[Retro Monday] Ninja Gaiden
The little-article-that-could has now become a full-fledged weekly column. [Retro] will run (to the best of my abilities) once a week on Mondays. The format will be very similar, with articles chock full of interesting information; how the game ties into the political, economical, and cultural situation of its time; and most importantly, pretty pictures.
We’ll be taking a look at Ninja Gaiden in the arcades.
Ninja Gaiden was first released by Tecmo in 1988 on arcade cabinets and systems everywhere in Japan, the United States, and Europe. In Europe, it went by the moniker of Shadow Warriors. In Japan, it was named Ninja Ryūkenden. Not much could be found on the technical aspects of the arcade game, but we do know that it was released on a variety of systems, sometimes with drastic differences. It was released in all regions with a NES version soon following. In North America, they also received a version for IBM PC. Europe saw several different ports for home consoles and computers by Ocean Software.
Ninja Gaiden is a side-scrolling beat-em-up in the vein of Double Dragon. Players control the ninja via an eight-way joystick and three buttons–one is located on top of the joystick. Each button stands for Attack, Jump, or Grab (located atop the joystick). Players can combine a variety of button presses and joystick pushes to perform attacks. Players have access to the “Triple Blow Combination,” the “Flying Neck Throw,” the “Phoenix Backflip,” the “Tightrope Walk,” and the “Hang Kick.”
These combos were interesting because the ninja could make use of his surroundings, either by running up a wall and back flipping off it, throwing enemies into objects in the background, and hanging from bars strewn about the level. Players often had a fun time experimenting with the combos and seeing how many different results they could yield depending on the environment. Pictured here is the Continue Screen–if players chose not to continue, they would be treated to a red screen, dramatic music, and the ninja’s cries.
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s go over the basic narrative of the game. You control a ninja swathed in blue, and your goal is to defeat an evil cult being led by a man named Bladedamus. Bladedamus is the descendant of Nostradamus. Perhaps feeling frustrated by the fact that his ancestor’s predictions were false, Bladedamus seeks to bring about the end of the world, thus fulfilling his ancestor’s prophecy. As the blue ninja, you must travel across the United States, beating up bad guys in Jason Vorhees masks, to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
I say, “blue ninja” because it’s never explicitly stated in the game who exactly the player is controlling. However, the community as a whole has agreed that it probably is most likely Ryu Hayabusa, of Dead or Alive and later Ninja Gaiden fame.
Players universally remember Ninja Gaiden on arcade machines for its obscenely tough difficulty and its continue screen (pictured two images above). The continue screen was foreboding and had the potential to become grisly, especially by the standards of society back in those days. Seeing the hero of the story strapped down to a table and awaiting the bite of an angry circular saw was something children hadn’t seen much of. By today’s standards this is tame, but back then it was anything but.
Its obscenely tough difficulty, on the other hand, elicited probably too many cries of frustration. Mobs of enemies would swarm the screen making it difficult for the player to maneuver around them, see exactly what was going on, and perform the combos explained above. The enemy swarm would often overwhelm all but the most skilled players, causing them to reach the continue screen. This leads into the next reason why this game was so difficult: checkpoint placement. The placement of checkpoints either wasn’t too high a priority or Tecmo wanted to purposely frustrate players and instill a need for player perfection, allowing only the best to succeed. Checkpoints were not placed very strategically–the best example of this is that several players complained that in many levels, they would barely make it through a particularly difficult and harrowing experience with a mob of enemies only to be killed towards the end of the level. They would restart, only to find themselves at the middle of the level, right before the first mob of enemies that gave them so much trouble.
There were regional differences in the arcade releases, ranging from significant to barely noticeable. The Japanese version, Ninja Ryūkenden, has a narrator whose sole task is to yell out the title when the level has been completed. Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Ryūkenden also play completely different background music while players traverse around the Grand Canyon. Finally, in Ninja Gaiden, enemies seem to hit harder than their Japanese counterparts–the player takes significantly more damage from a single hit in the US version than they do in the Japanese version.
Changes between versions is a tradition that must be upheld, because the Virtual Console version of the game features a few differences as well. The music in stages 2 and 5 now loops the regular gameplay music rather than the boss music. It’s thought that this may be due to Black Sabbath’s Iron Man and the boss songs being musically similar. In addition to that, the Star of David no longer makes appearances within the game.
Let’s take a look at what was going on in Japan in the years leading up to the release of Ninja Gaiden. Japan was enjoying an economic upturn and rapid growth, something that was mirrored by the revival of the video game industry after the crash that nearly destroyed it in 1983. Japan was also becoming very aware of trends and culture in the United States during this time. For example, kung-fu movies and were extremely popular during the 70s and 80s, a fact that did not go unnoticed. With America becoming more culturally curious and aware, demand for more Japanese entertainment was steadily, yet cautiously, creeping upward. In America, the strength of the Japanese economy was something to be feared. The combination of interest and anxiety towards the Japanese led to products such as Ninja Gaiden.
With those factors in place, Tecmo created a game that featured an ambiguous protagonist. The ambiguity of the protagonist allowed Americans to put their anxieties concerning the Japanese to rest, while also allowing them to indulge in the heroism found in so many kung-fu action movies. It emphasized perfection and success, two concepts that Americans were particularly obsessed with at the time. In addition to this, Tecmo littered US pop culture references (such as Top Gun, pictured above). The developers were seen as interested in American culture, and thus American interest in their games increased. The 80s were shaping up to be a decade concerned most with pop culture (especially towards the end), and Ninja Gaiden definitely feeds into what would grow to be a nation’s obsession with it.
What’s Ryu been up to since the release of Ninja Gaiden? He went on to star in the NES version of Ninja Gaiden, which featured a different storyline than its arcade counterpart. This led to two sequels that later released on the SNES as a trilogy compilation. Hayabusa also made an appearance on Sega’s Game Gear and Master System. Ryu Hayabusa also made consistent appearances in the Dead or Alive series. For nearly a decade, Ninja Gaiden was silent and no new releases had been announced. That changed in 2004, when Ninja Gaiden released for the Xbox. It was developed by Team Ninja and published by Tecmo. Released to critical acclaim, the infamous difficulty level of the series lived on as sequels and remakes of those sequels were released on the 360 and the PS3. The series also made an appearance on the DS, and is slated to make another on the 3DS in the future.
Ninja Gaiden 3 has also been announced, and will surely deliver on the excellent gameplay and obscene difficulty that the series is revered for.