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 dialogue, 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 speedrunners. That it pulled this off years before speedrunning 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.

Advertisements

Rygar (NES)

Always leave ‘em smiling!

Ah, good old Rygar! I actually owned this one growing up, so it feels great to finally give it another look. Like catching up with an old friend. Originally released as Arugosu no Senshi: Hachamecha Daishingeki (“Warrior of Argus: Extreme Great Charge”) in 1987, the game we know in the West as Rygar is a radical reworking by Tecmo of their own 1986 arcade title.

The arcade Rygar was a straightforward “run from left to right” action-platformer and a great one by the standards of the time. This was mainly due to the lead character’s unusual weapon: Some sort of serrated shield on a chain called the diskarmor that lashed out to smite enemies before returning to Rygar yo-yo style. It didn’t make much sense, but it was just so cool. To this day, I’ll always drop a few quarters into a Rygar machine given the chance.

The Rygar I’m looking at today is a whole other story. The main character and his cool weapon are still present, except now it’s in the context of an exploration-based action adventure seemingly inspired by Metroid that also includes some light RPG elements.

Rygar takes place in the fantasy realm of Argool, described as “prosperous” and “holy” in the instruction manual. One day, a monster king named Ligar attacks Argool with his minions (the manual calls them “animalized men wriggling eerily,” which is just amazing) and swiftly subjugates everyone, including the “five legendary Indora Gods.” Yeesh. Some gods they turned out to be. In desperation, the people pray for the savior that prophecy states will appear “when the peaceful land is covered with EVIL SPIRITS.” Their prayers are answered when the great warrior Rygar of Argus rises from the dead and sets out to save the day.

In this case, saving the day means wandering Argool searching out the five sacred treasures needed to access Ligar’s flying castle, each of which is guarded by a different boss monster. This is mostly done in a side-scrolling style reminiscent of the arcade original, though there are also three areas of the game that employ an overhead view of the action where Rygar can move and attack in four directions as well as jump in eight.

Regardless of the perspective, you can expect to be under attack from various monsters the majority of the time. At first, your inclination might be to avoid as many baddies as possible, but fighting everything you can really is the way to go. Killing monsters earns you experience points that go toward improving two important statistics: Tone and last. I can only assume that these odd names are the result of awkward translation, as “attack” and “defense” would have been much better choices. Higher tone means enemies die in fewer hits and increasing last earns you a longer health bar.

The pause screen also displays a third value: Mind. This is the equivalent of magic points and is boosted by collecting star icons dropped by defeated foes. Mind points can then be spent as needed on three different spells that either improve Rygar’s offensive abilities temporarily (Power Up, Attack & Assail) or restore lost health (Recover).

Similar to other open world action games of the time, much of Rygar consists of locating doors to new areas and then exploring those areas as thoroughly as possible. Whenever an obstacle is encountered that halts your progress, you’ll need to backtrack after making a note of it (mental or otherwise) so that you can return once you’ve acquired the inventory item needed to proceed. These progression items include a grappling hook, a pulley, and a crossbow.

Borrowing a page from The Legend of Zelda, hints are provided by old hermits found tucked away in remote locations. Unlike in Zelda, these old beardy dudes are shirtless and super buff. Their dialogue ranges from fairly useful to completely pointless (“Fight! Fight! Fight!”), but at least it generally makes sense, giving Rygar a leg up over some of its less coherent peers. It’s the visuals here that always stuck with me, though. These cavernous chambers with their lime green brick walls, unexplained angular shadows, and giant, half-naked old men squatting atop narrow pillars that tower over Rygar’s tiny sprite have to be one of the more surreal sights the NES library has to offer, and that’s saying a lot.

While I’m on the subject, the artwork in Rygar is generally good for a 1987 game, if a little inconsistent. The character sprites are the clear highlight. They’re very detailed and the designs of the numerous grotesque monsters do not disappoint. The big exception is poor Rygar himself, who would have really benefitted from some actual facial features. Backgrounds include some nice details, particularly on the stonework, but several areas suffer from drab coloration, including one stage that seems to utilize gray and black exclusively. I’m playing this on an NES, Tecmo, not a Tiger LCD handheld. The soundtrack by Michiharu Hasuya similarly has its ups and down. I found some of the tunes a bit on the droning side and others, like the stirring cave theme, to be real gems.

Rygar is not a long game, nor is it a difficult one once a fair amount of experience points have been gathered. Players with an understanding of the stage layouts can easily reach the end in an hour or two, depending on whether they want to take the time to level Rygar up to maximum power along the way or not. New players learning the game as they go, on the other hand, will require considerably more time and may consequently experience some frustration due to the game’s lack of a battery save or password feature. This is one of those games like Blaster Master that was responsible for a lot of parental nagging back in the day over consoles being left on overnight.

Putting my own personal nostalgia aside as much as possible, I still find Rygar to be an excellent example of an early non-linear platformer on the NES. This is primarily due to two factors: How well the Rygar character himself controls and how the designers smartly avoided shoehorning in tedious gimmicks. Rygar’s movements are smooth and precise. His jump is a bit on the floaty side, but his ability to bounce on top of enemies to stun them and gain some extra height in the process is pretty neat. The diskarmor is also as awesome as ever here, with satisfying sound effects and real sense of weight behind it due to the way most enemies are pushed backward on contact. The difference in handling between the agile Rygar and the stiff, awkward hero of Clash at Demonhead really makes the latter game seem amateurish. Best of all, you won’t find anything blatantly extraneous here like the wretched first-person segments from The Goonies II or Castlevania II’s currency grinding. Rygar wisely keeps the focus exclusively on the platforming, combat, and exploration, making it a stronger game overall than any of these three. I suppose if you’re going to take inspiration from Metroid, it pays to do it right.

As far as problems go, I already touched on the lack of a save function and the way the challenge suffers once Rygar himself levels up enough to become an unstoppable force that his enemies just can’t compete with. Another missed opportunity is the rather weak boss encounters. Only one of them even moves around to any significant degree. The rest, including final boss Ligar, either stand in one place lobbing shots at you or shuffle around the arena so slowly that they may as well just stay put, too. Levels are much more about the journey than the destination thanks to these disappointing fights. I don’t think these flaws come close to dooming the game. Just be prepared for a slightly odd downward difficulty curve as things get easier the further you progress.

Sadly, the Rygar series never really went anywhere from here, unless you count the barely remembered attempt at a reboot on the PlayStation 2 in 2002. At the very least, the reimagined Rygar’s success on the NES served as an auspicious precedent for Tecmo and they would go on to pursue a similar approach with Ninja Gaiden, which became an all-time classic action-platformer as opposed to the mediocre beat-’em-up it was in the arcade.

Quibbles aside, I recommend Rygar highly to anyone with an interest in early console action-adventure games and/or wriggling eerily.

Ninja Gaiden Shadow (Game Boy)

19055614_10158866329370416_6041810411538105490_o

Never piss off a ninja, chump.

Just got done playing through Ninja Gaiden Shadow on my lunch break. This one was developed by Natsume as a Game Boy follow-up to their decent NES title Shadow of the Ninja, but Tecmo bought the publishing rights at the last minute and released it under the Ninja Gaiden name in 1991 instead. Anyone who’s played Shadow of the Ninja will note the similarities here, as your character uses a grappling hook to hang from ceilings as he did in that game instead of clinging to and jumping off of walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden is better known for.

The cut-and-paste nature of the switch is also made apparent through the lack of another Ninja Gaiden staple: Plot twists and cinematic cut scenes during play. All you get is a brief pre-game intro stating that an evil dude in a cape (named Emperor Garuda) is wreaking havoc and Ryu the ninja needs to stop him. That’s it.

Thankfully, the action is pretty good. Ryu can run, jump, duck, slash with his sword, use his grappling hook to latch onto the underside of certain platforms, and fire off a limited-use diagonal fire attack. The fire attack is the only secondary weapon you can employ in this game, unfortunately. Due to the motion blur that obscured fast moving objects on the original Game Boy’s screen, moving and attacking is much slower here than in any of the main series games and you will sometimes feel like you’re playing underwater Ninja Gaiden. That being said, the control is solid and the stage layouts are pretty nice, incorporating both horizontal and vertical scrolling and sporting a few nifty set pieces like dark areas and a sequence where you must outrun a rising tide of lava.

Graphics look good for the system, with some nicely-drawn backgrounds and sprites. The sprites are a decent size without falling into the common Game Boy trap of being too large to allow for a decent field of view around your character. The music is fantastic and perhaps the best aspect of the game’s presentation overall. There are several remixes of classic Ninja Gaiden tracks and they sound excellent on the Game Boy. In fact, they ironically sound much better than the godawful versions Tecmo blighted the world’s ears with in Ninja Gaiden Trilogy for Super Nintendo. Ugh.

There are only five levels and five bosses in the game and the difficulty is very forgiving due to the combination of short levels, unlimited continues, and the relatively small number of enemies and tricky jumps when compared to the NES titles. Even players relatively unskilled at action platformers will probably be able to complete this one in an hour or less. Replay value is minimal. If I had purchased the game for full price back in the day, I might have been a bit disappointed at this, but if you can pick it up for significantly less today, it’s not a bad time killer on a bus commute, plane ride, or the like. Just don’t expect it to play like the NES Ninja Gaiden titles or add anything to the greater storyline of that series.

Ninja vanish! *poof*

Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom (NES)

16179443_10158167193650416_8357188553627756328_o

Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos (NES)

16299781_10158126889505416_4829411453790592_o