Ninja Gaiden is an action platformer developed by Tecmo. It was originally released on the Famicom as Ninja Ryukenden in 1988 and on the NES in North America in 1989. It was one of 2 Ninja Gaiden games being developed at the same time at Tecmo, the other being the Ninja Gaiden arcade game, which is a beat 'em up and completely different from the NES game. There are a lot of games simply called Ninja Gaiden, but most of them are either ports of the arcade version, or entirely different games. The only other versions of this game are the PC-Engine version, the one in Ninja Gaiden Trilogy on SNES, and a couple of Chinese mobile phone ports. The NES version is available on all Nintendo Virtual Consoles, NES Classic, and is one of the games on the Nintendo Switch Online NES.
Ninja Gaiden is most famous for 2 things; being ridiculously hard, and it's cinematic cutscenes. They don't look very impressive when compared to what arcade games were doing at the time, but “full motion video” was pretty mind-blowing for an NES game in 1989. I use quotes because I don't think the animations had enough frames to be considered full motion video, but that's what magazines called them even back then. The game starts off with the coolest one of them all. Two Ninjas surrounded by tall grass under a full moon stare each other down, they start running towards each other, jump high into the air, fly across the moon, and slash at each other with their swords. Who won? Oh... that guy’s dead. Ryu later finds a letter from his father explaining how he probably died in that duel, and that Ryu must go to America with the Dragon Sword and talk to a man called Walter Smith. It’s a very 80s action movie kind of story with a very 80s anime style presentation. The game is split up into 6 acts, and there's a new cutscene after you beat each one. None of the others are as cool as that first one, though.
At its core, Ninja Gaiden is a Castlevania clone. The hanging lanterns, subweapons, annoying bats, the enemy fortress crumbling in the distance as the hero looks on in the ending; it was definitely made in the Castlevania mold. I think it does enough unique things with its gameplay to set it apart from Castlevania, though. While Castlevania is a very slow and methodical game, Ninja Gaiden is very fast-paced and methodical game. It pays to play Ninja Gaiden fearlessly and aggressively, like you’re doing a speedrun. You can’t just sit around and think about what you’re going to do because enemies will just keep endlessly respawning until you move forward. You have to memorize the levels and retry them until you can beat them.
Ryu Hayabusa is also much much more agile and acrobatic than Simon Belmont. As a Ninja should be. Ryu has a little bit of air control, so you have a more wiggle room when it comes to platforming than in Castlevania. He can also cling to pretty much any wall or column in the game and then jump off it. Ryu can climb up and down ladders, but not walls, and most surfaces he can cling to don’t have ladders, so mastering the wall jumping technique is necessary to play the game. This wall cling ability is both a blessing and a curse, though. Since the game’s backgrounds have a 3D perspective, the game can have walls and columns that don't block your path but can be clinged onto all over the place. If Ryu is hit and knocked back onto one of these surfaces, you’ll cling to a wall when you don't want to, potentially ruining your run. This is an issue you have to watch out for throughout the game, but is especially problematic in the last few levels since the enemies are so relentless and constantly knock you back.
The way subweapons work in Ninja Gaiden is almost identical to how they work in Castlevania, but Ninja Gaiden doesn’t simply copy every subweapon from Simon Belmont’s arsenal. Ryu gets a small shuriken he can throw directly forwards, a fire magic spell he can shoot upwards diagonally, the jump and slash technique, which allows him to do slashing somersaults, and the windmill throwing star, which is a giant shuriken that flies back to you like a boomerang. All the subweapons and subweapon ammo refills (along with the health recovery, time stopping, and point items) are found in the hanging lanterns all over every level, just like items in candles in Castlevania. There’s no meat hidden in the walls in Ninja Gaiden, though.
Ninja Gaiden is notorious for its difficulty. It’s not only that there are armies of endlessly respawning motion tracking birds and zigzagging bats waiting for you at every other jump, the game is just incredibly punishing, cruel, and downright sadistic. The most heinous of Ninja Gaiden’s tricks is how it sends you back to the beginning of the act after you die on the last few bosses. I don’t mean to the beginning of the level, I mean to the very first level in the act. If you die even once on any phase of the last boss in 6-3 through 6-5, you go back to 6-1, even though the game lets you continue from any of the levels in the act when you get a game over. It’s enough to make you want to throw your controller across the room. If your crushed soul can even muster the will to do that.
Ninja Gaiden’s graphics are nice, but not amazing. Its sequels and contemporary NES games, like Batman, Mega Man 2, and DuckTales, pretty much blow it out of the water. Ninja Gaiden does run really well, though. There is very little slowdown, and the game feels fast and responsive throughout. The thing I like the most about Ninja Gaiden’s graphics is how everything makes sense in the world. Tecmo cared enough to change the floating lanterns into spiders in the Amazon level, dragon flies in the ruins, and birds in the snowy mountain level. The platforms aren’t just floating in midair, they’re rocks on the side of the mountain, billboards, vine covered mounds on the sides of the river, or the roofs of buildings in the city. It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes Ninja Gaiden look good, even when it’s not as technically impressive as its sequels and other NES games from 1989.
I think Ninja Gaiden’s soundtrack works really well with the anime style presentation and 80s action movie story. The music in the levels is mostly very fast-paced (and very 80s), with simple 3 instrument melodies consisting of nothing but drums, keyboards, and a little bass. The music in the cutscenes is usually very ominous and melodramatic, and sounds more like the score of a movie than the average NES game soundtrack. The MIDI quality is not amazing, but the composition of the music is pretty good.
This isn’t a review of the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy or PC-Engine versions, but I did play those for reference, and since they’re basically the same game, I feel like they’re worth going over. The Ninja Gaiden Trilogy version is pretty much the same as the NES game, but with slightly touched up graphics that take advantage of the Super Nintendo’s wider color palette. It also features a new version of the original soundtrack remade with SNES quality MIDI. It has a new password system, but besides that, it feels and plays exactly like the NES game. The PC-Engine version looks like a true 16-bit version of the NES game, and it plays similarly, but it might as well be a different game. The PCE game uses about 99% of the level design from the NES game, but the enemy placement is slightly different, enemy AI is much more aggressive, and it feels like the platform spacing is slightly off as well. Ryu’s movement is slower, his jumps feel floatier, and his sword’s hitbox feels like it’s much smaller, further throwing off the feel of the original game. It has more graphical elements in the environments, like moss on stones and glowing lava in the backgrounds, but at the same time, the graphics lack detail and look pretty amateurish in a lot of areas. The biggest offender is the farthest background layer, which scrolls in the same direction you’re running in, when it should be scrolling the opposite way. The music is also very different and nowhere near as good as in the NES or SNES versions.
Ninja Gaiden is a classic. It’s one of my favorite NES games. All fans of 2D action games should check it out. I don’t think anyone needs to put themselves through the torture of trying to beat it, though. Making it to 5-2 is probably good enough. Anything more than that is just asking for it.