash swords in mid-air. All this visual pizzazz is expertly bolstered by Keiji Yamagishi and Ryuichi Nitta’s intense score coupled with some very impactful sound effects. The development team christened the nearly twenty minutes of anime style interludes crammed into Ninja Gaiden “Tecmo Theater,” and the inclusion of such an elaborate extra on a minuscule NES cartridge impresses even today.

Tecmo certainly didn’t invent the so-called cutscene here. Pac-Man had cutscenes and Dragon’s Lair effectively was one. Rather, Ninja Gaiden’s triumph was one of scope and ambition. In an era when many games didn’t include proper openings at all and “Congratulations!” over a black screen was still an acceptable ending, Ninja Gaiden had lavish, dynamic story sequences both before and after every one of its six acts. With new characters being constantly introduced, plot twists aplenty, and tons of dialog, these scenes actually had players setting their controllers down for minutes at a time just to watch the game do its thing. We may take chatty games for granted now and even have cause to rue their excesses on occasion, but the very idea would have seemed absurd before Ninja Gaiden. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Ninja Gaiden released in North America around the same time as the first wave of Japanese console RPGs and none of the latter came close to matching its dramatic flair. The fact that a simple “run to the end of the stage and slash dudes” ninja platformer featured all-around better storytelling than the first Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy installments really demonstrates how far the JRPG genre has come. It’s no wonder Square later hired Ninja Gaiden alum Masato Kato to work on the script for their classic Chrono Trigger.

So how about that platforming? I mentioned above that Ninja Gaiden takes inspiration from Konami’s Castlevania and a quick glance at the screen layout makes this very apparent. The status display along the top that holds the health bars for Ryu and the stage boss, the current score, and other key information is a carbon copy of the one from Castlevania. Also directly lifted from that game are the countless torches, candles, and other floating targets in each stage that Ryu can attack to reveal ammunition, health refills, and power-ups. Some of the special weapons Ryu obtains in this manner bear a strong resemblance to ones from Castlevania, such as the two varieties of shuriken with properties similar to the dagger and boomerang cross. Despite all this, Ninja Gaiden is never really dismissed as a Castlevania clone the same way titles like 8 Eyes and Master of Darkness are. Why is this? In a word: Speed. Castlevania’s Simon Belmont was defined by his deliberate, almost plodding stride and weighty jump physics. By contrast, tapping left or right in Ninja Gaiden will take Ryu Hayabusa from a standstill to a headlong sprint in an instant and his Dragon Sword is lightning fast. He can also jump much higher and farther than Simon and he isn’t limited to realistic fixed arcs when doing so. He is a ninja, after all.

Furthermore, Ninja Gaiden’s designers tailored the opposition so as to make Ryu’s blinding speed not just a useful tool, but a necessary one. Almost every standard enemy in the game can be obliterated by a single well-timed Dragon Sword slash. The catch is that each foe so destroyed will re-spawn immediately and endlessly if Ryu should backtrack or even pause to catch his breath. If you’re not rushing ahead and making constant headway in a given stage, chances are that you’re getting swarmed and overwhelmed instead. Ninja Gaiden lights a fire under its players’ asses and essentially forces them to tackle it like speed runners. That it pulled this off years before speed running proper was a recognized practice is well worth noting.

Ryu’s zippy moveset and the game’s fundamental intolerance for any degree of player hesitation are what lend Ninja Gaiden its characteristic intensity. On the downside, they also cement its reputation as one of the more difficult NES games. The notion that it’s almost always better to just keep moving rather than take a moment to slow down and think things through every now and again feels counter-intuitive and intimidating at first. Now, I’m not about to tell you that this game isn’t challenging. I’ll simply add that some reckless abandon and a “fake it till you make it” attitude can make the learning process a good deal less stressful. You have unlimited continues to work with, so there’s no need to sweat the small stuff.

As much as there is to love here, the game is not without its rough patches. Foremost among them for me are the boss encounters. The bosses of the first five acts have very simple patterns and generally pose little threat. They’re especially underwhelming in light of how fast-paced and thrilling the stages leading up to them are. Though the gauntlet of three bosses that caps off the final act represents a step in the right direction, it’s also a prime example of too little, too late.

Ryu’s signature wall clinging ability is also at its least refined in this first installment. While he can grab onto any wall, he can only move up and down once he’s attached if the wall in question features a ladder. There is a workaround for this that involves holding the directional pad diagonally up and away from a wall, jumping off it, and then immediately pressing back toward the same wall again in order to inch your way up it in fits and starts. It’s awkward, to say the least. Thankfully, future games would allow Ryu to climb around freely on any type of wall.

Finally, I can’t leave out the infamous “act six bug.” If you lose a life when fighting any of the three final bosses, the game ships you back to stage 6-1 at the very start of the act instead of 6-3 like normal. While unintentional, this does make practicing the game’s final battles much more of a hassle than it should be.

Blemishes aside, there’s still no other game that plays quite like this one. Even its immediate sequels dialed the breakneck pace and relentless enemy onslaught down a few notches. Ninja Gaiden II introduced stage hazards that served to slow Ryu’s advance and Ninja Gaiden III made it so that defeated enemies don’t re-spawn at all. They’re both still great experiences on their own terms, but this debut entry remains my favorite for its unparalleled sense of flow. The adrenaline rush of flying through a stage exploding hostile eagles with your sword in mid-leap like the true ninja master you are is intoxicating and what keeps Ninja Gaiden a perennial top ten NES side-scroller alongside Castlevania III, Contra, and whatever your personal favorite Mega Man happens to be.

Just don’t get caught pronouncing it “Ninja Gay-den” or you forfeit all those baddass points on the spot. Them’s the ninja rules.

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