Recently, while playing through Valis: The Fantasm Soldier, I started thinking about earlier games that might have influenced it. It's just something I tend to do while playing through various games. As I mentioned in the review, it seemed to be trying to emulate Ninja Gaiden in some ways. After doing a bit of research, it looks like the original Valis actually came out first, so maybe the influence was the other way around? Either way, it brought back memories of the first Ninja Gaiden game. I remember reading the previews in Nintendo Power magazine about this crazy new ninja game that was supposed to feel like a movie. Sure, I already had Golgo13: Top Secret Episode which played like a movie, but this one promised something different.
Before getting into the review, I should clarify what "Ninja Gaiden" I'm talking about. The first Ninja Gaiden game was an arcade game in 1988. It was a big hit, so a port was released for the NES, because back in the late 80's, the NES pretty much was the game industry. Not uncommon for NES ports, this game was very different from the arcade version. In the early 90's, Sega got a piece of the pie and enjoyed releases for the Master System, Game Gear, and Genesis (or Mega Drive, depending on where you lived). Each of these games was simply called "Ninja Gaiden", and each one was completely different from any of the previous releases, and from each other. Over a decade later the series enjoyed a revival as an XBox game was released, again called "Ninja Gaiden". This doesn't even take into account all of the sequels spread across the various systems, but so far there have been at least six different games released titled just "Ninja Gaiden". In order to avoid any confusion, this review is about the NES release, and only that game.
So, what made Ninja Gaiden so special? Well, when I first popped the game in, I saw something I had never seen before in a game. I saw my first cinematic cutscene. Cutscenes are so common these days that we don't even think about them, unless we're complaining about them being too long, but back in the 80's it was revolutionary. Games like Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode had drawn out dialog scenes and animated story telling, and other games had the in game characters move and talk on their own. Even the infamous "The Princess is in another castle" could be considered a primitive cutscene of sorts, but Ninja Gaiden truly expanded on the concept. These cutscenes employed liberal use of cinematic techniques such as close ups, panning shots, dramatic camera angles, reaction shots, and slow motion action. Or, at least the best approximation of these techniques that 8-bit sprite animation would allow.
Adding to this was a soundtrack that pushed the 8-bit FM sound chip to its limits providing not only some of my favorite music on the NES (behind Blaster Master of course!), but some well timed sound effects that really added life to these silent movie style cutscenes. All of this would have fallen flat however if the graphics had been sub-par, but luckily they don't disappoint either. The in game graphics are like a mash-up of Castlevania and Double Dragon sprites with some random military guys thrown in for good measure, but they do the job well and fit the story. It's the cutscenes again where the graphics really wowed the world. How often do you get to see 8-bit plaid?
The game's story was also much more advanced than what gamers were used to at the time. Most game stories of the era consisted of an opening "There's a bad guy threatening the world, go stop him", and then you're on your way, with maybe a "How dare you try to stop me" at the end when you finally face the big bad guy. Ninja Gaiden took things differently. It was a tale of revenge and mystery full of plot twists, surprise betrayal, and characters you could actually get to know and care about. It followed a young man named Ryu as he attempts to avenge the unexplained killing of his father Ken. (No relation to Ken and Ryu from the Street Fighter series, at least as far as I know) It also features the first appearance (again, as far as I know) of one of the most iconic and influential lines of dialog in video games, a line of dialog that would go on to be reused in more games than even probably even existed at the time Ninja Gaiden was first created. Yes, to the best of my knowledge, Ninja Gaiden was the first game to use "..." as an entire line of dialog. Ok, after that build up, it's probably a let down. But I personally find it significant, and I still think of this game everytime I see it.
The game itself is a side scrolling action platformer that combines the fighting aspects of games such as Shinobi with the jumping around aspects of games such as Super Mario Bros. It wasn't the first game to make this combination, but it managed its own balance of the two that gave the Ninja Gaiden series a unique feel. The most noteworthy gameplay mechanic is the player's ability to stick to walls. This allows some interesting level design by having you jump back and forth between various vertical surfaces to reach areas that look unreachable. It's a small thing, but this really helps to give the game more of a ninja-style feel, at least when compared to other action platformers of the time.
The levels are linear, but in a winding fashion that lets it feel like you're exploring without ever letting you get lost. the occasional forks in design are short, and are generally to let you collect optional items or power ups. The levels are each spread across multiple environments, each with their own look.The locations are pretty varied but the cutscenes tie it all together with the story so it always makes sense why you'd be there. Each level culminates in a boss fight. These fights are a satisfying combination of clever strategy and simply hacking away. Sticking to the walls to evade attacks adds an extra level of thought to the battles.
Your main weapon is your sword. It's never replaced or upgraded, so it feels just as powerful on the first level as it does on the last. It's range is limited however, so to augment this you also have access to power ups. As in earlier games such as Castlevania, these power ups are held in floating objects, and are released by striking them. Many of them are secondary weapons such as throwing stars, boomerang stars, spin slash ability, or orbiting balls of fire. Other's offer ammo for these weapons, add extra time to the clock, or freeze all of the enemies for a short time, or of course add an extra life. Then there's the always disappointing extra points power up that adds to your high score, but doesn't actually help you get through the game.
That brings up one of my gripes with the game. Ninja Gaiden's arcade origins are ever present throughout the game. Mostly in the pacing and the non-stop action, but also in some of the more out of place feeling contrivances. Each level has a time limit, something the Super Mario Bros. series for example gave up on with their first home console exclusive release (the first SMB was actually an arcade port). I can understand that in an arcade you don't want one player clogging up the line by playing too slow, or at least you want to charge more quarters, but in a home console game presenting an adventure on such a grand scale, it feels cheap to have a clock in the corner that will kill you if you take just a bit too long. It discourages careful thoughtful play, and offers more frustration than challenge.
Ninja Gaiden was an incredibly innovative and influential release in the history of gaming. It was a game outgrowing its arcade past, while still growing into its console home, and defining what a console title could be at the same time. Playing through it now, it's far from a perfect experience. Like many classic games, it's much more difficult than many modern gamers care to put up with, and the gameplay does tend to get repetitive after a while. Yet, there's no denying that this is a true classic that helped to shape what games are today.