“I will get my revenge!”
To Beat: Reach the ending
My Goal: Beat the game without continuing
What I Did: Beat the game using three continues
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.