For the first NES Ninja Gaiden game, Tecmo created a tough but fun action platformer. It was very different to the scrolling beat 'em up action of the arcade game, but people liked it; sales must have been good too, because Ryu Hayabusa returned for a second NES outing. Gameplay in Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos is much the same as before with Ryu running and jumping through several levels, slashing away at a variety of enemies as he goes.
The story takes place a year after the first game and sees our Ninja of the Dragon Sword up against Ashtar, the Emperor of Darkness. Ashtar is a man prone to standing in thunderstorms when talking to underlings and who has an interest in using the Sword of Chaos to cast open the gate of darkness. Well, we all need hobbies. Returning to help tell this story are the "Tecmo Theatre" cutscenes. The story can be a bit daft (at one point Ryu asks a character who has just been run-through with a sword if they are OK), but there's some good artwork featured and some nifty camera moves; overall they do a good job of immersing you in the on-screen events.
It's not only the cutscenes that impress however – all aspects of the game work well. The music beeps a little but is very good, switching between adventurous, creepy or mysterious depending on what is happening on screen. Sound effects are simple but they enhance the experience, especially the slashing of your sword and the soft thump as you jump and land on a surface.
Controls are like before with a button to jump and one to attack. Pressing up and attack will perform one of the special attacks (such as throwing flames or shuriken). Ryu handles largely the same, but with a change to the wall-jumping; now he can climb up and down surfaces, rather than just being stuck where he lands. It makes wall jumping easier, but Ryu still hasn't mastered the art of pulling himself up onto a ledge. This means there are still instances where you must perform a risky jump rather than a simple climb to proceed. One interesting new addition is a powerup that can create up to two duplicates of Ryu that follow behind you and mimic your moves. Using them effectively can take some getting used to, but position them correctly and it can make negotiating levels (and beating bosses) less stressful.
Like its predecessor the game is tough, but the difficulty curve is better judged this time. The first level of the game puts you up against a series of Orc-like creatures, hunched foes and bats. Each type is tackled differently (example: crouch to hit the hunched goons) which in this fairly straightforward opening level is a good way of letting you get used to the game before things get too tricky. As you progress you'll be presented with more enemy types to deal with as well as other difficulties such as the winds that can blow you off the cliff tops you're on, flames that are drawn to you or just some particularly small platforms. The game is mostly tough but fair yet there are still moments to annoy. Getting hit knocks you backwards and irritatingly it sometimes sends you directly into a pit. Other times you may take out an enemy only to get hit (and thrown back) yourself. As you move to proceed the enemy respawns and the same thing happens again.
Graphics-wise this is a very good looking NES title, and not just because of the cutscenes. New types of enemy are regularly introduced that - whilst basic in design - are varied enough to keep things visually interesting. The action takes place against a variety of different backdrops. You begin running across rooftops, before dropping down to the streets below. Other locations include the tops of train carriages and the inside of a castle. There can be quite a bit of detail in the backgrounds and a few good touches such as discoloured stone. Later the action moves down to the "Maze of Darkness". The levels are a series of underground caverns that could end up looking the same, but Tecmo avoid it by changing the colours of the rock, or adding flames, water or stalactites. One level has ruined buildings (that you run behind) as part of the scenery whilst another is icy because… why not? One of the more memorable levels takes place in a storm - lightning flashes, bringing darkness as platforms disappear from view. Jumping between them can be difficult due to this but it looks great.
Running through the levels slashing away at the various creatures, goons and fireballs is a lot of fun throughout. Whilst there's perhaps not much immediate replay value once the game has been cleared, clearing it will take some doing as enemies get nastier and platforms get smaller. Learning the best way through stages takes time and the boss characters can be tough to beat. Clever use of your ninja duplicates can make things a lot easier and, of course, use of the Virtual Console restore point can make things a lot less irritating.
Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos is a good looking NES game with some fancy cutscenes and decent music. Wall-jumping and the difficulty curve have been improved from the previous game and there's a fun challenge to be found here. Being sent flying straight into a pit and respawning enemies can annoy, but the game is mostly fair and its good points combine well to make Ryu's second NES adventure a very good one.