Ninja Gaiden, along with Castlevania, is pretty much the grand-daddy of action video games. It released in North America in 1989, and took an already ninja-crazed United States by storm, with demand outstripping supply quickly enough. If you grew up in the late 80’s or early 90’s, and had access to a NES at the time, there’s a really high chance you laid hands on this cart at some point. It spawned a series of sequels, got ported to the SNES in a compilation cart, made its way to other platforms including the PC-Engine, saw a Wii Virtual Console release in 2007, and just last week landed on the 3DS Virtual Console. Needless to say it remains one of the most popular, and infamous NES titles around, both for its excellent gameplay and punishing difficulty.
It’s not often that we do any sort of classic game review, I’ve done a handful of retro-themed articles for the site, but since Nintendo provided us with a review code for the 3DS release of this title, I figured I’d change things up and actually attach a score to something from my childhood. I’m certainly not holding these up to the standards set by modern games when it comes to visual, design, and so on, but more basing the score given on how the game stacks up in history, how playable it is today, and how it compares to its brethren released on the same platform around the same period. Basically, don’t get hung up on the score for this, or any possible future reviews for classic games that pop up down the road, it’s all in fun really.
If you’re not a child of the 80’s, like myself, then it’s entirely possible you haven’t experienced the original Ninja Gaiden, but you should do yourself a favor and rectify that immediately. As much as I enjoy the 2004 revival that debuted on the original Xbox, and its subsequent ports and sequels (well, sequel at least), the original NES game is a different beast all-together. Like I mentioned at the top of this review, the only real, notable action platformer that came before Ninja Gaiden was the original Castlevania. But Castlevania, as much as I love that game, was sort of a slow, plodding experience. A lot of its charm came from its reliance on the Universal movie monster bosses, excellent soundtrack, and unique sub-weapon system. Ninja Gaiden might not have the cool horror theme going for it, but it certainly sped up the action a lot, while retaining the sub-weapon system that Castlevania developed.
It also employed a function similar to Sunsoft’s Batman, which I’ve waxed poetic about on this very site in the past. Ryu Hayabusa’s ability to cling to surfaces is pretty much identical to a similar power possessed by Batman in that classic NES title, but again Ryu feels a bit more lithe and agile than the Caped Crusader. The first few stages of the game can be completed quickly enough by a talented player, thanks in part to the quick movements employed by Ryu, and smartly designed levels that allow for some surprisingly quick runs.
If its Ninja Gaiden’s rumored difficulty that’s put you off of playing it in the past, well, I can’t say that it doesn’t exist. But I was surprised by how lenient the checkpoint and continue system was here, more so than I had remembered. You’ll probably die a lot past stage three, and occasionally to an unfortunate cheap death from a flying enemy or two, but overall you don’t lose a lot of significant progress. Couple that with the ability to quick save your game via the 3DS Virtual Console menu, and there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to power through the tougher sections of the game without a great deal of frustration. It still packs a challenge, but I honestly think it’s a fairer game than most give it credit for.
Also worth noting is the excellent soundtrack, which tends to get overlooked when people compose NES best of soundtrack lists. Hell, even I forgot how great most of the level chiptunes were here, but a couple quick sessions with the game reminded me that the soundtrack is worth seeking out. And while you can’t really dub any NES game a graphical powerhouse, the work done by Tecmo with the limited color palette offered by the NES is really well done, smartly incorporating background and foreground elements in a convincing manner.
I definitely think Ninja Gaiden deserves to be towards the top of a short list of 8-bit action games, if not at the very top of that list. It remains fun to play today, and considering you’ve got two legal ways to check it out via the Wii VC and the 3DS VC, you should definitely do so. And even if you’re already aware of just how great this bit of nostalgia is, I think you’ll find it’s a trip down memory lane that’s well worth visiting again.