With a hit-list of sequels and spin-offs spanning more than two decades and its latest iteration — Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge — even slicing out a spot in the Wii U's launch lineup, Ninja Gaiden's reputation precedes it. An East-meets-West action platformer with an Japanese aesthetic and an American action-hero heart, this is the 1988 NES original that started it all; despite its borderline sadistic difficulty level and subsequent sequels, it's still a stylish, smooth, and satisfying slice of eight-bit action that's well worth playing today.
After an impressive — and now iconic — opening cutscene, players take on the role of Ryu Hayabusa, a young ninja out for answers and revenge as he follows the trail of his father's mysterious death all the way to America. The story unfolds over six side-scrolling acts of two to four levels apiece as Ryu runs, jumps and slashes his way rightward through urban centres, western ruins, icy mountains, and seedy dive bars, making ribbons out of his enemies and taking down powerful bosses every few stages.
In theory, it sounds like a straightforward, fairly standard action game in the Castlevania-vein, but in practice Ninja Gaiden is something special. It's fantastically fast, for one thing; Ryu moves as quickly as you'd expect given his cloak-and-dagger career path, and the swift movement combined with relatively tight time limits gives the game a wonderful sense of forward momentum, encouraging players to keep their thumb plastered to the right side of the D-Pad as much as possible. It also epitomizes the elusive concept of flow in gameplay; the quick, set-piece stages take on a rhythmic quality as you learn the exact timing of every jump and slash required to make it through each gauntlet alive, and while memorization plays a large role, it's an intricate arrangement that's incredibly rewarding to master — more like playing shinobi-themed Scarlatti than Simon Says.
Adding to the pleasing feeling of precision is the game's simple, responsive control scheme: the 'A' button jumps, 'B' slashes, and pressing up on the D-Pad and 'B' at the same time unleashes Ryu's currently held Ninja Power. These collectable power-ups include throwing stars, fireballs, a spinning slash jump, and a fire wheel which grants perhaps the most welcome invincibility effect in all of eight-bit gaming.
These Ninja Powers combined with Ryu's basic skill-set make for an impressive arsenal of moves - though oddly not one that includes "climbing the last rung of a ladder", apparently - bolstered especially by his Spiderman-like wall-clinging ability. As soon as you jump onto a vertical surface, you'll stick to it indefinitely, and while you won't be able to climb up or down, jumping back and forth between adjacent surfaces allows you to string together wall jumps in satisfying quick succession. The fact that the level design feels built around the move makes the acrobatic feat even more appealing, and it's a large part of what makes Ryu so much fun to control.
Ryu's wall jump made quite an impact on action games to come, with everyone from Mega Man to Mario getting in on the action eventually, but Ninja Gaiden is most often remembered for another defining feature: being tough as nails. Make no mistake, this is a fiendishly difficult game. Enemies buzz around you in murderous movement patterns at blinding speeds, tossing knives, firing bullets, and creating overlapping arcs of no-go areas that make moving through the levels feel like jumping into the world's deadliest game of Double Dutch. It certainly doesn't help that each hit sends Ryu flying backwards, usually into a bottomless pit — or another enemy or three. At times the onslaught borders on comically overwhelming; we paused to take in the view on one of the second act's rooftop ramparts and watched transfixed as an endless loop of lemming-like enemies hurled themselves at poor Ryu from left and right. Still, with generous checkpoints and endless continues — not to mention the invaluable confidence boost from the Wii U Virtual Console's save states — fun always outweighs frustration, and the feeling of accomplishment from finally reaching the end of an act is huge.
Nostalgia and its near-legendary status aside, Ninja Gaiden is quite a good looking game, and its presentation holds up well. The iconic sprites are sharp and well animated, there's a huge variety of beautiful backgrounds throughout, and the stylized cut-scenes are surprisingly cinematic given the hardware limitations. The soundtrack is likewise a lovely listen, instantly appealing with its pulse-pounding arpeggios and steady-rocking synth beats that complement the action-hero gameplay perfectly.
It might be punishingly difficult, but Ninja Gaiden's controller-crushing challenge is the only part of this NES outing that feels discernibly dated; tight controls, excellent level design, and a whole heap of style make Ryu's inaugural journey a joy to play through even twenty-plus years on. Action fans and retro enthusiasts will relish the reflex-test, while those acquainted only with the series' recent reboot owe it to themselves to experience the original — and to try for serious Miiverse bragging rights by reaching the end. A side-scrolling, shuriken-slinging classic.