an age when Sony sells over 100 million Playstations worldwide,
and the videogames industry makes more money than Hollywood (a not
entirely honest claim), this has become a bona-fide part of the
popular culture. But does it have lasting value? Is it a form of
entertainment succeeding generations will return to, or is this
just an endlessly disposable product, tossed aside when the newest
wave of computer hardware hits?
the decline of Nintendo from the console scene, with its ailing
GameCube, reminds me of their glory days. A little over a decade
ago, Nintendo held a virtual monopoly on games with its NES. I remember
the almost endless stream of great titles to make its way on that
console, among them the best action-platform games ever made.
Ninja Gaiden is among my most absolute favorites. The franchise
is currently being revived for Microsoft's X-Box, but how many kids
with an X-Box have ever seen the original home classic? Considering
2D platform games have been all but abandoned by now, it's no surprise
that Ninja Gaiden has hardly aged at all. It was a master
of its own domain; almost doggedly so.
Gaiden was originally an arcade game; a mildly entertaining
Double Dragon rip-off from 1988. Like so many other titles,
this one was altered somewhat when it came home. The NES made action-adventure
games like Super Mario, Mega Man, Contra,
and Castlevania more popular than the straight-up arcade
conversion. Tecmo also did this with Rygar, changing the
linear action of the coin-op for a more expansive adventure game
on the Nintendo.
1989 rolls around, and Ninja Gaiden reappears in our living
rooms as a new beast, something far better. The game, of course,
is heavily influenced by Konami's Castlevania, with its
action hero running and jumping across streets, forests, hidden
castles, and endless ledges with a sword and collection of bonus
weapons. The great virtue of the platformer was its speed, its strategic
placement of various enemies, its mix of quick reflexes and fast
journalist Bill Kunkel once remarked that the Nintendo era of videogames
wasn't as good as the classic era, because these newer games relied
on memorizing patterns, instead of the more improvisational nature
of Asteroids, Donkey Kong, and Ms. Pac-Man.
I understand what he meant, but disagree. A game like Ninja
Gaiden is great because of its structure. There's a definite
rhythm to a game like this, almost like playing a series of guitar
riffs. Slash at a foe, jump the chasm, climb the ladder; run, jump,
run, slash, jump, slash, run.
someone's hands as they work the controls; it's all so very musical.
The levels are built like complex ant farms, and the great fun comes
not from barely limping along, but confidently beating every foe
and doing it with grace. The hero of Ninja Gaiden floats
like a butterfly and sings like a bee; it really reminds me of playing
platform games have their own certain rhythm. In today's music-rhythm
games, players are judged by how closely they follow a set beat
and rhythm. The rhythm of a game like Ninja Gaiden is no
is a perfect opportunity to highlight something I often miss in
these reviews: the music. The NES was home to some of the most memorable
videogame tunes, and Ninja Gaiden's mix of fast beats and
pseudo-guitar riffing fits the game like a glove. This is one of
the two or three best soundtracks of the 8-bit era; even if some
of the melodies were stolen (one piece is eerily similar to Holocaust's
"The Small Hours").
course, Tecmo did more than make an excellent platformer; they also
innovated with plot and storyline. Most games in the late '80s had
no time for a story beyond "save the girl" or "stop
the aliens." Along comes a title that focuses instead on a
story with a solid arc. The game opens with a cut-scene, drawn in
widescreen, of two ninja facing off in a duel. Both stand, then
charge. One dies. Cut then to the son, who discovers his father's
last wishes left in a mysterious note. Why did his father die? Who
is this man the son must seek? How does this small statue fit in?
is only the prologue; over the course of the story, viewers are
presented with many animated sequences; some short, some long; with
twists and turns, long expositions, a few dramatic moments, and
at least one genuine surprise near the end that should never be
spoiled. Here, in 1989, was the next evolutionary step from simple
game to, well, something else. Still very much a videogame, but
with story and characters that you care about. You will struggle
with the game as you progress - Ninja Gaiden is almost
legendary for being challenging (and by that, I mean "hard"),
but you will persevere. You just have to see what happens next;
and, yes, the payoffs are most definitely there.
it seems every videogame has its own story to tell; perhaps developers
are trying too hard to mimic Hollywood at the expense of solid gameplay,
and, heck, a decent plot. The key word here is balance. Everybody's
still fixated on saving the girl and saving the day.
you do, don't blame Tecmo. They only laid the groundwork, and for
their efforts they found great success. Ninja Gaiden was followed
with two sequels on the NES; Episode 2 ("The Dark Sword
of Chaos") is a richly drawn followup with another great
story and a somewhat milder challenge, and Episode 3 ("The
Ancient Ship of Doom") kept to the formula with a solid
challenge and a weaker plot. The Ryu Hayabusa character has been
revived in the Dead or Alive series, and there's that X-Box
sequel on the way. I'll leave it to you to decide if the new version
can capture the magic of the original masterpiece.