Well, the Ninja Gaiden arcade game wasn't that great, but at the same time as Strong Shima and his team worked on the brawler, Hideo Yoshizawa (who later created the Klonoa series) realized his own vision of a ninja crusade against demon hordes. By 1988, a lot of companies had already discovered that games on contemporary 8-bit home consoles needed a different approach than arcade games. In the coin-op business, short and tight games that manage to squeeze as many coins as possible out of customers in a short time were required. But the concept of drawing audiences through high-end presentation and make them lose all the time yet continuously spend more money didn't quite apply to the technical limitations of the NES. Also, players at home usually spent at least fifty bucks on a single game, so they expected more content than they could get for a few quarters in the arcades. Therefore, a lot of franchises came out much richer in content on the weaker hardware, as can be seen with the NES adaptions of famous series such as Double Dragon and Ganbare Goemon.
Ninja Gaiden was no exception and underwent another conception as one of the best action side scrollers of its time, rather than mirroring the second-rate Double Dragon clone from the arcades. The following three games for the NES are regarded as the main trilogy among the old series, not only because later incarnations weren't developed by Tecmo itself, but also because of their quality. These three games were also upgraded to the SNES as the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy in 1995 (called Ninja Ryuukenden Tomoe in Japan), which later provided the basis for the unlockable games in the Xbox Ninja Gaiden, while the original NES versions are available for the Wii via Virtual Console.
Nintendo Power's visual wrap-up of the trilogy.
Not only did Tecmo deliver a series of fine action games, they actually went a step further and beefed it up with what is probably the most immersive and suspenseful storytelling ever seen in an 8-bit console game. Part of the "Tecmo Theater" series, all the acts where linked through cutscenes, which progressed the story and, needless to say, were pretty rare in games at that time. Supported by a kick-ass soundtrack, these three gems can be considered must-haves for everyone who's into 2D action platformers. It was in these cut scenes where the game developed its cast of characters, who are introduced below.
The hero of all the games and wielder of the Dragon Sword, he starts his adventures in America to take revenge for his father's apparent murder.
A CIA agent helps Ryu on his mission and eventually becomes his love interest. She knows how to handle a gun, but still ends up getting kidnapped frequently.
Dr. Walter Smith
Archaeologist and acquaintance of Ryu's father. He discovered the strange demon statuette. What does he know about Joe Hayabusa's fate?
A shady CIA agent and Irene's superior. His goals seem to match with Ryu's, but his methods are rather questionable.
The cursed fighter who fought and supposedly killed Joe Hayabusa. He wields demonic power and has control over lightning.
The evil mastermind. He plans to take over the world by releasing the power of an evil demon. Jaquio is actually just his title, Japanese for "Demon King". His real name is Guardia de Mieux.
Ryu's father, reportedly dead. The English version changed his name to Ken Hayabusa, probably because Joe seemed too much like an everyone's name to Americans.
The villain of the second episode. He seeks to continue the evil scheme, in which the Jaquio seems to have been a mere pawn.
Robert T. Sturgeon
This commando type guy is a new ally to Ryu in his fight against Ashtar and his Dark Sword of Chaos.
A genetic copy of Ryu, he went out to kill Irene while posing as the hero, thus causing Ryu's third (but chronologically second) adventure to start.
H. P. Clancy
A mysterious dude who seems to know something about Irene's death and the strange biological experiments. Appears in the third game.
The basic plot in the very first home Ninja Gaiden is simple and rather stereotypical - a young Ninja goes out to seek revenge for the killing of his father, while the Jaquio's evil plot to gain access to an ancient demonic power unfolds. But it is the style in which it is told that makes it so great. After watching the breathtaking introduction (which is still fantastic after all these years) and starting the game, you'll soon notice that Tecmo once again didn't reinvent the wheel. This time, the obvious role model was Castlevania. The most striking resemblance might be the reoccurring scene of the hero gazing at a (usually crumbling) castle from a faraway platform. (But then again, that might just be the dramatically most effective way to gaze at a crumbling castle, who knows. The Super Shinobi games, too, contain very similar scenes.) But there are also many corresponding enemy types, especially in the beginning, with the stupid birds being the most annoying. The secondary weapon system is also quite similar - each level is filled with various icons (lamps, spider webs, other random stuff) that act just like the candles in Castlevania, and dispense new weapons, ninjitsu points to use these weapons, or other power-ups. These are activated, of course, by pressing Up + Attack.
Contrary to the rather mediocre arcade game, Ninja Gaiden on the NES actually does a lot of things even better than Castlevania did. First, it's a very fast game, as there aren't many instances where you can just hold your position or slowly approach your enemies. Instead you have to jump over them, constantly move to get a good position against them, and smartly use your secondary weapons. Many of the weapons' effects, seem to have been borrowed from Castlevania as well - most of the time you'll be using shurikens, especially the boomerang-esque Windmill Shuriken. This one is extremely useful, since you can keep avoiding it to make it fly around the screen multiple times. Then you've got the Art of the Fire Wheel, which, much like Castlevania's axe, is used to attack enemies above. A new innovation is the Jump & Slash, which makes for a really cool spinning air attack, useful against enemies defending a platform you have to jump to. While it can completely murder bosses, it quickly draws your weapon points, since it replaces the standard jumping attack and isn't used separately with Up + Attack like the other weapons.
The wall jump, as explained in the manual.
Every weapon use costs 3 or 5 ninjitsu points, drawn from a maximum pool of 99 points. Although you also get 5 or 10 points for every "Spiritual Strength" item you collect, you can quickly run out of ammo - a stark contrast to Castlevania, where you can spam weapons continuously and defeat a good number of the bosses using only those. The last weapon is the Invincible Fire Wheel, which, as the name implies, makes you invincible for a certain time, with the drawback of deleting your current extra weapon. There are also items that simply bonus points, life recharge, and a time stopping hour glass to be found inside the "candles".
But all the weapons and special items aside, Ninja Gaiden's greatest speciality is once again Ryu's agility as a ninja. By jumping against a wall, he will cling on to it - unless there's a ladder, you can't climb directly up or downwards. Instead you have to jump off, and, if there's another wall facing the first one, climb up by wall-jumping alternately. This wall bouncing technique has since become a staple of awesome action games everywhere.
Regardless of all these abilities, Ninja Gaiden still is a very hard game. As you move back and forth, enemies constantly respawn based on your position. If you happen to stand on the wrong spot, the same enemy will attack you again and again until you move on. This is especially dangerous when this spot happens to be the edge of a platform. Jumping carelessly will only get you hit more often, and since every enemy hit throws you back, you'll usually get tossed into a pit. If you're clinging to a wall, you won't get knocked off, but in turn, you're a sitting duck for enemy attacks. If you don't know where the enemies spawn before you see them, it will often be already too late for you to react properly, so prepare yourself for a lot of memorization. At least almost all the normal enemies die from a single hit, so you don't have to think about your following retreat while attacking. Thankfully, you've also got a limitless number of credits at your disposal, so unless you turn the game off out of frustration (or toss it out the window), the farthest you'll get ever thrown back is the beginning of a stage, which is never too far away.
Until you reach Act 6, that is. This last part of the game consist of three long stages, all of them insanely difficult, especially the legendary Stage 6-2. After that, you have to fight three (!) bosses, the finaly two without any extra weapons. And the best thing: If you lose any one of these three battles, you're starting right back at the beginning of Stage 6-1. That's right, no matter if you have to use a credit or 9 lives left, you can go through all three levels of hell again. And lose you will. Dozens of times. And even though the game memorizes which bosses you already beat (e.g. if you beat the first and lose to the second, on your next run you don't need to fight the first one anymore), this last chapter has got to be one of the hardest goddamn challenges in any video game ever, and it's the only occasion where any game in the series gets just downright unfair.
The animation isn't particularly good even for the NES, but what makes the visuals stand out (besides the awesome cutscenes) are the beautiful stages. They're displayed in a slight angle, which gives a nice feeling of depth to the visuals. You'll visit a lof of different locations, like a rainforest, mountains or the downtown of a city. Only towards the end it gets a bit monotonous with the last two acts mainly consisting of temple ruins.
A port of the game was released for the PC Engine only in Japan in 1992, but it contains English screen text as well as Chinese, selectable through a code (which makes sense when taking into account that the actual development of the port took place at a Chinese company). Visually, this version is simultaneously better and worse than the original game, while also strangely being easier but harder at the same time. The art direction is completely different from the NES game. Sometimes the graphics looks great, but in other occasions somewhat cheaply drawn, despite the superior technology. The worst offenders are the new parallax scrolling backgrounds. Not only is their scrolling choppy as hell, it was done wrong, with the far background passing by faster than the close one. But it also had some cool new effects, like the screen turning grey when picking up the time stop item. There are some slight adjustments to the weapons system, so now you can keep your weapon during invincibility and after completing an act. On the other side of the coin, collision detection is much more unforgiving, especially with bosses, and being caught by certain bosses while clinging on a wall can almost be regarded an instant kill. The last boss has become insanely difficult, with much more projectiles and really hard to predict behavior. Oh, and don't try the Jump & Slash boss trick in this version. The soundtrack has also been changed a lot, and the new music isn't nearly as good.
Together with the other two NES games, Ninja Gaiden was altered once again for the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy on the SNES, but this time the changes are much more subtle. The graphical enhancements are limited to a wider color palette, which made the cut scenes look great, but the graphics during gameplay, especially the 2-frame animations, don't stand up to any other SNES game and are simply disappointing from a technological standpoint. Besides that, there is also some subtle censorship - some depictions of a Star of David that were probably intended to be pentagrams in the first place have been edited out (this is missing in the PCE port too, but not due to censorship but because of the overall graphical changes. That version also had a much larger and more recognizable pentagram added at another position). Also deleted in all three games were the end credits, which of course led to the loss of the corresponding music tracks, too. The music itself is arguably superior to the NES version and uses the extended tracks from the OST CDs, but purists may prefer the simpler original mixes. The timing of the controls doesn't seem to exactly match the NES version, but again, it's much closer than the PC Engine port was. The best change is the inclusion of a password system, so you don't have to start from the beginning every time you turn on the console.
The "Malice Four" from the manual.
In 2004, the game was shortened and re-arranged for another version on mobile phones, split into four episodes that had to be bought separately. The first episode consists of Ninja Gaiden's Act 1, with two expanded stages added before the boss to extend this very short portion of the original game. It controls quite poorly, as one would imagine. You use the special weapons by pressing down, making it impossible to duck. Tecmo USA kept advertising it on the official home page, only one of the four episodes was ever released in English.
There's an odd bit of trivia about the Wii Virtual Console release: when you lose all your lives on the NES version and it's Game Over, the screen starts flickering in weird color schemes. As a result of the epilepsy incident that caused a lot of kids to have seizures while watching an episode of the Pokémon animated series, this was toned down for the Virtual Console, which usually features unmodified emulations of the classics.
When Ninja Ryuukenden was first previewed in the Japanese gaming magazine "Famimaga" during 1988, the screenshots showed different early prototypes for the game. The level layout seems to have differed vastly between versions (one screenshot shows a fight against boss from stage 3 in the bar at the beginning). In some versions, Ryu's suit was even colored red, like the player 2 character in the arcade game. The font and the icons for special weapons had undergone some transitions as well (thanks go to Chris Covell for this discovery).
Prototype screenshot, note the different font and Ryu's color.
Ninja Ryuukenden II: Ankoku no Jashinken (忍者龍剣伝II 暗黒の邪神剣) / Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos / Shadow Warriors II - NES, IBM PC, Amiga, SNES, Xbox, Wii (1990)
Japanese Famicom Cover
American NES Cover
European NES Cover
Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos takes place shortly after the events of the first game. Ryu has defeated the Jaquio, but soon the next threat arises in form of the Emperor of Darkness, Ashtar, who wields the sword of chaos and has Irene kidnapped. Of course, Ryu is up on his feet and to the rescue immediately.
This time, Tecmo was done genre shifting - the basic gameplay stays untouched from the first NES game. Yet there are a dozen small tweaks that make Ninja Gaiden II much more enjoyable. You now can use your extra attacks while climbing and climb up or down freely, though you still have to do wall jumps to get on the top of a platform. The ladders are still there, only this time they lead you to the next section of the stage. The jumping speed is also a bit slower and floatier, but easier to control.
The weapons system underwent some changes, too. Now every weapon use draws much more points, and you also get them faster - there's even an item which fills up the stock completely. This time Ryu starts out with a maximum of 40 weapon points, though it can extended by collecting scrolls, which are hidden sporadically throughout the game, usually in difficult locations. This way, the game encourages you to use special weapons even more, since hoarding ammunition has become mostly useless. The game provides provides ordinary shuriken and 10 weapon points at the start of every stage. Also, weapon points don't get cut in half anymore after dying, but instead you keep all of them, unless you have to use a credit. There's also a new weapon available - it's the opposite of the Magic Fire Wheel, a flame that fires downwards. Tecmo ditched the unbalanced special air attack and the out-of-place time stop, while the Invincible Fire Wheel has become an "ordinary", if expensive, special attack that can be used multiple times.
The biggest addition, however, is the "Phantom Shadow" technique. By collecting this item, you can summon up to two copies of Ryu, who shadow his every movement. They're invincible, but can still damage enemies. They also stay floating in mid-air after a jump, so it's possible to position them strategically to take down bosses easily. It even triples the special weapon power, since each of Ryu's duplicates launches a copy of the weapon. While they are cool to have, they provide very cheap methods to beat most of the bosses, and are a bare necessity for some of the others, therefore throwing off the game's balancing a bit.
The manual shows advanced techniques.
Compared to the first Ninja Gaiden, which kept things plain and simple, the enviroments are much more varied. It was all pits and platforms in the predecessor, but now you have to cope with strong winds, flowing water, spikes and the like. Most notably, there's a part in Stage 3-2 that takes place in darkness, and you have to wait until lightning flashes so you can see where you're going. The lightning still keeps flashing even when you've paused the game, which makes it much easier if you have the patience. The boss battles have also improved and now almost all of them require a certain strategy, though a few can be rendered useless through the aforementioned Phantom Shadows.
The graphics are basically on par with the original, although the power-up items are all encased in floating orbs, giving the game a more consistent look. The music is easily as good as the first NES game, although the drum samples have changed, so it has a pretty different sound to it. Overall, the difficulty has been toned down too, and there's nothing nearly as frustrating as the first game's last stage. There is also an extremely cool sound test called the "Musicruise", which shows super deformed versions of Ryu and Irene, along with the track names and a display of the sound channels.
This time, Manley & Associates Inc. developed ports for IBM PCs and the Commodore Amiga, which where published by Gametek. Similar to the original Ninja Gaiden on the PC Engine, the graphics received a major overhaul, now leading to a look that is in tune with many contemporary western home computer games. At some parts, it looks better than the NES version, but the overall art quality is definitely inferior.
In the end, everything these versions could have going for them is destroyed by an atrociously low frame rate, which makes them virtually unplayable. It has to be about 2 FPS, or at least it feels this way. But even if it wasn't for this huge handicap, there would still remain enough problems to make this game not worthwhile. Ryu switched colors with his copies so he's red now. In principle just a cosmetic change, but slightly annoying when you've played another version before. The collision detection is messed up, so now you die from a downfall long before you reach the bottom of the screen (annoying), it takes forever to wait for the lightning in stage 3-1 (very annoying), you get thrown back from a hit even when you are clung to a wall (extraordinarily annoying) and, while you get thrown back, you're turned around the other direction all the time (extremely annoying) and if you make the mistake to push "up" together with "forward" while jumping to a wall to immediately climb up as you reach it, you stop jumping forward and fall in to a pit, a whole damn centimeter before you reach the lower end of the screen. And if your system of choice is the Amiga, you get a nice, overly complicated 1-button control scheme free of charge. Did I mention loading times? Do not play!
Of course, this episode is also part of the Trilogy for the SNES and received the same treatment as the first game. Again, there's some slight censorship, and the darkness & lightning effects in stage 3-1 were removed. That may sound like yet a complaint, but after going back to the NES version (not to mention the unspeakable PC port), it's easy to see how that is really a good change. The password system applies here, too, but from now on, using passwords comes with a serious drawback: the amount of scrolls picked up to increase the maximum ammo isn't contained in the password, so you will have less weapon points on your disposal than you get with a continuous run.
Ninja Ryuukenden III: Yomi no Hakobune (忍者龍剣伝III 黄泉の方船) / Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom - NES, Lynx, SNES, Xbox, Wii (1991)
Japanese Famicom Cover
American NES Cover
The third and final installment of the NES trilogy brought a few greater changes regarding the theme as well as aesthetics. In the intro to this final episode, you watch Irene being killed by... Ryu Hayabusa? But, no wait, it was a clone. The plot is a tad more detached than in the first two games, and now instead of humans, animals and demons, your enemies are machines and mutants. The graphical style has changed to a flat perspective in contrast to the slightly isometric view that the previous games featured, but overall the visuals have vastly improved, with bigger and more various enemies, vertical scrolling and very detailed backgrounds, with quite a few parallax layers and lighting effects. The cover art now took the same style as the Ninja Ryuukenden anime, at least on the Japanese box. A lot of tasks were shifted from the creator of the series, Sakurazaki (real name Hideo Yoshizawa) to former artist & cutscene creator Runmal (Masato Kato), with Sakurazaki only staying as the game's executive producer. It's easy to tell from playing the game alone that someone else was in charge.
So it's no wonder the gameplay underwent a few greater changes as well, probably inspired by newer contemporary games like Strider and Shadow of the Ninja. The general pace of the action is slowed down, particularly because Ryu is given much more airtime during jumps, which sadly doesn't feel quite right. Also, the hand-over-hand climbing on bars from the arcade game is back, and Ryu now can climb onto higher platforms directly without having to wall-jump.
Furthermore, a new major special item is introduced with the sword upgrade, which greatly enhances your range and makes it possible to hit small or lower enemies without ducking. The Phantom Shadow fighters are gone for good, as is the ordinary shuriken, so that you now start every stage with the powerful Windmill Shuriken equipped. The ability to shimmy below platforms goes along with a new weapon tailored for such situations - a pair of energy blades that attacks enemies immediately above and below Ryu's position. The item orbs are now transparent, so there's no fear of accidentally collecting bad weapons anymore. The greatest novelty of them all - the enemies no longer respawn infinitely - makes for more tactical combat, since a retreat now actually can better your situation. Ninja Gaiden III is also the first game that provides a password system in the original release on the Japanese Famicom.
A page from the Japanese manual.
If you think all this will make your life easier, then think again. No respawning of enemies is made up by their sheer numbers, and the levels are full of traps like quicksand, moving or collapsing platforms and slippery ground.
The Japanese version actually is a bit easier than the first two Ninja Gaiden episodes, especially with the included password system. Fearing that longtime fans would be disgruntled (or perhaps just to prevent kids from beating it in a rental), the North American version was made considerably more difficult. Enemies' damage levels were raised, so that almost every enemy hit draws two points off your life bar from the very first stage on. Plus, the locations of extra weapons have been rearranged, and you get considerably fewer weapons. The Invincible Fire Wheel is very rare, and you have to hold out much longer without the sword upgrade on most stages. And if all the obstacles finally get the better of Ryu, you don't restart in that same area, but the beginning of the current stage. The password system is also gone, and now for the first time, you are limited to 5 credits. After that, it's time to start from scratch again. All this makes it the hardest of all Ninja Gaiden games and quite frustrating, and it is strongly advised to choose the Japanese or Trilogy version instead.
Alas, this final game of the series never saw a European release. At that time, games tended to come out in Europe one or two years after the Japanese or American games, Ninja Gaiden II wasn't released before 1992, and before someone could even think about bringing over its sequel, the NES was irrevocably outdated.
With Ninja Gaiden III getting ported to the Atari Lynx, now every one of the NES games was ported to a different non-Nintendo platform. This one is actually the most faithful port of the three, which is also its biggest problem. The graphics are just scaled down to the handheld's lower resolution, which means it's hard to recognize anything on screen. For some reason the positions for the attack and jump buttons were switched around. Although this doesn't do any actual change to how the game is played, it may prove confusing to players that are used to the regular button order used in the vast majority of 2D action platformers. Otherwise, it generally retains the good gameplay (though it is the tough, sometimes unfair gameplay of the North American version), so if you get eye cancer from playing it, you'll at least have had a good time.
The Trilogy port this time gets along without censorship (but there weren't any pentagrams/stars of David to begin with, thanks to the new theme), but otherwise it's the most retouched of the three games, and sadly not quite for the better. It's missing most of the graphical effects, the parallax-scrolling is completely gone (interestingly, it was still present in the Trilogy version of Ninja Gaiden II), as are a few lighting effects. At this time, they probably ran out of cartridge space or something like that, and so they took out at least two music tracks and replaced them with repetitions of other stages' tunes instead. Why does a Super Nintendo game have to be technologically inferior to a NES game?
As kind of a compensation, though, it sets the damage level of all the ordinary enemies back to a single point, making damage even lower than the original Japanese version. Unlimited credits and the password system are also back, of course (they should have fixed the last act of Ninja Gaiden I, while they were at it). In turn, for some reason the American NES version's arrangement of extra items and restart points was used, which actually made the game a bit harder for Japanese players in the end, while kindly relieving some of the hardships Western gamers had to endure.
Another mobile game. Once again released only in Japan, this is supposed to be a "Gaiden" to Ninja Gaiden. Joe Hayabusa has set up a 5-storied pagoda as a challenge for Ryu, where he has to kill a hundred enemies to finally confront his father at the top. There's not much of a story or platforming challenges and it's really only there to kill a few minutes (and a lot of enemies) in the subway.