Released: March 1989
US Cartridge ID: NES-NG-USA
Genre: Action Platform
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC1 (128k PRG, 128k CHR)
Though their previous efforts (Rygar, Solomon’s Key, et al) had been released to a smattering of critical praise and general apathy by the American gaming public, Tecmo finally hit their stride in the US NES market in early 1989 with the release of a pair of games that would go on to establish two of the biggest and most recognizable third-party names of the era – Tecmo Bowl, and Ninja Gaiden.
Ninja Gaiden for the NES was developed alongside the arcade title of the same name, though they bear little resemblance to one another in terms of gameplay. Unlike the beat-`em-up coin-op title, Ninja Gaiden‘s console counterpart is a platform action game that is widely regarded for its refined mechanics, polished presentation, high difficulty level, and its focus on plot in a genre that generally relegates contrived justifications for game design decisions to a paragraph in the instruction manual.
Against the dramatic backdrop of a field illuminated by the pale glow of a full moon, the player is introduced to the narrative through two ninja, intently staring each other down. Without warning, they both fly toward one another at full-speed with swords drawn. Leaping into the air, they meet with a loud metallic clang, the results punctuated by the climax of a dramatic musical crescendo. As one of the warriors collapses, his son questions why his father had to meet with such a fate.
“With whom did father have a duel and lose?.. For what reason did he fight and die? Even I don’t know for sure,” are the first words spoken by Ryu, heir to the Dragon Sword and last in the line of the Hayabusa clan. In a letter written shortly before his fateful end, Ken Hayabusa asks that, should he not return, Ryu take the sword and leave for America to seek out an archaeologist named Walter Smith. Ryu departs, looking to fulfill his father’s final wish and to exact vengeance on whoever did this to him.
The introduction of Ninja Gaiden serves as a striking introduction to Tecmo’s much vaunted “Tecmo Theater Cinema Display,” which allowed for the complex (for the time) plot to be conveyed in an exciting and meaningful way. The plot is furthered between stages (appropriately named “acts”) in much the same way that the beginning of the story unfolds: the top half of the screen is dedicated to letterboxed close-up shots of the
characters and their actions, rendered with an unparalleled amount of detail and expression for a mid-generation NES title. Since all situational exposition is done through the graphics, the only text present is of dialogue, furthering the effective evocation of the cinematic feel that the Tecmo Theatre system was designed to achieve. These lengthy scenes were revolutionary, in that they involved the player with the compelling narrative to an unprecedented degree (soundly snatching the crown from Golgo 13: Top Secret Mission, as well as shaming even the best RPGs in their methods), providing the impetus to continue despite the extreme challenges that lie in the latter half of the game.
Despite the fact that the game unquestionably places its focus on its story over its gameplay, Ninja Gaiden‘s mechanics and controls easily stand with the best action games on the NES. Ryu has several tools at his disposal, and mastery of the use of each and every one is vital if he is to succeed in his mission. The dragon sword, Ryu’s primary weapon, has a short range and leaves him vulnerable when swung, but is sufficient to take on all adversaries, given that the player has enough skill.
In addition to his sword, Ryu also has command of the “ninja arts,” allowing him to use ninja stars as boomerangs, throw bands of fire toward his enemies, or to somersault through the air with his sword extended in order to take out enemies approaching from any
angle. These are all powered by icons (displaying the 忍 kanji, representing the clandestine nature of the ninja) from destroyed fixtures, and function in much the same way as the heart-powered weapons of Castlevania do. Finally, Ryu has the ability to grab onto any wall that he makes contact with to launch himself from it in the opposite direction, though this can also be used to save himself from falling into a bottomless pit.
Though he has several options as his disposal, Ryu’s control is tight and precise. With the controls reliably reacting to the player’s input with no discernible lag, the true challenge of Ninja Gaiden stems from its absolute unwillingness to coddle the player. Though the first three acts are relatively easy, they do a reasonable job of acclimating the player to the game’s methodology while steadily increasing the number of threats that Ryu is subjected to. By Act V, the kiddie gloves are taken off, and the game gets serious. Each jump must be carefully considered, since Ryu is knocked backward every time he is hit; the level design takes advantage of the unprepared player at every opportunity, relishing the opening to knock Ryu straight into a pit whenever possible. Though the game can become frustratingly hard toward the end, the challenge is surmountable with enough practice and dedication. The only moment in the game that can be truly fingered as unfair and cheap comes at the end when confronted by the final three bosses; due to a glitch in the game’s code, if Ryu dies on any of these three, he is sent back to the very beginning of Act VI.
The graphics are largely excellent, with stages that brim with detail, despite the fact that they do at times suffer from blurriness due to the overuse of graphic tiling in some areas (most notably the jungle in 4-1). The music deserves the praise that has been heaped on it over the years, with a variety of tracks that perfectly complement the action and the story, even though they tend to be repeated a bit too often near the end. The assets used in the cinematic scenes bring together the best of the game’s audio and visual presentation, and are some of the most impressive aesthetics to be seen in a game from 1989.
It initially seems strange that Ninja Gaiden relies so heavily on its story, since the core gameplay is strong enough to hold the entire game up on its own; this innovative take
established Ninja Gaiden as one of the first console games to explicitly demonstrate the power that good storytelling can wield over a player’s experience, while also highlighting the true skill of the developers at Tecmo.
An excellent, innovative take on a staple genre, Ninja Gaiden, while not flawless, is a pioneer of gaming, and as such, deserves a try by anyone unfamiliar with it, just as it deserves a return visit by any of its fans from the NES’ heyday.
|忍者龍剣伝 (Ninja Ryuukenden)
The Ninja Dragon Sword Legend