Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!
DEC
05
2017
0

#59 – Ninja Gaiden

“I will get my revenge!”

A very unassuming title screen.

To Beat: Reach the ending
My Goal: Beat the game without continuing
What I Did: Beat the game using three continues
Played: 9/24/17
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 3/10
Video: Ninja Gaiden Longplay

Traditionally, ninjas were ancient Japanese fighters trained in martial arts who focused on stealth, espionage, and assassination. With the rise in popularity of the idea of ninjas, and many Japanese game development studios looking for game ideas, it makes sense that ninjas would be well represented in video games. One of the most well-known games on the NES, and perhaps one of the more well-known ninja games altogether, is Ninja Gaiden.

Ninja Gaiden began as two separate games by two different teams from the developer Tecmo. The arcade game is a beat-em-up game in the vein of Double Dragon, while the NES game is a side-scrolling action platformer influenced by Castlevania. While the arcade game fared well, the NES Ninja Gaiden was a huge success, earning high praise and numerous honors. The Famicom version was released first in December 1988 under the name Ninja Ryukenden, meaning Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword. The NES version was released in March 1989. The word gaiden in Japanese means side story, but Ninja Gaiden is not a side story in any way. The developers just like how the name sounded. Ninjas were considered taboo in Europe, and so their version of the game was named Shadow Warriors and was released in August 1991. It was also ported to the PC Engine in Japan in January 1992. Tecmo is both the developer and publisher for all versions.

He will, indeed!

Since the NES game, Ninja Gaiden has become a long running series. The NES got two more installments, and all three games appeared on the SNES compliation cart Ninja Gaiden Trilogy. Ninja Gaiden later had unique games on the Game Boy, Sega Master System, and Game Gear, as well as a cancelled version on the Mega Drive. The series went dormant until 2004 when the mobile game Ninja Gaiden X was released. That year also saw the beginning of the modern series with the 3D action game on Xbox simply titled Ninja Gaiden. That series would spawn two sequels in 2008 and 2012 respectively. There was also a Nintendo DS game called Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword.

Ninja Gaiden is a side-scrolling action platformer where you play the role of Ryu Hayabusa. The Hayabusa family has guarded the legendary Dragon sword for many generations. Ryu’s father, Ken Hayabusa, engaged in battle with another ninja and was defeated. After Ryu learned of his father’s demise, he finds a letter from his father. Ken writes that Ryu must go to America with the Dragon sword if he does not return. Respecting his father’s wishes, Ryu heads for America to take on the danger he surely knows is laid out ahead.

Ninja Gaiden is heavily laden with story and this is the main feature of the game. This was one of the first games to feature cinematic cutscenes to advance the story. The game plays out over six acts, and before each act there are these extended segments detailing Ryu’s adventure. Sometimes there are cutscenes in the middle of acts, but this doesn’t happen often. It was very novel to see this story play out as you go through the game, for the first time through at least. On subsequent playthroughs they might become more of an annoyance. Fortunately, they can all be skipped quickly so you can focus solely on just the action.

Ryu hangs off walls a lot.

You control Ryu with the D-Pad. You can walk with Left or Right and duck by holding Down. Press A to jump. You have full control of Ryu from side to side while airborne. You can cling to walls by jumping onto them and Ryu will hang on indefinitely. Press the directional button away from the wall and jump to kick off the wall. You can jump back and forth between two walls close together to climb. If the wall contains a ladder, you can freely climb up the wall with Up or Down, otherwise you must jump off. The B button slashes your sword. You can attack with the sword while ducking or while in the air. If you slash while standing on the ground, you can’t move until the animation finishes. Attacks go quicker than the whip in Castlevania but it’s a noticeable delay. Hold Up and press B to use special attacks if able. The Start button pauses the game.

The status bar at the top of the screen gives you all the information you need. The top left is your score indicator, and below that is the level timer. Underneath that is P which indicates how many lives you have remaining. The counter next to lives represents your spiritual strength, according to the game manual. This represents your subweapon ammo, and next to it on the status bar is an icon for which special weapon you currently hold. On the right side of the status bar, you see the stage number, your health meter, and the health meter of the boss.

These blue lanterns hold all kinds of stuff for you.

In yet another similarity to Castlevania, each level features a candle or some other stationary object that you can slash with your sword to earn powerups. Enemies don’t drop anything in Ninja Gaiden so this is the only way to power up, but you see them all the time. The most common of these is a square icon that increases your spiritual strength. The common blue item gives you five points of strength, and the red one gives you ten. There is an item that looks like a pot with feet that just gives you points. The blue one is worth 500 points and the red one awards you 1000 points. An hourglass freezes time briefly, causing all enemies and projectiles to stop moving and keeping new enemies from spawning. A potion will restore six points of health. The Ryu emblem gives you an extra life but only appears a few times in the whole game. The icon with the ring of fireballs is called the invincible fire-wheel. As its name suggests, it makes you invincible for a short time while destroying any enemy you touch.

The other item drops you get are your special weapons. You can only hold one at a time and can’t switch back if you collect a new one. These cost spiritual strength points which may vary for each weapon. The weakest weapon is the small blue throwing star. You throw a tiny straight projectile and it costs three points. The windmill throwing star is a large orange shuriken that costs five points. You throw it ahead and it comes back at you like a boomerang. If you jump over or dodge it, it will go behind you and come back. If you keep avoiding it, you can keep it on the screen circling you for a while for maximum effectiveness. The powerup with a single flame on it is the art of the fire wheel. This weapon costs five points and throws large rings of fire up and away from Ryu. Lastly, the blue swirl weapon gives you the jump and slash technique. This deploys by pressing B in the air with no need to hold Up on the D-Pad. It causes you to ball up while slashing constantly, ripping you right through enemies and bosses. It is incredibly powerful. The major downside to this technique is that it replaces your sword attack while jumping, so it burns through your spiritual strength very quickly. But here’s a tip: If you hold Down and press B while in the air, you will always swing your sword, saving you precious strength points.

Poor enemy soldier!

You will travel through many interesting locales and fight different types of enemies throughout the game. You visit the city streets, a mine, snowy mountains, a cliffside, and various temples just to name a few. Enemies often consist of other people who punch, swing swords, fire guns, throw knives, etc. There are also animals that are out to get you like tigers and bats. Anyone who has played this game know that the birds are the worst. They fly at you and turn around to make another pass if they miss, and you need good timing with your sword to defeat them. They often show up near pits and they can easily knock you down to your death, and they drain your health quickly to boot.

There is a boss battle at the end of each act. Each boss gets a full health bar and your sword does one point of damage, so you must keep at it to take them out. The game manual explains that most of the bosses are members of The Malice Four and were hired by the main villain. Defeating the boss awards you points for both time and spiritual strength remaining, and you get to watch the bad guys explode as score is added up for a pleasant bonus!

Ninja Gaiden is a challenging game, no doubt, but there are a few ways the game gives you breathing room. Each act is split up into several levels, and sometimes the levels have checkpoints within them at screen transitions. Ninja Gaiden only scrolls horizontally, but sometimes you need to go up or down a screen and that counts as a checkpoint. Losing a life within a level sets you back to the checkpoint. If you lose all your lives, you can continue from the start of the current level. You get infinite continues which is a great help in beating the game. Dying on the boss, however, sends you back to the start of the previous level. This is a more severe punishment than dying prior to the boss, but it’s bearable.

Action-packed boss fights are always a plus.

The reason why a game with infinite continues like this gets a 9/10 difficulty rating is what happens at the end of the game. I’ll say this is a spoiler, but if you’re reading this you probably already know what happens. The final act in Ninja Gaiden is quite challenging, featuring large sections of bottomless pits with plenty of enemies to knock you into them. The end of the act contains not one, but three final bosses. Contrary to the rest of the game, taking a death at any one of these bosses sends you back to the beginning of the act. This makes the first time through the game very difficult because you have to slog through all these tough levels per each attempt at this final set of bosses. The only solace is that once a boss is defeated, he stays dead and you don’t have to refight him. I know one of you readers has already turned your nose at my rating here, and to you I say that it’s easier for me too because I’ve beaten the game so many times. Undeniably, it’s a steep challenge the first time through!

Ninja Gaiden is one of the games from my childhood collection and I have beaten it countless times. I didn’t read many gaming magazines, but it was all over the ones I had and so I had to own this game. We bought it used somewhere, and that led me and my family to track down the other two games individually. Today it isn’t a hard game to find and it consistently costs around $10 for a copy. I’ve had several copies pass through my hands that I’ve sold, and I still have a few extra copies as of this writing.

I don’t remember the first time I beat Ninja Gaiden. I was probably 9 or 10 years old when I first beat it, and it has been one of those staple NES titles that I replay at least every couple of years. I beat the game this time with little trouble. I had in mind to beat the game without continuing but I wasn’t sure if I would. After all, that final level still trips me up after all these years, and I have only done it once before a few years ago. Lately, I have been playing these NES games through a couple of times just to have a decent enough run for YouTube. I don’t recall the last time I beat a game once and then moved on. The only deal breaker here was that I wouldn’t accept a run where I died on any of the final bosses. On this run, I needed three continues to clear the final area but I did beat the final bosses without dying. That’s good enough for me, and besides, I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that have beaten the game without continues or without dying on YouTube. If you need to witness something closer to perfection, then you can watch someone else do it. I have so many more games to play!

Clearly, I have no chance here!

I have a few streamers on Twitch that I watch regularly. One of my favorites is Arcus87, the current world record holder for speedrunning Ninja Gaiden. He has beaten the game in 11:39.93 as of this writing. In the beginning of this year, I watched him put in hundreds of attempts just to improve upon his own record by a tiny margin. I missed watching him set the record live, but I saw a couple of near misses and some other incredible moments. I learned a lot about this game just by watching, but I can’t say it translated into making me a better player.

Ninja Gaiden is one of those classic, essential NES games that should be considered for any NES collection. It has nice graphics and music, good boss fights and enemies, good control with versatile weapons, and a story that ties it all together. It is also the very definition of Nintendo Hard, with constantly respawning enemies capable of knocking you into pits at any time, especially those birds. The endgame cruelty is quite extreme as well. The difficulty may be a turn off, but the game is relatively kind in the early going and the story might grip you enough to want to grind through it. Ninja Gaiden is fun to play, and if somehow you haven’t given it a chance, I give it my recommendation.

#59 – Ninja Gaiden

 
NOV
24
2017
0

Happy 2nd Anniversary!

Yesterday marked the two-year anniversary for Take On The NES Library!

The year 2017 has been a lean year for the website, and a large portion of that has to do with this being a fantastic year to be a modern Nintendo fan. As you know, the Nintendo Switch released this year, and I got my console and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on launch day. I will always make some time to play through some good first-party Nintendo games, but the combination of a new Zelda game and a new console that I can play anywhere has really given me the freedom to dedicate much more time to brand new games. It’s so much simpler to play the Switch upstairs in bed instead of playing on my TV. And my wife is happier that I’m spending more time with her versus playing alone in the basement. So far I have put over 150 hours into Breath of the Wild and I’m still not finished, and now almost all my attention has gone toward Super Mario Odyssey. Nintendo has absolutely killed it this year and I feel confident that this year will be remembered as one of Nintendo’s best years ever, perhaps even their strongest year.

So all that is to say that it has been a slow year in terms of progress on my project. I did have a strong end of 2016 with several games completed. Then in January I started grinding through the long season of Bases Loaded. That completion took up the first two months of the year. The end of Bases Loaded dovetailed straight into the Switch release. I still managed to beat a game every couple of weeks or so after that, up until October anyway. With the release of Super Mario Odyssey and some other commitments, I put the project on break for about a month. I’m now ramping back up into normal progress again. Rest assured, I am ready to get back to business and clear some more NES games!

On last year’s anniversary post, I ran some numbers to see how the project was progressing over the long haul. I’ve decided to do that again and make this a yearly tradition. This is going to read like some kind of corporate financial statement or something, but maybe you will find this interesting. Over two years, I have beaten 62 NES games. This averages out to a completion every 11.8 days, which is worse than the 9.6 days per completion from last year’s update. On the current pace, the project should take 7,888 days to complete from start to finish with an estimated end date of June 28, 2037. My slow pace this year added almost four years to that estimate. I have to believe that I will pick up the pace within the next year, and that the 24 games finished this year will be near the lowest output in any year for the life of this project.

Thank you very much for reading this and following along on this journey over the past two years. You have helped give this project life, and I hope that I will cover more games that you will look forward to reading!

 
NOV
22
2017
0

#58 – Snow Brothers

This game is SNOW much fun!

These brothers slim down a bit during gameplay.

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Beat the game without continuing
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 9/11/17 – 9/19/17
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 3/10
Video: Snow Brothers 1CC Longplay

There are several genres of games that I have had a fondness for from an early age. I cut my teeth on Super Mario Bros. and have always enjoyed platformers of that kind. The SNES affirmed my interest in RPGs, and although for the most part that didn’t carry over beyond that, those RPGs are still among my favorite games. The Adventures of Lolo games, as well as Tetris, paved the way for getting interested in many different types of puzzlers. As an adult, my tastes haven’t changed much, but they did get more refined. I discovered that I really enjoy games like Bubble Bobble, a single-screen arcade style platformer with a focus on clearing out all enemies to proceed to the next room. It’s a specific type of experience, but there are several titles that fit the bill. One of my favorite games in this style is Snow Brothers.

Snow Brothers was originally released in arcades in 1990, developed by Toaplan. It was later ported to the Game Boy, NES, Famicom, and the Mega Drive in Japan only. Each version has slight differences and enhancements. The NES and Famicom versions add story cutscenes at the start of the game. The Game Boy port is single player only, but ten levels were added. The Mega Drive version includes an expanded story and twenty additional levels from the original arcade game. The NES version of Snow Brothers was released in November 1991. It was published by Capcom and appears to be developed by Sol. I could not find much information on the web on Sol, but they are also credited with developing both NES Flintstones titles. Toaplan’s final game was Otenki Paradise in 1994, which was localized in the US as Snow Bros. 2: With New Elves. A third game under this name was created by a company called Syrtex Games in 2002 called Snow Brothers 3: Magical Adventure. It was never officially released and could potentially be a hack of the original arcade game.

Always saving the princesses in these games, sheesh.

The story of Snow Brothers is a basic one. King Scorch cursed brothers Nick and Tom by turning them into snowmen, and he also captured the princesses Teri and Tina because of course he does. It’s up to the brothers do to their thing and defeat the king to save their land. You can play Snow Brothers in single player with the blue-clad Nick, or play simultaneous two-player with the other player using Tom dressed in red. To beat the game and save the day, you must clear all 50 floors.

Snow Brothers is a single-screen arcade platformer. Just like Bubble Bobble, the object of the game is to defeat all enemies on screen so you can proceed up to the next floor. Use the D-pad to move Nick and Tom both left and right. The A button jumps, and the B button throws a handful of snow forward. The idea here is to throw enough snow on an enemy to encase it in a giant snowball. Then, you push the snowball and it rolls to the bottom of the screen and defeats the enemy inside. If the pushed snowball collides with other enemies on the ledges below, they also get defeated and will leave an item behind for you to collect.

The gameplay is both simple and straightforward, but there is some nuance to the mechanics that gives you some surprising versatility. You can jump up through floors allowing you to climb higher more easily. A pushed snowball disappears once it hits a wall on the ground level, and it rebounds off any other wall above. Sometimes you can get a snowball trapped within a ledge off the ground level and it will bounce back and forth a bit before vanishing on its own. You can have the snowball hit you and carry you along with it. While riding, you can either jump out early on your own or let the snowball run its course. Once you finish your ride, you will gain some brief invincibility. You can throw a bit of snow on an enemy to start the process of forming a snowball, briefly stunning the enemy in the process. As partially covered enemies sit there untouched, they slowly melt the snow until they can break out and freely move around again. You can defeat an enemy by running it over with a snowball even if it is partially covered, which is an effective strategy. If two full snowballs collide, they rebound off each other and both start descending which can knock out enemies on both sides of the stage if done right. Some levels have slopes and snowballs can roll up these hills with no problems. You can use a stationary snowball as a platform to reach higher ledges, and you can even lift a snowball by jumping into it from below. All these techniques give you plenty of ways to approach any challenge.

This early level has a great setup for teaching the player how to clear many baddies at once.

Bowling over enemies with a snowball will reveal some kind of item once the defeated enemy is removed from play. These stay on screen temporarily, but usually long enough for you to reach them across the stage if you go at them right away. Most of the time you get some sort of money or food item that gives you points, like candy or a slice of cake. What you really want are powerups. The manual for Snow Brothers calls them hot sauce, but they are clearly potions in jars as far as I’m concerned. The red potion gives you speed skates allowing you to move much faster. The blue potion lets you throw larger handfuls of snow so you can cover enemies with fewer shots. The yellow potion increases your throw distance, letting you heave snow over halfway across the screen. All three powerups stack together too, but you lose all of them if you die. Losing a fully powered character is quite a setback, but that’s just the nature of the game.

There are a couple of rare item drops that you should make sure to grab right away if you see one. The first of these is a green potion. Grab it to inflate Nick or Tom like a balloon. You can then fly freely across the level and simply run into enemies to defeat them. You should have plenty of time with this power to clear all enemies on screen. The second rare powerup is a white smiley face. This item changes the color of the background and temporarily replaces the normal enemies with these blue face enemies. Turning the blue enemy into a snowball displays a letter in the word “SNOW” and pushing it lets you acquire the letter. You will see a space at the top of the screen above your score showing which letters you have. Spell out SNOW for an extra life! You can also destroy the special enemies with a snowball for a large 30,000-point bonus.

There are several different enemies in the game. Most of them have some way of climbing around the level. Some enemies will attack you if you come near, a couple breath fire at you, some fly around, and so on. All normal enemies can be covered in snow and must be defeated. One neat thing you can try to do is clear all the enemies by pushing only one snowball. You can do this with a single snowball, or with more than one as long as you set up a chain reaction first. Defeating all the enemies at once causes some paper money to rain down to the bottom of the level. These disappear very quickly, but are worth either 10,000 or 20,000 points each. If you are playing for high score, you want as many of these as possible.

It doesn’t matter how cold it is, we’re making it rain!

There are two enemies that you cannot cover in snow. There is a sumo enemy appearing in the middle levels that doesn’t need to be killed. He sits at the top of the screen and is tough to reach. If you can pelt him with a little snow, he will go away and leave some paper money behind for big points. The enemy that can show up in any level is Pumpkin Head. This is a “hurry up” enemy that appears when you are spending too much time in a stage. He floats around slowly, but freely, and you can’t hurt him at all. After a little while, he will begin spawning invincible ghosts that home in on you. These spell certain death for Nick and Tom. The idea is to clear levels quickly enough so that you don’t have to deal with Pumpkin Head. The only two ways to get rid of him are to defeat all remaining enemies or let him or one of his ghosts kill you.

Every tenth level is a boss stage, so in this 50-stage game there are five bosses. These are your typical large enemies that take many hits to defeat. All of them generate smaller enemies which you turn into snowballs and send flying into the boss to do damage. You can also throw snow at them directly. I don’t know if that does damage or not, but you can earn a small amount of points for each direct hit. After each boss fight is a slot machine mini-game. There are three reels that each give you a bonus depending on where they stop. The reels contain a big X which gives you nothing, each of the four letters in the word “SNOW,” and a figure of Nick that gives you an extra life. Each letter you collect also nets you 10,000 points, and each extra life adds 50,000 points. It is possible to time the slots for specific outcomes, but it’s tricky to do so and I couldn’t quite get the hang of it. Each reel needs time to slow down to a stop so you need to anticipate your mark early. It is also difficult to make out specific letters while the slots are going, but extra lives stand out more and that’s really what you want anyway.

You begin the game with only two extra lives. These can go by quickly when you are just starting out. The good news is that you get many continues. The manual states you get four continues, but you actually get nine. Upon losing your last life, the life counter at the top will blink and instead display the number of continues remaining. You resume play with three new lives exactly where you left off. In a two-player game the continues are shared, so lives are more precious here than in single-player.

I’ll take the red speedup potion any day!

I have a little history with Snow Brothers, and actually I give the game some credit for getting me back into game collecting. I first played the NES game as a rental at a babysitter’s house, so I probably played it soon after release. I enjoyed playing it, but that was the extent of my experience for many years. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but in 2013 we bought a house and I could display all my NES games properly for the first time. As I was getting everything set up at home, I got the urge to expand my collection. I owned around 250 NES games then, so there were plenty of fun individual games left to start looking for. My memories started to stir and the first game that came to mind was Snow Brothers. Unfortunately, this was also the exact moment I realized this collecting journey was not going to be cheap. You see, Snow Brothers is among the most expensive NES carts.

The cost of some individual games like Snow Brothers caused me to divert my attention toward buying games in bulk. I focused heavily on games that fell in the $15-$30 price range. I could make consistent progress through the deep middle ground in the NES set and often found these titles bundled with cheaper games to fill that part of the collection at the same time. That strategy paid off immensely because many of the $20 carts I bought soon became $50 titles or higher. I would eventually need a plan to buy all these high-end titles at the end.

I had nearly doubled my NES loose cart collection in what seemed like such a short time. I was doing a good job at tracking my total and noticed I was sitting on 499 total games. Lacking many of the most expensive carts, this was the perfect time to take a bulk-buying break and acquire something special for Game #500. The choice was easy; this was the time I would finally purchase Snow Brothers. My wife gave her blessing, and so I started searching. I am very price conscious and all I found were high-priced copies and sellers that wouldn’t budge. It seemed like a long time, but it only took a couple of weeks to find my mark. A new eBay listing for Snow Brothers showed up at $130 with best offer, and I worked the price down to $117.50 shipped. That was essentially market price at the time and I was glad to pay it. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but this was also the time I first purchased a screwdriver bit to open and clean cartridges. Better late than never! Snow Brothers was either the first or second cartridge I opened to clean those pins nice and shiny. I played through the game three or four times in my first week of ownership and then mostly left it on the shelf until now.

Snow Brothers features some pretty fun boss battles.

I have owned Snow Brothers for three years now, and I had no trouble beating the game again. The entire game takes around 30 minutes to beat. I needed only two continues and so I punched in an easy victory. Because I enjoy this game so much, I set out to beat the game using no continues simply as a fun challenge. This took a bit more effort but I didn’t find it all that difficult. I needed around five attempts and the failed ones all ended within the last 15 levels or so. The only reason it took me so long to finish the game between my first and last attempts was because it took me a week to make time for my next NES session.

To my surprise, Snow Brothers has an extended ending sequence if you clear the game on a single credit. I haven’t seen this distinction called out anywhere specifically, and I only found out about it once I beat the game this way on my own. I always shoot for the best ending on games like this, but I didn’t even know it applied to Snow Brothers until I saw it for myself. I’m sure I will find more secrets like this as I continue my deep dive into the library.

Snow Brothers is one of my favorite NES games, and it’s a shame is so expensive. Games of this nature can get repetitive, but Snow Brothers lasts just long enough to avoid mid-game burnout. The boss fights are fun and a nice change of pace, and the difficulty curve is even and fair. The graphics are clean and the music is good, although some of the tracks are repeated within the different groups of ten floors. The two-player mode is a blast to go through with a friend. It’s a great game for high score challenges too. I don’t like that it’s so expensive to buy, but it does make sense. The game is a true uncommon title that probably had a low print run, it was a later run NES game, and the game is fun. It fits the profile of an expensive game, as I like to say. Definitely check this one out even if you have to emulate it.

#58 – Snow Brothers