Review: Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom (3DS eShop / NES)

A fitting farewell to the NES trilogy

The three Ninja Gaiden games on the NES are remembered with great fondness, and for very good reason. They may never have reached the same heights of popularity as the original Super Mario Bros. games, or even the first three Mega Man games, but they stand to this day as a testament to the classic years of 8-bit gaming.

All three Ninja Gaiden games have a lot in common, being as the two sequels built upon the sturdy foundation of the first game rather than offering any substantial deviation. This was far from a problem, however, as the original game — for all of its satisfying charm and incredible difficulty — was not a perfect experience. Its idea of difficulty, after all, too frequently rested on swarming the player with masses of respawning enemies. While there were unquestionably glimmers of great level design, there were a few too many sections that not only required pinpoint accuracy, but also — for all but the most devoted fans that took the time to memorise everything — a good amount of luck as well.

Ninja Gaiden II addressed this somewhat, particularly due to the way it introduced environmental hazards and used them as indirectly fatal obstacles that forced the player to think ahead rather than simply react. Whether it was slippery ice, shifting wind or periodic bouts of darkness, Ninja Gaiden II pulled off a seemingly magical trick by providing us with largely the same experience while making it feel substantially different.

Which brings us to Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom, which had the unfortunate weight of two brilliant predecessors upon its shoulders. Could it close out the trilogy with the quality it deserved, or would it just run in place and hope to coast on the goodwill gamers had for the series already?

The answer is that it's not a perfect conclusion, but it's absolutely worth playing for all of the things it gets right, and for all of the things it refines from the previous two games. It may not be a massive step forward, but when the gameplay is well-established and as successful as it was in Ninja Gaiden, sometimes the smartest thing to do is tighten up the experience rather than invent a new one wholecloth.

Playing the game is as simple as it ever was: A jumps, B attacks, and pressing Up while attacking will use your sub-weapon. The stages are punishing gauntlets of enemies and obstacles, and you'll have to fight your way through them many, many times before you can navigate them safely. It might sound frustrating — and at times it certainly is — but it also makes every checkpoint you hit feel like a well-deserved victory rather than a simple stop along the way. Playing Ninja Gaiden has always been an experience as much as a game, and that tradition absolutely continues through to the end of the trilogy.

The presentation hasn't changed much, either. The levels are as impressively varied as ever, the soundtrack is enthusiastic and encouraging in its pulsing momentum, and the animated cut-scenes still represent some of the best storytelling the NES has ever seen.

This means that the real points of discussion in regards to Ninja Gaiden III have to do with the differences, and though they might sound minor they certainly add up to a unique feeling for this game.

For starters, the hit detection has been improved. While attacks in the previous games were acceptably reliable, the hit-boxes have been tightened up noticeably. This means that if a projectile or an enemy doesn't actually connect with your sprite, the hit won't falsely register as it did before. This improvement is a double-edged sword — pun definitely intended — however, as it also means you need to be more precise than ever with your own blade. Your sword is tiny and narrow, and if you don't connect perfectly with an enemy, you can't expect the game to take pity on you and register a hit anyway. More than ever, precision is key.

Of course, there is now an upgrade available for the sword which will increase its striking distance. This is one of the new upgrades available in this game, and while it's only temporary — it disappears when you die, and you may have to fight through a heck of a lot of enemies to find another one — it's definitely worth going out of your way to pick up.

Speaking of the upgrades and sub-weapons, you can now see what items will be dropped before you slash containers. This is a very welcome improvement as you'll know whether or not it's worth endangering yourself to reach a certain item in a treacherous location. It also means you can more easily avoid picking up unwanted replacements for your sub-weapon. Believe us, we know how irritating it was to lose that rotating shuriken in the previous games, and this time around you'll be in a much better position to hold onto it as long as you like.

Some other changes involve maneuverability. Whereas Ninja Gaiden II introduced easier wall-climbing, this game also allows you to grab onto the bottoms of certain platforms, and swing up through them on command. Often this requires perfect timing if you're going to emerge unscathed, but it's a very welcome addition to the formula, and it makes the experience feel that much more ninja-like.

A major improvement comes with the way the game handles the enemies. Specifically, the unforgiving, instant respawns of the previous games — responsible for innumerable cheap deaths and an almost equal amount of smashed controllers — are no longer an issue here. Ninja Gaiden III is kind enough to remember which enemies you've taken out, and only rarely will you backtrack in order to find yourself besieged by enemies you've already dispatched.

Two other alterations seek to balance out that generosity, though. For one, the enemies do about twice the amount of damage they used to, meaning death can come a lot more quickly if you aren't paying attention to what you're doing. Additionally, the game now limits the amount of continues you have; no longer can you continue indefinitely until you force your way through a stage.

This limited amount of continues was a contentious change to the series, and it still is. For everyone who thinks it was an understandable change that encourages more careful playing, there are probably two who feel it's a needless obstacle to enjoyment.

Whichever camp you fall into, however, the restore points on this 3DS eShop release render the concern moot. By laying down restore points after each level, you can essentially carry the infinite-continues feature over from the previous games. This functionality alone should elevate Ninja Gaiden III to a purchase for many who would otherwise avoid it, and that's good, because it's a more or less solid game that really does end the original trilogy on a deservingly impressive note.

Conclusion

Ninja Gaiden III does a great job of being true to its classic predecessors while also addressing many of their problems. It looks, sounds and plays as brilliantly as ever, while introducing a few new tricks of its own. Some of these might have been seen as unwelcome developments in the past, but restore points help soften the blow somewhat, and they reduce the barrier to entry for less patient gamers. The debate of which of the Ninja Gaiden NES games is best will probably rage on forever, but one thing we can say is that they're all worth playing, and with all three of them available in the eShop, there's no time like the present.