Original Release: Famicom/NES 1990
Also Available On: Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console
Unlike Zelda II, Super Mario Bros 2 (USA), and Castlevania II, Ninja Gaiden didn’t go out of its way to do something radically different with its sequel. Ninja Gaiden II is just more Ninja Gaiden. A refined and improved Ninja Gaiden, but still very much Ninja Gaiden. It features new power ups, better graphics, more cutscenes, and less punishment while still keeping the gameplay challenging. The last boss doesn’t send you 4 levels back when you die on him, for example. He just sends you to the beginning of the last level. What a nice guy.
The thing that sticks out to me about Ninja Gaiden II isn’t the graphics or the new power ups, though. It’s the level design that makes this one feel different from the first game. The layouts feel tighter, more carefully designed, and more complex than in the first game. The platforming is much more varied, the enemies are more aggressive, and there’s more verticality to the levels. I often felt like I really had to plan out how to tackle certain areas. There’s also a lot of levels with environmental hazards, such as wind blowing in different directions, slippery ice, water currents that push you back, and a night level that only lights up when lightning strikes. Some of these feel a little gimmicky, and are more annoying than fun or interesting to deal with, but they’re not overdone. Less than half of the levels have something like this, so they’re fine when you look at the game as a whole.
When I first saw screenshots of Ninja Gaiden II, there was a red Ninja following the blue Ninja around. So until I actually got to play the game, I thought NGII had 2 player co-op. It doesn’t, though. The red Ninja is actually one of the new items in the game, the shadow clones. The shadow clone item gives Ryu up to 2 red shadow clones which will follow him around and copy his movement after a small delay and will attack at the same time as the main Ryu without delay. This skill plays a major part in a lot of boss strategies because it allows you to position the clones where they can attack a boss while keeping Ryu out of harm’s way. It’s pretty awesome.
Ryu also gets a new subweapon that lets him shoot fireballs downwards at enemies. It’s not very good if you ask me. Very situational. There have also been some other small and not so small changes to some of the other subweapons. The windmill shuriken always goes through Ryu instead of him catching it, the spinning jump slash technique is gone, the fire wheel is not automatic anymore, and Ryu always starts off with the regular shuriken now, which is pretty nice since subweapons feel much more useful in this game. Ryu can also use subweapons while clinging to a wall now, which comes in handy more often than you might think.
Another pretty big change is how wall climbing works. The first game had a wall cling, but you couldn't really climb a wall unless it had a ladder. You had to awkwardly wall jump your way up to climb a wall. In Ninja Gaiden II, all walls work as if they had a ladder on them. Ryu can climb up and down them with ease. He still can’t get himself up onto any platforms from the wall without some weird wall jump, though. This might sound like a small thing, but it actually speeds up the gameplay a lot and allows the level design to be more creative by being able to have more places where you need to climb.
The first Ninja Gaiden got a lot of attention for its cutscenes. Games weren't really doing that kind of stuff back then until Ninja Gaiden. So for the sequel, Tecmo went crazy with them. The cutscenes in NGII are much longer and better looking than in the first game, and there’s one after almost every stage. The developers were obviously very proud of them because they’re all all over the end credits too. They do look pretty awesome. I especially love the shots of Ryu overlooking the “Castle of the Dragon”. Very Castlevania-ish.
The graphics in NGII are a pretty big improvement over the first game's. Ryu looks exactly the same, but the backgrounds have a lot more detail and animation in them. I especially like the level with the water currents you have to run against. There’s skulls everywhere, the walls look like they’re made of muscle, and the floors look like they’re covered in demon rib bones. You think Devil May Cry 5’s Qliphoth could have been inspired by Ninja Gaiden II? That’s what it reminded me of. The framerate is also much better than in the first game. I didn’t notice any slowdown at all.
The music still uses the same kind of style as the first game. There’s a lot of fast-paced action anime style music during gameplay, and slower, more melodramatic movie score-like music during cutscenes. I don’t like it as much as the first game’s soundtrack, but it’s still pretty good.
I’ll always have a special shuriken-shaped spot in my heart for the first Ninja Gaiden, but I think Ninja Gaiden II is the better game. It’s like the Mega Man 3 to Mega Man 1. Yeah, I went there. It plays like the first game, but does everything better. Except the music, I guess. And from what I’ve played of Ninja Gaiden III, I can probably go ahead and call Ninja Gaiden II the best in the original trilogy.