Virtual Spotlight: Ninja Gaiden

Virtual Spotlight and Daily Classics collide with the adventure that hurtled anime influence into gaming's mainstream.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

"Just like the movie!" promised the ad for Ninja Gaiden, an upcoming NES game about, I supposed, ninjas.

"I wonder what movie they mean?" I wondered. I'd never heard of a movie called "Ninja Gaiden," though admittedly I was hardly a connoisseur of ninja flicks. I spent enough time at the local book-and-video store to realize there was a vast sea of movies out there, far more than I had ever heard of.

And anyway, I wasn't too excited about another NES game based on a movie or TV show. Those almost never turned out well.

At the very least, it's a better Blues Brothers game than the one Titus puked out.

As it turned out, though, someone had abused an article in that ad. Ninja Gaiden wasn't like the movie, because there was no such thing as a Ninja Gaiden movie (not yet, anyway, though the less said about the crummy anime that came along a few years later the better). Ninja Gaiden was more correctly like a movie, or rather a Japanese cartoon if you don't mind putting too fine a point on it. Somehow, within that chunky grey cartridge, the wizards at this company called "Tecmo" had managed to cram a ninja movie in between more than a dozen stages of fast-paced action.

Well, really, even calling it a "movie" is rather generous. Ninja Gaiden's cut scenes may have had cinematic aspirations, but in truth they were more akin to manga panels. In some of the more deluxe sequences, they almost resembled a very stiff and limited form of cartoon. But really, with their fixed angles, minimalist animation, and heavy black frames around the on-screen panels -- a space-saving convention that nevertheless created a convenient parallel to more familiar media -- Ninja Gaiden was a comic book you could play.

But hey, good enough. In 1989, that was pretty stupendous on its own. In the two years I'd owned an NES, the games had gone from shuffling around barely recognizable human forms to vivid tales of ninja revenge and demonic invasions. Wow!

Technically there was a movie, but... meh. [Source]

In hindsight, yeah, Ninja Gaiden's story is pretty hokey, and the tiresome mansplaining of the plot prior to the beginning of stage 4-1 dragged on even back then. But you can't fault the game for its sharp aesthetic appeal, with dramatic camera angles and just enough animation to make static images feel lively and energetic. And, in true Castlevania style, the scenery reflected the story being presented: American Ninja protagonist Ryu Hayabusa went from being assaulted in a back alley to escaping a secret military installation to forging through the jungle and a system of mysterious caverns to take the fight to an ancient temple where Evil Awaited.

Also like Castlevania, the game action had a certain sense of rhythm to it that, once grasped, made its daunting difficulty feel considerably less brutal. Really, it was about memorization, but the whole thing flowed. Run, stop here, slash a foe, grab a power-up, leap to a distant platform and slash just so to take out the monster that appeared mid-jump. The enemy placement bordered on the unfair (and the way foes would respawn endlessly if you backtracked or even scrolled to certain spots made it worse), but the tight controls and helpful power-up placement meant that you could overcome the challenges -- and with enough practice, you could look slick doing it. According to producer Hideo Yoshizawa, that was precisely the point.

Birds! Why did it have to be birds?

I admit, I have trouble looking back objectively at Ninja Gaiden, because it had such a profound impact on me at the time. My jaw dropped at its cinematic aspirations. I showed off the castle approach cut scene to all my friends. I played the game so much that I didn't just beat it, I could complete it without continuing -- no easy task given the wretched cruelty that defined the final battles. (If you died at any point in the three-part showdown at the end of the game, you'd be flung all the way back to the start of the game, a development glitch that the designers liked so much they kept intact, because they're bastards.) I used its sound check mode to provide sound effects and music for audio plays my friends and I created. I was a huge nerd, and nothing made me nerdier than Ninja Gaiden.

But in hindsight, I've also come to terms with the fact that, yeah, the game was hardly perfect. Even if you can forgive the nasty endgame gauntlet and the overly aggressive respawn rate, Ninja Gaiden has a lot of rough edges. The bosses seem daunting until you realize they use ridiculously simple patterns and can be killed without breaking a sweat; Ryu's habit of sticking to walls at inopportune times can be fatal; and many situations are designed in such a way that you need specific skills and weapons to pass them safely.

It's still a lot of fun, especially once the muscle memory kicks in, but everything Ninja Gaiden does here its sequel did far better. Besides, it's nice to revisit an era when "plays like the movie" doesn't mean "consists of wall-to-wall QTEs." Ah, nostalgia.

4 /5

Virtual Spotlight: Ninja Gaiden Jeremy Parish Virtual Spotlight and Daily Classics collide with the adventure that hurtled anime influence into gaming's mainstream. 2014-02-07T18:00:00-05:00 4 5

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 8

  • Avatar for kidgorilla #1 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    This was the perfect article to end the proto-anime week. I was like you, Jeremy, in that I played this game so much that I could do it in one life, and when I wasn't in front of it I was studying the Nintendo Power coverage like I was preparing for the LSAT.

    I still think that II, even without the Jump and Slash, is the better built game, but this one was far more impactful to me, so thanks for writing about it. Plus, any reason to post some of that NGII Player's Guide art is fine by me
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @kidgorilla Yep. I wasn't planning to write Ninja Gaiden today, but when it showed up on Virtual Console yesterday I had to change my plans. You don't turn your nose up at kismet.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #3 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    I think it's a great game, and it's held up very well. I like the wall jump mechanic in the first game the best... the limitation that you can't climb also allows for the advanced technique of bouncing back and forth in order to climb a single wall.

    Another thing that's really cool about Ninja Gaiden games: most enemies die in one hit. This is in part what makes the game have the kind of rythym it does, and if you're good you can barrel forward nonstop decimating anything in your path. Think about how few modern games allow you to kill anything in one hit... in many games, killing enemies is a slog, as you whack at an enemy over and over watching their lifebar go down.

    And of course, there's the incredible soundtrack in this game, at once both fitting and very catchy. They just don't make games like this anymore, and I wish they did.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #4 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 You're absolutely right about the lack of rhythm of modern games. It's why Lords of Shadow so badly misses the mark; Castlevania's not fun when every trifling minor enemy turns into a drawn-out, boss-length encounter.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Super_DB #5 Super_DB 4 years ago
    The anime is honestly pretty good fun and worth taking a look at. Although this is keeping in mind Norio Wakamoto as Robert totally steals the show - it sort of feels like a short 80's action movie guest starring Ryu Hayabusa. Still, he gets plenty of time to slice folks up, and it works well for what it is.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for docexe #6 docexe 4 years ago
    I remember how impressed I was when I saw this game for the first time as a kid. Those cut-scenes were a revelation back then. Just the introduction cinema was incredibly effective at setting the tone. I wish I knew more English back then to understand it well, but my cousin (who owned the game) was a competent translator.

    Of course, the game was ridiculously hard. I was never able to go beyond stage 3 (damn those birds!). My cousin, on the other hand, was unbeatable at it. Seeing him play was mesmerizing. My brother also got very good at it eventually, but the final stage caused him a lot of trouble.

    Man! They certainly don’t make games like this one nowadays.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #7 AxiomVerge 4 years ago
    I like watching the cutscenes on youtube. Though I'm crap at the actual game. Those birds . . .
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for mganai #8 mganai 3 years ago
    I remember at least one of those respawn points in 6-2 you had to pull back in mid-jump back to the ledge in order to get a clean jump. Moments like that would almost never fly these days.
    Sign in to Reply