I’ve been excited to play Ninja Gaiden ever since it showed up in a Tecmo print advertisement in the Nintendo Fun Club under the temporary name Dragon Ninja. My hype only increased as Nintendo Power began showing off small screens of the game and it became obvious that the graphical detail was unparalleled for a Nintendo game. On top of that, the game promised the first of its kind cinema scenes to weave storytelling between the action scenes and you get to play as a ninja! Who doesn’t want to play as a ninja in a video game? So, here we are, the game has finally arrived and I’m hear to tell you that it’s everything I thought it would be and more!
The game begins with an epic cinematic of two ninjas running toward each other with their blades drawn. They’re in a duel to the death and unfortunately the one that meets his maker is none other than your father! You play as a young man on a quest for revenge. You take up the ways of the ninja and set forth to make the mysterious man pay for his crimes. The game’s setup is perfectly illustrated through animated cut scenes that really do a fantastic job of sucking you into the story.
Then you’re off to the first level, which is a traditional side-scrolling action-filled affair, not unlike so many NES games we’ve seen in the past. The exception here is that the game oozes style and grace that has never before been seen on any system to date. You play as Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja in blue attire that is very nimble with a wide variety of weapons at his disposal. His main asset is his agility, which allows him to sprint, jump, and even perform a wall-spring climbing jump to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.
His main weapon is a sword that can make short work of most enemies. Scattered throughout the stages are lanterns and other objects that can be sliced open to reveal secondary weapons and spiritual strength pick-ups. You’ll acquire useful tools like the Windmill Throwing Star, that when thrown zooms forward and kills all enemies ahead of you before boomeranging back. If you time your jump just right, the golden star will weave behind you and take out any other adversaries before returning back to you once again. If you get really good (or lucky) you can keep avoiding the throwing star and it will keep on dealing damage until you finally make contact with it once again. The strongest and most useful sub-weapon is the Jump & Slash, where Ryu sticks his sword out as he twirls in the air to make mincemeat of even the strongest of foes. But you can’t just use these powers as much as you want. You need to collect spiritual strength power-ups to utilize these tools. This is similar to collecting Hearts in Castlevania to use Simon’s special weapons.
Actually, now that I think about it, Ninja Gaiden borrows a lot from Konami’s spooky thriller. Both feature similar level designs and both have annoying flying enemies that do their damnedest to knock you off the level for an instant kill. They even have similar power bars at the top of the screen that shows the upcoming boss’s health. It doesn’t hurt that they are both excellent showpieces of premiere graphic and sound design as well!
Ninja Gaiden takes place over six different acts for a total of twenty levels. Each new area features completely unique environments and entertaining enemies to plow through. The levels are punctuated with story scenes that propel the plot forward and keep you guessing what’s coming next. There are more than a few twists in the story that are sure to be remembered for years to come. The levels are pretty difficult with plenty of perilous jumping and climbing and devious enemy placement throughout to make your journey challenging. While the game gives unlimited continues, be prepared to play through some stages multiple times before finally clearing them. The last act is especially devious because if you lose all of your lives you’ll be sent all the way back to the beginning level of that act. Trust me, you’ll be playing those last four stages over and over and over again before you finally see the glorious ending. No password or battery back up means this highly difficult game may turn away some beginner players. For those that stick with it and keep at it, the game is a highly rewarding experience that should not be missed.
Very few games on the NES are as good looking and sounding as Ninja Gaiden. Who knew Tecmo had so many skilled developers? The first stage was really stunning with Ryu running through a city street. The detailed bricks and buildings are a sight to behold and there are even signs that look like Coca-Cola ads to really bring the realism home. The entire game features beautiful locales, but perhaps none so pretty as Act 4, where you’ll explore the depths of the South American Amazon. This level is so detailed, complete with lush green foliage and twisted trees, that it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before on the NES. At one point in the stage you’ll have to climb a ladder and you get to see the tree canopy and it looked so stunning that I paused the game to take in the beauty.
It’s not just the scenery that looks fantastic, but so do the characters and enemies. Everything animates wonderfully and moves with ease. Sure, there’s some minor flicker present when too many characters fill up the screen, but it’s a minor annoyance that we’ve learned to put up with on the system. As great as the action stages look, the cinema scenes are on a whole other level of detail. The characters come alive with this “Tecmo Theater Cinema Display” technology. You get to see Ryu and the rest of the cast close up in these scenes, which adds a whole new dimension of reality never seen before in home gaming. I found myself invested in the story and the characters, as they were able to express a level of emotion I never expected to see in a video game. This is one of those rare pivotal moments in gaming that is so profound that I find it difficult to imagine that developers going forward won’t emulate this technology for their games.
Of course visuals are just one half of the presentation, and luckily the soundtrack is equally amazing. The action stages are filled with wonderful upbeat and fast-paced musical scores that really get your heart pumping. They are masterfully composed and take full advantage of everything the NES sound chip is capable of. Where the audio really stands out is during the aforementioned cinema scenes. These are wonderfully scored to match the action on-screen. You’ll often hear ominous and eerie tunes as the mystery unravels and the plot thickens. The last few story beats are exceptionally paced and the music is so perfectly matched with the animation that I was simply in awe. From beginning to end there isn’t a bad track in the game – a rarity in and of itself.
On the surface Ninja Gaiden might look like another average side-scrolling action game on the NES. That couldn’t be further from the truth. With amazing graphics, awesome music, and gripping gameplay, it’s easily one of the best games on the console. The only place it might come up short for some players is its difficulty, which means some may never get to see the amazing ending. For those that don’t mind practicing over and over again until they’re able to master the levels, the payoff is more than worth it and it’s one of the most satisfying games ever to be released. Although it’s only March, Ninja Gaiden is already a heavy contender for 1989’s game of the year!
Ninja Gaiden Review
Final Thoughts: OUTSTANDING
There’s no such thing as a perfect game, but Ninja Gaiden comes damn close. Every aspect of the game is outstanding, although some will no doubt feel it’s a bit too difficult. Don’t let that get in the way of you experiencing one of the most beautifully crafted games in years.