Ninja Gaiden is one of the first NES games I bought with my own money. All previous games I’d gotten as Christmas gifts or as birthday presents (I remember getting Mega Man for a birthday like it was yesterday). I’d made a pretty decent haul at a yard sale we’d held and I begged my mom to carry me to the store. I had $50 burning a hole in my pocket and a new Nintendo game was what I wanted.
Should I get Double Dragon? No…my neighbor had that one and we played all the time. Mega Man 2 or Bionic Commando? No…I’d already rented those. As I scanned the boxes in the sliding glass case behind the counter at Wal-Mart I noticed a box I couldn’t take my eyes off of. It featured a city on fire with an amazing ninja on the cover. It even had Japanese writing on the box! I asked the lady behind the counter how much it was and she said $45. It was going to take all of my money, but I was going to risk it. It was one of the best blind purchases I ever made.
Ninja Gaiden is a side-scrolling action platformer that follows the story of Ryu Hayabusa and his investigation of his father’s disappearance. As far as the action goes, Ninja Gaiden is pretty standard fare for NES titles at the time. A timer counts down while you jump over obstacles, slash at enemies, avoid projectiles, dogs, and some pretty hairy platforming over pits that signaled instant death. Birds are the biggest bane of your existence as they often appear from off screen once you’ve committed to a jump (typically over one of the aforementioned pits). Unless you timed your slash right you’d take damage and fall into the pit, using up a precious life.
Speaking of lives, Ninja Gaiden is from the golden era of games where they actively hate you and want you to die. Kids these days and their infinite continues, respawn points, and save states don’t understand the struggle. Even modern games like Dark Souls that are known for their difficulty still allow you to keep retrying things without suffering a tremendous amount of progress (sure, losing all your souls is annoying, but you do get to retry). Use up all your lives on the first few levels? Continue. Make it to level 3! Nice! Aww man! Stupid birds! Continue. Reach last boss. One life left! Just a few more hits! Yessssssss! You beat the final boss!!!! Wait, what’s this? He’s revealing his true form?!? Why is his life bar refilling? Why is he taking up most of the screen now? Why is my life bar still at 2 hits-till-death? Swipe! Dead. Game Over screen. Do not pass go, do not do anything. You get to start the game over from the very first level. Brutal.
What Ninja Gaiden made you do was learn patterns. As long as you didn’t backtrack causing enemy respawns, you could progress and anticipate enemies. Part of this is easy because you die a lot in Ninja Gaiden until you eventually get these patterns down. I know this all sounds torturous, but Ninja Gaiden made it worth your while like no game before it ever had. It had animated cut scenes that were done in an anime style and it featured a great story, much like a full length film. At the end of each level you would get another cut scene and a little bit more of the story. This totally made the struggle worth it for the anime crazed 10 year old in me.
Ninja Gaiden is one of those games that has stuck with me over the years. I remember the crushing, demoralizing realization that I had beaten the game only to be thwarted by his second form. I eventually beat it using some exploits and tips I’d found in a Nintendo Power magazine (the bible of gaming back in the late 80’s and early 90’s) and I still hold it as a feather in my cap to this day. Very few modern gaming experiences have this same lasting appeal or importance in my timeline as a gamer. Is it brutal? Yes. Does it cheat, lie, and try to grind you down every chance it can get? Yes. But, is it one of the best games on the NES? Without a doubt. Plus, ninjas. Ninjas are always cool.