(NES)

Ninja Gaiden (NES)

Game Review

Ninja Gaiden Review

USA USA Version

Posted by Morgan Sleeper

Original Gaiden

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.

Conclusion

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.

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User Comments (23)

unrandomsam

#2

unrandomsam said:

Looks much slower paced than the Master System version.

I dunno whether I will like this or not I was indifferent to the VC Arcade version which I do own.

The PC Engine version of this looks like it has a fast pace as well.

Expa0

#5

Expa0 said:

The hardest game I've ever beaten. The 2nd Final Battle was just brutal, and the fact that you get sent back to the beginning of the world if you lost just once (even if you didn't get a game over)was extremely disheartening.

NImH

#6

NImH said:

Great review @zipmon. I love this game. Joe Walker once made a point about difficult games that I love. He said that, if a games difficulty is ultimately what keeps you from playing it, you're probably playing videogames for the wrong reasons. Ninja Gaiden is friggin hard, but it's also friggin awesome!

unrandomsam

#9

unrandomsam said:

@KeeperBvK The Master System version is not the exact same game either. The PC Engine is a better version of this exact same game though as usual. (And there is a code to play it in English). Don't really understand peoples desire for versions they always had. (In this day and age we should just have the best version).

soma

#10

soma said:

Excellent game, is very hard but thankfully you have unlimited continues.

retro_player_22

#11

retro_player_22 said:

I beat this, the arcade, the Super NES, the SMS, and the Game Gear versions a long time ago so going back to them again is a nostalgic trip for me.

unrandomsam

#12

unrandomsam said:

@retro_player_22 I don't think the Arcade version is winnable in one credit at least playing it normally. (Maybe there is some trick).

(Whereas Ghosts n Goblins Arcade is it just requires perfection.).

unrandomsam

#13

unrandomsam said:

Is there anybody who thinks this is better than say -

3D Classics - Shinobi III

for somebody who has no real nostalgia ? (I don't have it for anything I bought the TG16 version of Wonderboy III which I did play when I was younger. Doesn't stop me from wanting the best version though).

StarDust4Ever

#15

StarDust4Ever said:

The Atari Lynx version of Ninja Gaidan was like the arcade game with lower resolution and reduced difficulty. I had fun with it as a teen in the mid 90s with my hand-me-down Lynx. However, when I started collecting NES years later, I was put off somewhat by the game's 2d perspective (the arcade version which inspired the Lynx version was isometric perspective) and über-hard difficulty, although the first two levels were fun.

unrandomsam

#17

unrandomsam said:

@StarDust4Ever The VC Arcade version of Ninja Gaiden is definitely not isometric perspective. (Dunno if there is more than one Arcade game or not but that one definitely isn't)

WaveBoy

#18

WaveBoy said:

@NImH Ninja Gaiden deserves no less than a 9. An 8 should be a count chocula crime you silly wabbits.

try beating Ninja Gaiden III, that's an entirely different beast all together.
I've finished all 3, and it's safe to say....They don't make video games this challenigng anymore, which is pretty depressing. :P

Slapshot

#19

Slapshot said:

@zipmon Fantastic review Morgan!

I grew up with this game in my pre-teens and I was captivated by the games fluid gameplay and extreme challenge. I can now breeze through this game with little effort, but that doesn't stop me from coming back to it several times a year.

You know, I think I wrote that for a Roundtable/feature here at NL years back! Haha

StarDust4Ever

#20

StarDust4Ever said:

@unrandomsam Maybe isometric isn't the right word, but you can move back and forth, left and right, and jump upwards using fixed perspective. Isometric sometimes refers to games that use a diagonal grid like Marble Madness, SMRPG, or Sonic 3D Blast. Maybe Orthogonal perspective is what I'm looking for? A lot of beat 'em ups used this technique. TMNT2 the arcade game, Ninja Gaidan Arcade, etc... But it's not orthogonal either because the character moves up and slightly to the left as he walkes back (up on the dpad). It's definitely a fixed perspective. I don't know what you call it.

unrandomsam

#21

unrandomsam said:

@WaveBoy Yeah they do - Try the Jap rebalanced version of Ultimate Ghosts n Goblins. This version is like playing in slow motion compared to the PC Engine version also.

According to Wikipedia Japan has the best version already on its Wii VC.

"Ninja Ryūkenden (The Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword) Tecmo April 21, 2009 A"

Identical game just not typically NES broken.

Ryno

#22

Ryno said:

I love this game especially now beacause I can cruise right through it.

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