"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.
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!
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.
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.