#35: Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom

This showed up in this series kind of on a whim. I had some time after beating Rambo on the Rizeup Gaming stream, and filled the time with this game, which I’ve beaten before. Did I enjoy revisiting the game? Well….

Released in 1991 by Tecmo, Ninja Gaiden III is the final game in the NES trilogy. Storyline-wise, it takes place between Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II. The game starts with the murder of Irene Lew, the CIA agent who becomes Ryu’s girlfriend at the end of the first game. In a SHOCKING SWERVE that would make Vince Russo jealous, the killer seems to be none other than…Ryu! Naturally, it’s not that simple, and Ryu, proclaiming his innocence, sets out to try to find out who really killed Irene.

The original Ninja Gaiden was lauded for being one of the first action games to use cutscenes to advance its plot. Two years later, it’s not quite so novel, but the plot itself still has its trademark twists and turns, keeping you on your toes, providing you can survive long enough to see it. Note that having played the first game will definitely help you get more invested in the early part of the story. Without that knowledge, you’ll just be wondering who one character is in particular, and why Ryu is so shocked to see him.

Ninja Gaiden III allows you to see what’s in power-ups before you hit them. This is a welcome change. Also debuting are a few new powerups, like the Up & Down, which shoots out two blades, well, straight up and down. The new marquee powerup is the Super Sword, which increases your main attack’s range, effectively turning it into the weapon from Strider. Ryu’s physics are also markedly different; he stays in the air much longer than in previous entries (EXCEPTION: If you played Shadow Warriors, the European version of Ninja Gaiden, you’ll feel right at home here–for whatever reason, Ryu’s jumps in Shadow Warriors are much closer to these). Unfortunately, the Jump & Slash from the original game is gone, as are the clones from Ninja Gaiden II. And that’s terrible.

Why is it terrible? Because this is the game that marks the beginning of the transition that would metastasize with the modern Ninja Gaiden trilogy. It’s not hard in a fair way. It’s hard because it’s cheap.

Let me explain further. In the first two games, dying sent you back to the start of the section where you died. If you Game Overed, you had to re-do the entire level you were on. Dying on a boss sent you back to the start of the previous level, with one evil exception in the first game. Ninja Gaiden III throws all this out the window. For the first time in the series, the individual sections of a level are marked, A, B, C, etc…which doesn’t matter, since you now always go back to section A of the level when you die. Game Over? Guess what, you get to go back to the start of the entire act you’re in. At least the game gives you unlimited continues…oh, no, wait, that was the first two games. This one gives you five. For the whole game.

It gets even worse. You have 16 “units” of health. And in the first two Ninja Gaidens, enemies and obstacles did anywhere from 1 to 3 damage. Not so in this game; enemies will do a minimum of two damage, and the deadliest foes and obstacles do 6 damage per hit. It’s very unforgiving and punishing of even the slightest mistake.

In spite of this, while I acknowledge that a part of this is just the fact I first seriously played this when I was 16 or 17, as opposed to being about 6 when I played the original Ninja Gaiden for the first time, Ninja Gaiden III takes relatively less skill than the first two. I beat it for the first time in about a week of serious attempts, as opposed to Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 taking me close to ten years of off-and-on attempts. Had the damage scaling been the same as the first two games (Which it was in the Japanese version…which had a password system to boot), and with unlimited continues, this would be the easiest of the NES trilogy. Instead, it’s the hardest, in a bad way.

Once you work up the skills and pattern recognition to get through the game, expect it to take about an hour from start-to-finish. That time will drop, of course, as you go through additional playthroughs.

While Ninja Gaiden III brings some interesting new elements to the table, like the Super Sword and Ryu’s ability to hang from ceilings, the utter cheapness of the US version means it’s more frustrating than fun. If the first two games made you mad, this one will have you throwing your controller, followed by your NES, followed by your television, through a window. If you’d like to try it out, like the first game, it was released on Wii Virtual Console, as part of Ninja Gaiden Trilogy, and as an unlockable in the also-cheap Ninja Gaiden for XBox.

-EE

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