Wow! It has been quite some time since I reviewed an NES title! This is mainly due to the fact that I played the majority of the NES games on my list years ago. Now, that I’ve started my Retro Rewind posts, I can finally catch up on a number of classics that slipped through the cracks. When I glanced over my NES backlog, looking for un-ticked entries, the three Ninja Gaiden games were some of my most glaring omissions. This trilogy is a classic from my youth. It was a pleasure to go back and enjoy these titles again after all this time.
Despite being a smash hit for the NES, the Ninja Gaiden series actually has its roots in the arcade. The arcade version was a 16-bit side-scrolling beat-em-up that was infamous for its difficulty level. In many ways, the game itself was very reminiscent of the arcade Double Dragon titles. The player controlled a nameless ninja that would combat enemies in various US cities. The player could climb walls, swing off lamp posts and use a variety of weapons. Ninja Gaiden was a major success and as you might expect, a home version was just around the corner. Of course, the 16-bit Super NES was still a couple of years away. This meant that the home version of Ninja Gaiden had to be re-written for an 8-bit system.
Despite being technologically inferior, the NES version of Ninja Gaiden is almost universally heralded as a more memorable game. The game tells the story of Ryu Hayabusa, a young ninja who is in search of his missing father. His journey brings him to the United States where he learns that a terrifying cult is attempting to bring about the end of the world. His father was attempting to put an end to this group when he mysteriously vanished. From this point on, Ryu teams up with the C.I.A. in attempt to finish what his father started.
In a move that was unique at the time, the storyline for the game is told in a series of cutscenes that are played at the beginning and end of each level. These scenes featured impressive graphics for the time and did an impressive job of keeping players invested in the game.
The game itself is a side-scrolling platformer that is somewhat similar to the early Castlevania titles. Ryu must leap over obstacles, combat enemies, and collect power-ups/special weapons. At the end of each level is a boss. Defeating the boss ends the level and progresses the game’s story. Being a ninja, Ryu can also grab on to flat surfaces. In first game, players are unable to climb, but can still launch special attacks while grappling. Even though you cannot climb up and down vertical surfaces, it is still possible to “catch and release” your way around. Meaning, Ryu can jump, land on a wall, then drop, flip up and catch the wall again at a higher or lower location. Learning this technique is difficult. But once mastered, you will be able to grab and repel Ryu around with ease.
Ninja Gaiden is often remembered for its difficulty. The game actually starts off fairly easy. But the difficulty does a slow burn until it finally boils over in the last two levels of the game. As a child, I admit to raging quite a bit at this game. But as with many platformers, it’s all about trial and error and muscle memory. So with discipline it’s certainly possible to see through to the end.
Naturally, the success of Ninja Gaiden resulted in a sequel. The second game picks up about a year after the first chapter. After the defeat of the cult leader Jacquio, in the first Ninja Gaiden title, a new enemy has appeared; the mysterious Emperor Ashtar. After Jacquio’s earlier defeat, Ashtar is hellbent on upping the ante to enslave the world to his dark god. As part of an investigation into this threat, Irene (Ryu’s love interest from the original game, and also agent of the C.I.A.) is captured. As you might expect, Ryu is recruited to rescue Irene and put an end to Ashtar’s plans.
Ninja Gaiden II takes everything that is great about the original game and improves on it. This time, Ryu is able to climb up and down walls without needing to “latch and release”. There’s also a handful of new skills and weapons at the Ryu’s disposal. One of the most prominent of these is the “Shadow Clone” ability that provide Ryu with a spectral phantom of himself that mimics is every movement. This game also features cutscenes between levels and continues the series’ tradition of brutal difficulty.
For many, myself included, Ninja Gaiden II is the high watermark of the trilogy.
The third game in the series, Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom, actually takes place chronologically between the first and second game. In this game, Irene is believed to have been murdered and Ryu is the prime suspect. Ryu conducts an investigation into her disappearance. His mission leads him to a secret fortress where he uncovers a terrifying government plot. From a storytelling standpoint, this game drifts away from the much of the imagery found in the first two titles. In this title, the focus shifts from “doomsday cult” to “bio-terror conspiracy”. In many ways, this new direction resulted in a game that seems out of place with the rest of the series in terms of storytelling.
Despite having a slightly different vibe, the gameplay in Ninja Gaiden III is nearly identical to the other two titles in the series. The big addition this time is Ryu’s ability grab on to overhead objects and swing around. (This is actually reminiscent of what is seen in the original arcade version of Ninja Gaiden). This game also continues the series’ trend for extreme difficulty. But this time even ups the ante by limiting the number of times players are able to continue. The game itself is very well done, and I suppose deserves some praise for trying to take the series in a slightly new direction. But in the end, it has a hard time comparing to the first two games. Instead, we are left with a game that tends to be overlooked by players in favor of it’s predecessors.
When I sat down to do this review, it had been many years since I spent any time with these games. The nostalgia trip was amazing. The Ninja Gaiden series represents “Nintendo hard” at its finest. If you’re a fan of retro-style platformers this is a series that deserves your attention.
Version Reviewed: NES
Difficulty: Hard – All three games in the Ninja Gaiden trilogy are known for their high degree of difficulty. Ninja Gaiden II is often considered to be the hardest, followed by Ninja Gaiden III, and finally the original game. Personally, I feel that the third chapter is actually the most difficult of the three. But in truth, all three games are nearly equal in their brutality. If you decide to take on these games and see them to completion, just remember to breathe and try not to throw your controller.
Story: The storyboard-style cutscenes in all three games are very well done. Of the three, the first chapter is probably the best storywise. The second entry is quite good as well, but a bit predictable. The storyline for the third game is unique, but it does seem a bit out of place with the rest of the series.
Originality: The Ninja Gaiden games don’t really provide much new in terms of gameplay. The movie-like element in which the story unravels was pretty unique at the time, but the games themselves didn’t really break any new ground. Thankfully, this doesn’t really detract from the fun.
Soundtrack: All three games boast a score that is both catchy and unique. Even though the games are obviously martial arts oriented, the music is not Asian-themed. Instead, most of the tunes tend to be upbeat and speedy. This actually works well as much of the action in these games is fast-paced. The result is a fitting and groovy soundtrack.
Fun: Gamers who enjoy platformers are going to like Ninja Gaiden. The biggest fun-killer here is going to be the difficulty level. Of course, if you’re enjoying these games on an emulator or through the Switch/Virtual Console the temptation to use savestates is ever present. As always, I advise against cheesing your way through games. There’s nothing quite like the sense of triumph of finally conquering a real challenge.
Graphics: The graphics in all three of the Ninja Gaiden games are a bit of a mixed bag. The cutscenes are wonderfully done and represent some of the best art you’ll see on the original NES. The games themselves leave a little to be desired. The color palate always felt a little washed-out to me. There’s just something about them that I can’t quite put my finger on. Regardless, all three games look pretty much the same with very little to distinguish one from the other.
Playcontrol: For the most part the playcontrol on all three of these games is pretty well done. The controls are responsive and accurate. The biggest gripe comes with the first game and the way wall-jumping in handled. It just feels a bit stiff and un-natural to me. But overall, no real complaints.
Downloadable Content: No.
Mature Content: Fantasy violence.
Value: Finding these games for purchase today can be a little tough, even digitally. Currently, all three titles are available on the Wii U virtual console for $4.99 each. To be honest, this is still a pretty good price. Currently, the first Ninja Gaiden is available as part of the Nintendo Switch Online service. (Priced at $20 a year)
Overall score (1-100): 80 – The Ninja Gaiden trilogy, as a whole, is a classic representation of old school action gaming. The games are challenging, fun, and interesting. Of the three, the first game is best for the story, the second for it’s gameplay, and the third for its uniqueness. Together, they average a three out of four in my book. Even though they are single player titles, games like these are great for playing side-by-side with a friend, passing the controller back and forth. They are tough. But that only makes conquering them all the more rewarding.
Original System: NES
Available today on: Switch Online* (*Ninja Gaiden 1) – Ninja Gaiden 2 & 3 currently unavailable – (Updated as of Spring 2022)
Best Experience: Wii U Virtual Console *, Switch Online**, NES Classic** — (* Ninja Gaiden 2 & 3, **Ninja Gaiden) – (Updated as of Spring 2022)
Other Games In This Series:
Ninja Gaiden (reboot) – Ninja Gaiden 2 (reboot)