Apparently the theme of this cluster of updates is “Games that are, or at least have a reputation for being, stupidly hard”. This game certainly fits the bill.
Released in the US in 1989 by Tecmo, Ninja Gaiden is, much like Rygar, a game Tecmo advertised as “THE NUMBER ONE ARCADE SMASH!!” Unlike Rygar, though, the only thing actually carried over from the arcade version is the plot summary, which is “Ryu’s father is dead, so Ryu goes to America to take revenge.” Indeed, the arcade version is a beat-em-up that’s entirely forgettable except for 2 things: The fact that this in-name-only port exists and spawned a series, and its continue screen. If you say “Ninja Gaiden arcade” to someone, and their immediate word association isn’t “continue screen”, that person is a dirty liar.
Regardless, this is not about the arcade version. And the NES version’s plot opens the same way as the arcade version, but with a much more expanded opening cutscene. And indeed, one of the reasons Ninja Gaiden is so fondly remembered is that it was one of the first action/platformer games to use movie-like scenes to advance its story. The opening cutscene depicts a battle between Ryu Hayabusa’s father Ken, and a rival ninja named Malth. Ken loses the duel, and not long afterward, Ryu finds a letter instructing him to go to America and see the archeologist Walter Smith, a family friend. Ryu suits up to take his revenge on Malth.
Perhaps moreso than the cutscenes, Ninja Gaiden’s main storytelling innovation was the simple fact that the plot changed at all from start-to-finish. The game is divided into six “Acts”, and after each act (And sometimes between stages within the acts), cutscenes play and advance the plot. The plot twists and turns, with demon statues entering the picture, and the CIA eventually becoming involved. It’s really quite intriguing for an action game.
Of course, Ninja Gaiden is, at its core, an action game. All the plot in the world won’t help it if the gameplay is bad. And thankfully, the gameplay itself is as good as the story. You run and slash numerous foes from Mike Tyson clones to birds (Birds are jerks, and do more damage than bullets in this game). Along the way, you collect a variety of powerups, ranging from ninja stars to fire wheels, to the almighty Jump & Slash, one of the most over-powered powerups in NES history. The Jump & Slash costs the same amount as most of the other powerups, and annihilates everything, including bosses, in one or, at most, two hits.
You would think that such an incredible power up would make the game trivial to beat. And you’d be wrong. Dead wrong, in fact. Ninja Gaiden earns its reputation as being one of the hardest games on the NES. This is for a couple reasons. For one, the Jump and Slash is only available at a few points, and losing it is quite easy (And it doesn’t appear at all in Act 3). For another, when an enemy dies, if you move too far in the opposite direction, it can respawn. For a third, there are lots of bottomless pits that cause an instant loss of life, and plenty of enemies that are all too happy to knock you into them. Finally, while the game has unlimited continues, using a continue puts you back at the start of the level you were at (Or, if you Game Over on a boss, the level prior to the boss)…and dying at all in the final boss gauntlet forces you to re-do all of Act 6. While the game is merciful enough to save your spot in the gauntlet, that’s countered by the fact that 6-2 is one of the most infamous levels in video game history, and having to go through that level multiple times is probably why a lot of people never beat the game when they were younger…and still can’t beat it now.
Ninja Gaiden, like Contra, derives most of its replay value from trying to beat it for the first time. Once you do so, you can probably get through the game in about a half hour, or a bit longer if you choose to watch the cutscenes (Which are skip-able).
Still, like Contra, Ninja Gaiden is a classic of the 8-bit era, and well worth obtaining. Besides the NES original, the game is available on Virtual Console. An extremely rare (And from my understanding, not very good) remake is also available on Super Nintendo, and the NES games are unlockables in the XBox version of Ninja Gaiden. Find it, some way, and go play it.