Ninja Gaiden is a game best known to many as a series of action-platformers that started out on the NES and has continued into the present day on the current crop of HD systems as a 3rd-person action game. It's worth remembering that it started out as an unforgiving beat-em up in arcades and thanks to Tecmo's release of it on the Virtual Console Arcade you can do just that.
Europeans may well wonder about the title since the game was originally released as Shadow Warriors due to funny laws that forbade the use of the word "ninja" in children's toys (apparently including arcade games and Teenage Mutant "Hero" Turtles), but clearly things have moved on and the nonsensical American renaming of Ninja Ryukenden prevails on the PAL Virtual Console.
As with other Tecmo VCA releases, you can freely reconfigure button layout including Insert Coin (but not Start). Wii remote, Classic and Gamecube controllers are all supported, though given the game uses 3 buttons you're better off using either of the latter two options.
It's easy to see why this game spawned such an enduring franchise. For a late-80s beat-em-up it has a good level of detail and is quite vibrant and colourful. The stages are preceded and followed by still scenes of the hero Ninja travelling to and through America on a mission to beat the crap out of tons of baddies. Most dramatically, each stage starts out with the purple-clad ninja appearing to burst right through the screen — wow! When he moves around in the game he's constantly moving his head from side-to-side, alert for danger. Pushing Up whilst jumping results in super leaps to upper platforms; moving forward whilst jumping performs a nifty flip. The addition of a third button allows the ninja to grab overhead bars and then move hand-over-hand or flip up and pressing jump whilst hanging from bars causes him to do a somersault off. Moving into a wall causes him to do a backflip, which is handy for outflanking enemies. The number of animations and moves is quite impressive even by modern standards and makes you feel like you're really controlling a badass ninja!
The hockey-mask wearing bad guys are all bigger than our ninja friend, but that doesn't stop him from beating the snot out of them with those impressive acrobatic moves, which you'll need to master to get anywhere in the game. Doing a cartwheel into an enemy and hitting the attack button results in grabbing and throwing them. Throwing enemies into objects breaks them to reveal bonus items like rings, extra time, capsules to restore your life bar and a limited-use ninja sword. Despite this you'll find enemies are immediately quite challenging.
Ninja Gaiden is a game best described as "cheap." It's quite easy to lose your default three lives in the first stage thanks to burly men with tonfas that will smack you out of the sky, enemies coming at you in groups of four or five and best of all having to cross lanes of freeway traffic by swinging between bars projecting from road signs. For many, this bit of nostalgia just won't be worth it. Despite the fact that you can change settings to make your life bar five hits instead of three, you should expect to see your ninja avatar strapped to a table surrounded by bizarre creatures whilst a giant buzzsaw comes down to kill him with great frequency. That doesn't mean the game isn't fun, but it does mean that the game was designed to suck quarters rather than reward skill and is totally unfair, so be sure to keep plenty of virtual credits pumped into the game as you'll be continuing A LOT to get anywhere in the game.
Ninja Gaiden is certainly an arcade classic — that cannot be denied — but the punishing difficulty stemming from it's coin-sucking roots means that only true fans of the beat-em-up genre need apply. If you do have a masochist streak then it's definitely worth checking out.