NES Review: Ninja Gaiden. The classic debut of Ryu Hayabusa

26 March 2006
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Ninja Gaiden for NESFor our first classic game review, we have the 2D side-scrolling action masterpiece, Ninja Gaiden. If you are to understand the influence behind Team Ninja’s recent Xbox Ninja Gaiden masterpiece, then you simply must play the original games that inspired it. And for those who have never played a Ninja Gaiden title, or for those that remember these great games fondly, this review is for your enjoyment. The next two games in the trilogy will be posted in the coming weeks, with a review of the Xbox version capping it all off. Have a great weekend everyone!

Ninja Gaiden
Platform: NES
Also Available On: Super NES & Xbox (Mobile Phone, Arcade, Sega Master System, Game Gear & Game Boy versions were also released. The arcade game was different however and is available as an unlockable in Ninja Gaiden Black for Xbox)
Released: 1989
Players: 1
Genre: 2D side-scrolling action/platformer
Save: In the original game – none. In the Xbox version – password
Made By: Tecmo
Country of Origin: Japan

Ninja Gaiden BlackIf I had to choose one word to describe this game, it would be “hardcore”. The original Ninja Gaiden was released on 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System (the game was further re-released in a Super NES compilation known as “Ninja Gaiden Trilogy”, with remixed music, and recently packaged in with Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden Black on the Xbox as unlockables). Published by Tecmo, Ninja Gaiden is beloved by gamers everywhere and is fondly remembered, and fondly respected, by anyone who owned an NES back in the day. Why is that so? Because despite the game’s age, 17 years and counting, the game still holds up remarkably well. And amazingly, it’s as hardcore as it ever was, easily fitting into the hardcore shell that the newest Xbox version falls under; which of course was inspired by the original NES trilogy. (hardcore in this case referring to extreme difficulty)

In Ninja Gaiden you play as a ninja named Ryu Hayabusa, who’s father is killed during a “life or death duel” (conveyed in the opening cinematic), and who after his death left his son a note, telling him to take the Dragon Sword of the Hayabusa family and go to America to meet an archeologist named Walter Smith. So Ryu sets out on his trek to discover why his dad was killed and to “get his revenge”. What starts out as a mission to uncover what happened to his father and the reasons why he had to die, grows into a sinister plot, with plenty of twists, involving a demon and some ancient relics. The story is as mature and as sophisticated as you will ever find on the NES, and in it’s own right is still interesting and engaging to this day.

ninjai gaiden nes screenshotNinja Gaiden was way ahead of it’s time, and you will notice this as soon as you boot the game up and witness the anime-style cut-scenes. It’s greatest characteristic would have to be it’s storyline, which is conveyed through the use of still graphics and animation, done before and after each level (or “Act” as they are referred to in the game. “Act 1”, “Act 2”, etc.), in a way that had yet to be seen on the console. For what it’s worth, these “cut scenes” (Many consider Ninja Gaiden to be the first use of “movie scenes” to display a story) are still very effectively done today (even though the translation is basic) and help to give the game a unique feel all it’s own. Even in this day and age of high quality CG, the way Ninja Gaiden presents it’s story, and not only that but the story itself, have lost none of their coolness. While it won’t “wow” you like it would have back in 89, the movie scenes are nonetheless interesting, and they will still give you that “man that was cool” smile across your face as you realize the creativity that went into creating these scenes on the NES, and how it was so much light years ahead of anything at the time.

What is equally striking and still holds up to this day is the game’s music. The music plays a huge part in setting the mysterious and haunting mood of the game, and it has lost none of it’s luster. It is quite simply some of the greatest tunes you will hear on the NES, and for those of you who remember these games, they will flood your mind with deep feelings of nostalgia like nothing else. Simply hearing the music seems to transport you back to another time, and can instantly suck you back in to the Ninja Gaiden world. And even if you have never played the game before, the great music is undeniable.

But what really propels Ninja Gaiden to classic “god of games” status is the gameplay. A 2D side-scrolling action game, it will take literally ALL the twitch skills you have to conquer. Ninja Gaiden is quite simply a game of virtually pure skill. The difference seen between the pros and the novices are night and day, and those that haven’t mastered the gameplay will be eaten alive.

Ninja Gaiden is all about timing. And attacking enemies before they have a chance to attack you. If you can get the timing down, you should be able to make your way through the game. It also takes recognizing the patterns and placements of enemies, knowing where certain items are and using them to your advantage, as well as making sure you quickly go through a stage (you are timed) and that you conserve your magic points for when they are really going to be of use (such as during boss fights or difficult sections). Unfortunately, sometimes you will seemingly only get through a tough section of a level based on luck. And luck certainly will have to be on your side if you are ever to get to the end in one piece.

The game only has two buttons, attack (you can only attack toward) and jump. Using the D-pad, you must maneuver through the levels, climbing up things (at which point you must master the technique of “quick kick” jumping, which takes holding back, pressing jump, then quickly pressing up and forward when you are in the air to land back onto the wall higher than you were when you jumped off. It takes some practice to master), and destroying numerous enemies that will come at you from in front, behind and from the air. You will need to attack while standing still, in the air, as well as when ducking (which is a move that must be used if you are to successfully dodge enemies) and be quick on the turns to succeed.

As you go through the levels you will find numerous power-ups, that you can use by pressing up+attack (certain ones are used right when you get them). They all differ and range from upward-thrown fireballs, to a fire shield, to throwing stars (including the Windmill Shuriken, which goes forward then comes back like a boomerang. If you can jump in the air just as Ryu is going to grab it, the star will fling right past you, at which point you can repeat this process once it comes back again, and the star will keep flinging back and forth across the screen, killing any enemy it touches) as well as healing potions (though they are rare), extra live icons and hourglasses that stop time (also rare) and your standard point and magic point increases.

One amusing aspect of the power-ups is that they appear as different icons on the screen, depending on the level. In some they are simply orbs, in others they are torches, and in one they are birds!

ninjai gaiden nes screenshotAnd that accentuates one of the games major “flaws” (though it can easily be forgiven in my mind) . . . If you like your games to make logical and coherent sense, then this game may upset you. While the storyline itself is mature, full of twists, and highly enjoyable, much of it doesn’t make sense, and plot holes can be found if you are willing to look for them. But the most glaring illogical part is the way the game jumps from environment to environment with no explanation at all, and the fact that in many ways the environments you go through do not match the story. An example is how one moment you are making your way across the dirt leading away from a cabin, with green foilage and a lake in the backround, and then once you reach the end of the stage you are instantly transported to a level of ice. You literally drop down from the top of the screen onto the ice the second you reach the end of the other section of the level, with no explanation whatsoever. Illogical? Totally. Does it matter? Of course not. THIS IS AN NES GAME! It’s not really supposed to make sense! Does Mario jumping on top of a goomba head to kill it make sense?

Ahem . . . So then, you may be asking, are there are any real flaws or bad points to this supposed great classic game?

Actually, I’d say no. There is however one “flaw” . . . in that enemies will sometimes disappear if you move left and right to “cut them” off-screen, to where the enemies disappear and when you move a bit more they either return or stay gone forever. Doing this however is actually quite a useful trick that will save your life on more than one instance, so that’s actually a helpful “flaw” and thus . . . . isn’t really a flaw at all . . . It’s a trick! Part of your arsenal of weapons to conquer the game! (and one which will be highly useful)

One point that must also be mentioned though (but can’t be considered a flaw) is that, as in all NES games, there is no real tutorial, and most people won’t have the instruction booklet, so you may not understand the read-outs at the top of the screen. The most important of which is the number that tells you how much magic power you have. Each weapon you use takes a certain number of magic points to use (such as 3 or 5 points). This can really contribute to the frustration factor if you don’t understand that magic simply MUST be used if you are to make it through the game alive, and NOT used carelessly. The game tends to give you the impression that it’s meant to be played at a rapid pace, where you simply flip through collecting each and every power-up item in your path and destroying or skipping enemies to reach the end, effectively blowing though the levels. And while this is true to an extent, it can really, really help if you go at a slower, more deliberate pace, making sure to only collect those power-ups which will be of use and help you to defeat the boss. If you are going to play Ninja Gaiden you’d do well to keep this in mind, and to learn what each power-up does and where they are placed in the level.

And oh how you will need those power-ups. Ninja Gaiden is easily one of the hardest games ever made. The game is simply relentless in it’s action, and while it’s incredibly fun, it is also incredibly frustrating. The boss fights are all cool, with some really original and unique bosses thrown into the mix, and the end boss must be seen to be believed. Subsequently, the player must be rewarded if they can actually defeat the boss and all it’s forms without throwing the controller through the television screen in the process. The game takes so much skill to play successfully that watching a pro play the game is akin to an art form in and of itself. Especially the very last stage, which is nearly impossible since you only get ONE SHOT at defeating the end bosses, no matter how many extra lives you have. And if you die, it starts you WAY back at the very beginning, actually one section BEFORE you reach the second to last stage! Which is, to be blunt, INSANE. It will take a true master to beat the last stage.

The only really disappointing part of the game is the fact that there really are no secrets whatsoever, unlike in a lot of other NES games.

All in all though, the game holds up remarkably well, and anyone that considers themselves a hardcore gamer would be doing themselves a dis-service by not checking the original Ninja Gaiden out, as it laid the foundation for many great action games to come and was the basis for the equally great revival of the series on the Xbox. Unfortunately, the Classic Ninja Gaiden game contained in the Xbox version as an unlockable is the Super NES Ninja Gaiden Trilogy version, and as such much of the mood is destroyed through the different music and a few other touches that managed to fug up the game. Which is extremely sad and disappointing for old-school fans. However, for new players that never played the NES version of the game, you will not know the difference (and even the tunes, though updated, are largely the same, they just sound different, and thus don’t contain the same effect or mood) and thus, if you have never played a classic Ninja Gaiden title, I highly recommend that you buy the Xbox version of Ninja Gaiden to check it out. Whether you are an old-school fan and played the heck out of the game as a kid, or you are just recently re-discovering it, you really can’t go wrong with Ninja Gaiden. It’s a true action masterpiece.

Graphics: 8.5
Sound and Music: 9.0
Replay Value: 8.0
Ingenuity: 9.5


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Josh Romero By Josh Romero: He is a lover of videogames, as well as metal music, Gilmore Girls, chatting, social networking, Phoenix Suns, reading, writing and many other nerdy things. Read his posts here and connect with him on Youtube.

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