Cutscenes are now standard fare in game design but back in 1988 a game incorporating cinematic scenes to tell the story was practically unheard of. Enter Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden, one of the greatest side-scrolling action games of the 8-bit era and possibly ever. Ninja Gaiden is the first in a trilogy of games that first released on the Nintendo Entertainment System and is the one I'll be taking a look at for this Retrolog.

Looking at it now, Ninja Gaiden holds up shockingly well. The intro cutscene with two ninjas clashing in an open field still looks awesome and the game sports some of the coolest pixel art even today. During the game, cutscenes play out with the dialogue happening at the bottom of the screen while having an anime-styled image at the top of the screen. The look of these cutscenes is distinctly similar to popular manga like Lupin III and Astroboy. The story is about a ninja named Ryu Hayabusa, avenging the death of his murdered father in America and coming across someone called “the Jaquio” who is trying to summon a powerful demon to take over the world. It is clear from the plot description that Ninja Gaiden wears its anime and manga influences right on its sleeve. Aside from certain spelling errors, this style of storytelling works in Ninja Gaiden's favour and provides nice context to the carnage.

Ninja Gaiden is a special game in that, in a period in which side-scrollers were all emulating Double Dragon, Tecmo decided to take inspiration from Super Mario Bros and Castlevania while at the same time building the entire game around the concept of the main character being constantly on the move. However, this hectic formula can only result in one thing...Ninja Gaiden being a very difficult game. Make no mistake, while Ninja Gaiden is a breathtaking and visceral title it is also incredibly difficult. Due to frustration with the difficulty, you might turn off the game, come back to it later, pass the part you had trouble with, and end up feeling like you just conquered Mt. Everest...only to have to repeat that same process at least half a dozen times more during the game. Thankfully, the steep difficulty is offset by the promise of unlimited continues.

Like its aforementioned inspirations, Ninja Gaiden is a fluid and well made game. Ryu navigates the screen from one end to the other (and occasionally to the top) slaying humans, demons, and the worst enemy of all, birds. Just like Castlevania and other side-scrollers of the time, the most annoying enemies are ones that fly all over the screen. Again, like Castlevania, it has that annoying problem of enemy attacks sending you flying backwards and sometimes into the nearest pit. In the later levels this becomes a huge problem because of all the projectiles and birds coming your way. One of Ninja Gaiden's best gameplay additions is the wall jump which is performed by jumping towards a wall to latch onto it then jumping off while holding the d-pad in the opposite direction. This technique can be used to climb between walls and if you are fast enough, can be used to climb up a single wall. Ninja Gaiden's wall jump has since been incorporated into other games like Sunsoft's Batman and SEGA's Shinobi series.

Ryu's preferred weapon is the katana but he can also pick up power-ups like shurikens, a fire attack, and a cool spinning sword jump attack. The game uses a single ammo system for these power-ups that are scattered around the levels in lanterns, lamps, even insects. and you can also pick up potions to replenish your health. Ninja Gaiden is broken down into “Acts” that usually consist of 2-3 sections. This theme of momentum and movement is even prevalent in the sequence of levels that get harder and faster as you play while presenting new and trickier enemies to dispatch. At the end of each “act” is a boss you must fight which get progressively harder as you progress, culminating in an excruciatingly difficult endurance round against The Jaquio that ends the game on a climax.

Graphically, I have raved about Ninja Gaiden's cinematic prowess but the in-game graphics are great too. Well done pixel art and the game's camera being situated slightly to the side to gives everything a feeling of depth which reminds me of a diorama. As far as the music is concerned, it is also good. All the tracks are very fast-paced to match up with the game-play though a lot of them are merely 10 second loops and this gets a little annoying when you are constantly retrying a level.  

These days, Ryu Hayabusa is famous for Tomonobu Itagaki's fantastic Ninja Gaiden Black that brought the famous ninja into 3D. I will always prefer the original game and consider it a must play for anyone that enjoys frenetic side-scrolling action.

Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Release: 1988 (JPN)
Publisher: Tecmo

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