Ninja Gaiden ReviewJoe Shaffer
I feel the need to dress appropriately before plugging Ninja Gaiden into my NES. Usually, I prefer to don on my leather gimp suit and position myself for 8-bit torture. As you may have guessed, this game is damn near a masochist's paradise. It's tough as nails, horribly unforgiving at times, but mostly fair. Mostly...
At least you get infinite continues. You can't argue with that!
Stage one isn't a malicious trip through punishing terrain like the latter stages are. Rather, it's part of a warm up phase that involves hacking your way down a seedy city street, featuring mostly pathetic enemies like armored cats and slow-moving hunchbacks. Basic slashing is all you'll need to dispatch anything in this stage, although it is mighty satisfying to chuck a sub-weapon now and then. Your choices here are "shuriken" and "ridiculously oversized shuriken," with later additions including an automatic jump-slash technique and a fire spell for roasting airborne nuisances.
I usually breeze through the introductory stage without much worry. It's not until the second level that I prepare for my lashings to begin. Killing pitfalls manifest, and finally I feel like I'm playing a proper platformer. Situations pop up that involve repeatedly leaping between two walls, or from a wall to a platform, or from a series of platforms to a wall, or from a platform to a ladder to a wall to a platform... It's all maddening, but in a good way. The game's tight play control tests my timing perfectly, so I know I can't blame the game if I miss a leap.
This is also where the enemy variety begins to show, as if the game is laying out its selection of torture devices and spanking implements. You go from basic machete-wielding maniacs to PCP-injected boxers and knife-throwing punks. Enemies even begin spawning behind you at this point, hoping to catch you unawares. The worst, though, are the Castlevania-ish bats, which love to launch you off of platforms and into a bottomless pits.
The next stage thrusts you into the ruins of a castle, complete with partly crumbled columns. Platforms in this stage are much smaller than before, and this is where I, personally, start to feel the first harsh stings of challenge. It's also at this point that foes begin appearing at the edges of platforms, usually on the opposite side of lengthy pits. Worse, some throw projectiles while standing at said edges. All too often I'll forget about a robed sword-tosser and leap toward him, only to be stopped short as he throws a blade upward. From there, I fly backward and into a pit while admonishing death music blasts from my speakers. The music is even worse, though, when you get a game over. That's when the whole screen flashes, as if the game is saying, "No! Wrong! Do it again until you get it right!"
Eventually, Ninja Gaiden starts playing rough. Gaps become wider and more difficult to close, adversaries spawn on narrower ledges and fire faster projectiles, and even more of them appear from behind. Those might sound terrible, but there is a much worse threat: birds. Forget Red Arremer or that annoying sun from Super Mario Bros. 3 or even the Medusa-heads from Castlevania; Ninja Gaiden's birds are some of the most infuriating creatures ever rendered in 8-bit. They swoop in at tricky angles and demand precision in order to defeat. That usually means leaping ever so slightly and delivering a perfectly-timed katana blade to the gizzard. Otherwise, they'll hit you. If you don't immediate fall to your death after taking a blow from a bird, then it'll continue its frustrating onslaught until one of you is deceased.
All of the above may sound tantalizing, especially for those with a taste for face-breaking challenges. It all feels like heaven until you enter the six stage, in particular 6-2...
I like to think that Ninja Gaiden was not initially developed with a stage 6-2. In my mind, the level didn't show up in the final copy until someone in the vicinity of Tecmo's headquarters performed the black mass and punched a hole in reality. That hole, unfortunately, manifested itself within Ninja Gaiden's coding. The developers may have tried to throw the stage out, but kept it for fear that Asmodeus might eat their families if they attempted to do so. That's understandable, really...
Stage 6-2 is where the game goes into a psychotic rage and begins causing deep psychological harm rather than providing good old "hurt me plenty" thrills. It's a punishing affair that kicks off with multiple jetpack-clad jerks who shower you with shurikens. If one shuriken nails you, it's almost certain that two more will as well. Chances are you'll fly back a few feet, causing the shuriken throwers to respawn and begin their assault anew. Survive that and you're still not out of the woods. A horrible scene ensues in which a bird rises from a pit, while a bat simultaneously begins a slow pilgrimage towards you. You have to wait for the latter to get within striking distance, but if you wait too long, the former will nail you from below and throw you into the pit.
Survive that and it's onto stationary cannons with a knack for spamming shots until your life bar is depleted. Following that, you'll have to leap through a run of platforms while enemies spawn at every point imaginable: from above, from below, from behind, on a tiny platform... Without the jump-slash technique, this scene is damn near impossible.
I've never fully beaten Ninja Gaiden. I did get to the final boss one time, after spending more than two hours chewing through 6-2. I fought the guy and gave it my all, but he tore me apart. "No biggie," I thought. I was sure I'd respawn at 6-3, which was easy enough, and eventually bring the fiend down.
I respawned at 6-1.
I promptly turned off the game at that point, took off my gimp suit, and tried not to throw myself out of my bedroom window. For although I love Ninja Gaiden, the game goes a little too far in terms of difficulty.
Without 6-2, Ninja Gaiden would be at the top of my list of favorite 8-bit platformers. Instead, it has to accept a less satisfying position somewhere close to number nine. There's only so much a gamer can stand, even a gaming masochist like myself, and this game certainly pushes the envelop in terms of fiercely difficult gameplay.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.