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Ninja Gaiden

Videogame Classics

Reviews of the greatest video games of all time, from classic to modern games.

This ongoing series of reviews offers entertaining insights into those great games and consoles that we love.

1989 - Tecmo - Released on NES
Ninja Gaiden - video game classics
Ninja Gaiden screen shots - click for closeup

April 28, 2003

In 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?

Noticing 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.

Tecmo's 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.

Ninja 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.

So 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 thinking.

Game 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.

Watch 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 the guitar.

All 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 different, really.

This 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").

Of 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?

This 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.

Today, 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.

Whatever 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.

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