Ninja Gaiden (Master System)

Thanksgiving season is here again. For me, that means baking, quality time with friends, and savage ninja mayhem. Yes, this is the time of year when I inevitably find myself scaling walls and hurling deadly shuriken at evildoers of all stripes, usually in a video gaming context. I’m especially partial to Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden saga for this, having already covered the NES trilogy and Ninja Gaiden Shadow on Game Boy.

As far as I knew back in the ’90s, these four home titles and the arcade beat-’em-up were the full extent of the franchise. I had no idea that a sixth game, also dubbed simply Ninja Gaiden, was produced exclusively for Master System owners in Europe and Australia. This was the second entry (after the Natsume-helmed Shadow) to be developed by a party other than Tecmo themselves. Master System Ninja Gaiden is the work of SIMS (Soft development Innovation Multi Success), a joint enterprise spun off from Sega and the more obscure Sanritsu Denki. Regular readers of mine may recall them as the creators of the Castlevania-inspired Master of Darkness. The two works are quite similar in that they’re respectable action-platformers which capture the broad strokes of their source material, yet neglect many of the finer points that made the originals true greats.

Like its predecessors, this Ninja Gaiden stars blue-clad killing machine Ryu Hayabusa. He returns home to his village one day, only to discover it’s been attacked and razed by a mysterious enemy force that slaughtered everyone present and made off with a sacred scroll detailing the clan’s ninjitsu techniques. This scroll must be recovered, since the secrets it contains could endanger the entire world if misused. There’s also the matter of revenge. You really don’t want to cross a guy who slays building-sized demons for a living.

It’s a promising setup that SIMS ultimately doesn’t deliver on. The NES games were famed for their lavishly animated and scored story interludes, dubbed “Tecmo theater.” The cutscenes here are paltry in comparison, consisting of static images with the same short music loop accompanying every one. The storytelling itself also fails to engage. It’s a straightforward trek from location to location fighting assorted villains in pursuit of the missing scroll. There are no twists and no familiar characters other than Ryu himself. The new characters that appear make no impact and aren’t even given proper names, as if the writers knew you probably wouldn’t remember them anyway with a plot this perfunctory.

It’s not all doom and gloom, fortunately. Although there are some important caveats I’ll get to shortly, much of the Ninja Gaiden gameplay formula comes through loud and clear in the seven diverse stages presented. Ryu’s movement feels correct and he fights with his customary Dragon Sword and array of mystical sub-weapons. His core moveset sees some some interesting tweaks in this installment. While he retains his Ninja Gaiden III ability to hang from the undersides of certain ledges, his signature wall climbing has been replaced with a Super Metroid style rebounding wall jump. The most dramatic new addition is a super attack performed by pressing both buttons at once. This will instantly destroy all regular enemies on screen in exchange for a hefty chunk of health. Finally, he can now move while crouched, which is occasionally useful in tight quarters, if less flashy than these other maneuvers. All this allowed SIMS to include new movement-based challenges not seen in previous games and they made the most of the opportunity. There’s a bigger emphasis on pure platforming here than in any other classic Ninja Gaiden.

I just wish it didn’t come at the expense of the combat. The enemies in this game are routinely designed and placed in ways that make me suspect the SIMS team didn’t really understand what made the action on the NES so compelling. It was, in a word, flow. The opposition was oppressive, with swift baddies constantly swarming Ryu from all angles. The only way out was to cut a path through as efficiently as possible. The mechanics supported this. Ryu could eliminate almost any foe with a single swing of his sword. Assuming a perfectly-timed sequence of jumps and attacks, it was possible to literally sprint through the game. It made for an unparalleled 8-bit adrenaline rush. This isn’t what you get on the Master System. There are far fewer opponents to dispatch and they tend to be either slow-moving or stationary damage sponges when compared to their NES counterparts. Taking that constant pressure off players while simultaneously forcing them to stop moving over and over to dole out multiple hits to the same enemy really blurs the line between Ninja Gaiden at its blistering best and watered-down Castlevania with a ninja.

I don’t want to come off too negative here. MS Ninja Gaiden has a lot going for it. Most prominent are its bright, clean graphics, solid soundtrack, and intricate platforming scenarios. It controls well and its dialed down intensity may actually appeal to those who find the NES games overwhelming. Not only do you enjoy the unlimited continues common to most Ninja Gaidens, you don’t even lose your sub-weapon and its ammunition when you die. This led to me discover a strange quirk of the sub-weapon system that effectively breaks the game wide open. If you can manage to raise your ammo count to the maximum of 999, it will never again decrease, effectively granting you unlimited shots thereafter. I’m not sure if this is intentional or a bug. In either case, it makes an already relaxed ride pure child’s play if you choose to exploit it.

SIMS’ interpretation of Ninja Gaiden may not represent the series at its slick, brutal apex, but it makes for a satisfying playthrough nonetheless. It’s easily one of the better action-platformers to grace the Master System. Pity it happened to debut in 1992, after the console had already been discontinued in North America and Japan. So give it a go sometime. Turkey Day or no, you’ll be thankful you did.

Master of Darkness (Master System)

Another bloodsucker bites the dust!

Picture this: It’s 1992 and the Castlevania series is already a well-loved action gaming mainstay, with six successful installments released for the NES, Super Nintendo, and Game Boy in as many years. The only problem? You’re Sega and Castlevania developer Konami won’t touch your Game Gear handheld system with a ten-foot enchanted whip due to being locked into a restrictive (and dubiously legal) exclusivity deal with Nintendo. What do you do? You make your own Castlevania…with blackjack and hookers!

Well, almost. There’s technically no blackjack in Master of Darkness, but since the game is set in 1890s London and references the notorious Jack the Ripper killings, the hookers are at least strongly implied. I’m playing the 1993 European Master System port here, since I don’t own a Game Gear. These consoles share very similar hardware and most sources agree that the two versions of Master of Darkness are largely identical, apart from the smaller field of view in the portable version. Also known as In the Wake of the Vampire and Vampire: Master of Darkness in Japan and North America, respectively, the game was developed by SIMS, who also delivered competent Master System takes on Ninja Gaiden and Disney’s Aladdin. So far, so good.

Our hero for this outing is one Dr. Ferdinand Social, psychologist and early Ouija board adopter. He’s just kicking back and channeling the spirits of the dead one night (as you do) when the board issues a dire warning: “Killer…vampire…go to Thames…caution…in the wake of…D R A C U L A.” Not being one to question his parlor games, Social grabs his trusty knife and heads to the waterfront to begin his hunt for the Ripper. Right out the gate here, I’m struck by the fact that not only did Sega produce an undeniable Castlevania clone, they even elected to retain Dracula as the main villain! That points to either a complete lack of creatively or some great big brass balls. I’m going to be charitable here and assume the latter.

Although I kid, the opening cut scene really does do a fine job of selling the eerie atmosphere and Victorian setting, with the moving Ouija planchet and animated blood dripping from the vampire’s fangs being particularly nice touches. Master of Darkness makes excellent use of the Master System’s expanded color palette (relative to the NES) and is a great looking 8-bit game generally. I immediately took a liking to Dr. Social as a protagonist. Not only does he have a pretty sweet name, he resembles Austin Powers with his shaggy haircut and powder blue suit. Groovy, baby! The music is also high quality and suits the mood, though the melodies themselves aren’t all that memorable and perhaps loop a bit too often due to the game’s penchant for lengthy stages.

Regrettably, a pleasing presentation is really all Master of Darkness brings to the table. In terms of overall design, it’s as pure a knock-off as they come. Social fights exactly the sorts of zombies, skeletons, bats, and hopping hunchbacks you’d expect him to, all leading up to a climactic battle against a teleporting, fireball chucking version of the Count. He collects some very familiar feeling sub-weapons by attacking the floating objects that dot almost every screen (masks here instead of candles, at least). He smashes trick walls to find healing items. He visits a clock tower, where he leaps around on giant swinging pendulums. And you just know he climbs a ton of stairs. So many stairs. All games take inspiration from what came before, but Master of Darkness rivals The Krion Conquest with the sheer scope and shamelessness of its borrowing. It’s practically a tracing of a Castlevania game. The only Belmont-ish thing the good doctor doesn’t attempt is wielding a whip. Instead, he starts out with a nearly useless pocket knife that he can (and should) swap out for a sword, cane, or axe. Each of these offers either more reach, more power, or both and all are viable options. For some sick reason, however, the designers seem to delight in hiding at least one copy of the puny default pocket knife in every stage, often in spots where it’s very easy to grab it by accident as you’re going about your monster slaying business. Rude.

Still, a copy of a great game still has the potential to play great, right? Isn’t that what really matters? Sure. It’s just a pity that Master of Darkness doesn’t duplicate the expert level design or thrilling challenge of Konami’s offerings. It’s as if SIMS managed to capture the broad strokes while omitting the fine details that draw everything together into a pleasing whole. Take Dr. Social’s ungodly durability, for example. He may look the part of the frail academic, but he soaks up punishment like the Terminator. Social has an eight unit health bar and most enemies take off less than a full unit on contact. That’s sixteen hits or so right off the bat, between 2-4 times as many as Castlevania typically allows for. Healing items are also far more common in Master of Darkness, so much so that it often seems there’s a handy potion served up to you after every couple of screens. This obviously makes combat a cinch and the logical thing to do in this case would have been to focus on making the platforming aspect of the game more intricate and risky to compensate, right? Apparently not. Instead, they went in the opposite direction and made legitimate stage hazards like bottomless pits quite scarce. We end up with what feels like an invincible hero numbly hacking his way through a series of thoroughly safe (albeit spooky) locales on the way to his inevitable victory.

It’s not so much that every game should be so demanding that it makes you want to tear your hair out. More that single-handedly challenging the Prince of Darkness and his armies of the night should feel at least a little daunting. Not once during my playthrough did I get the impression that the odds were against me. No, I actually felt sorry for Dracula! That chump did not know who he was messing with when he pissed off Dr. Ferdinand Social. I died a few times due to botched jumps, but always managed to rack up enough extra lives to keep me going all the way to the end. I actually had to restart the game after finishing it and kill off Dr. Social on purpose just to see if it even offered continues (it does, unlimited ones). Master of Darkness is a game that lot of players are going to complete in a single short session without having to try much and that would have been a bummer for anyone that paid full price for it back when it came out. Hell, it remains a potential bummer for anyone paying the prices it still commands today.

Master of Darkness is by no means an unpleasant time. It’s plenty stylish and it controls just fine. There’s simply no dynamic tension here. It’s a walk in the park. Or a stroll along the Thames, I suppose. A sequel really had the potential to tighten things up and add a sense of urgency to the proceedings while also breaking away from the source material more to establish its own identity. Unfortunately for Dr. Social, growing discontent in the game developer community led to the rapid deterioration of Nintendo’s once ironclad exclusivity policies as the 1990s wore on. Sega would get their first official Castlevania game in 1994 with Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Genesis, robbing Master of Darkness of its raison d’être and relegating it to obscure oddity status forevermore.

Stay tuned, boys and ghouls, for the chilling finale of my October gaming frightfest: A game so fearsome, so maligned, that its mere mention strikes terror into the hearts of man and monster alike. Also, uh…I’ve got a bone to pick with you. Or something. You get the idea.