Year of Release: 1989
Date Reviewed: 5-15-99
In early 1989, the notion of programming a unifying plot into an action game (or any, for that matter -- RPGs hadn’t yet come into their own) was so unanimously rejected as to be considered occult. At best, such a game would supply a few sentences of slow-scrolling, poorly translated text if the player left the title screen alone long enough.* These paragraphs would draw out the entire point of the game, supposedly giving meaning to everything that was to take place. For the most part, though, they were forgotten as soon as play began. The action was the thing. All game producers accepted out of hand the fact that a well-constructed, symbolic plot simply wouldn’t work in this genre. A group of folks at Tecmo, however, thought differently. Cashing in on and, in ways, amplifying the time’s marketability of Japanese covert assassins (aka “ninjas”), they turned out a product that can to this day be counted among the most influential video games ever made. Ninja Gaiden broke ground in story-forwarding with its aptly cut cinema scenes, put an end to the taboo stating that no action game could pull off a complicated plot, and propounded some of the most frenetic, exciting action ever seen on the NES to boot.
It always unsettles me to hear the hypothesis that the plot exists only to give purpose to the cinema scenes, but I must admit that it’s possible. Even if that was Tecmo’s intent, though, they made the plot sufficient to shine in its own light. Whereas past installments in the genre were accompanied by stories whose gists could be accurately predicted from the first sentence, Ninja Gaiden gifted the world with a tale so laced with intrigue and foreshadowing that the player actually rushed through the action to see what would develop next in young Ryu Hayabusa’s path.
That path is forged as such -- the day after his father’s midnight defeat, Ryu discovers a note saying that, in the event of dear ol’ dad’s failure, he is to take the sword of the fabled Dragon Clan (of which he is the last member) to the United States and seek out the archaeologist Walter Smith. Ryu does so, thereby initiating himself into a web of deceit so perplexing and, from an external vantage point, endlessly fascinating that both he and the player feel compelled to see it through to the end. At every stage, just enough information is supplied to goad one’s curiosity without seeming vague or incomplete. The story is reflected in the action scenes, as well. Every venue at which Ryu fights is in some way a continuation of where he previously was, and relevant to what is actually going on in the story. Why Tecmo couldn’t do this in Ninja Gaiden III I don’t know, for it was achieved to perfection here.
The story also deserves high marks for lending a touch of viability to its demonic and mystical overtones. The infamous “Demon” with which Ryu eventually does battle is not introduced as a one-dimensionally sadistic creature, as so many other action games seem bent on painting their evil beings. No, Ninja Gaiden’s characters don’t claim to understand the beast so completely. All accounts of it are supplied in an objective, historical context, right down to Smith’s retelling of all the deaths it caused. Honestly, once the Jaquio shows up and tries to resurrect it, the player begins to think of the Demon more as an abused race horse than some personification (or should I say, “demonification”) of cruelty. Not that I’m trying to say the creature is defensible (though it is a possible interpretation -- akin to the belief that it just stumbled into our universe and got scared), only that Tecmo presents it and pretty much everyone else in this work with several shades more dignity than the horde of bad-ass aliens and quasi-Hitlers that populate so many of these types of games.
My one complaint of the plot is so trifling (that is to say, “characteristic of me”) that it doesn’t compel me to drop the rating by even half a point, but I must state it to complete this evaluation. Midway through the game, a legend pertaining to the Demon is disclosed to Ryu. It says, ”When the Black Moon shines, light and dark break apart. The King of Darkness howls.” Sounds eerie and metaphoric, right? It did to me as well, until I reached the end and discovered that the writers applied it literally. I’ll not spoil the plot for those who haven’t gotten that far, but let’s just say that there are no symbols in that statement. Everything it mentions actually happens in one way or another. That does not affect the plot’s value, but it does sap all the mystery and fun from that particular bit of prose. To quote my good friend Oscar Wilde for the bazillionth time, “the man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for” (The Picture of Dorian Gray). If the rest of NG were equally hackneyed and unemotionally materialistic, I’d think Wilde’s quote perfectly applicable to whomever wrote the game. But I know otherwise, so I’ll let it go without penalty.
Now, having declaimed upon one facet of the game for four paragraphs, I unapologetically (the plot was what really sold the game, from my point of view) move on to discuss what is widely considered Ninja Gaiden’s salient influence on the gaming world -- the cinema scenes. Nothing of their kind had ever been attempted before the release of this game. Yet they were such a simple innovation that I imagine their unveiling inspired a chorus line of “why didn’t we think of that?” To avoid straying from the subject, I’ll forego spelling out the impact they had on the course of the industry, and just discuss them objectively. For one thing, the way in which Ryu’s face is animated is an achievement. His expressions clearly depict various emotions, as do those of the other characters to a lesser degree. The many faces are shaded well, and the characters’ mouths move when they speak. Additionally, this innovation enhanced the gaming medium’s potential for dramatic effect -- allowing the screen to highlight various things as they came under discussion, and withholding important information until specified moments (e.g. when the player realizes that a skeleton is holding a knife to Irene’s neck in the interchange after Act IV).
The action scenes are not quite so impressive, but far from terrible. The sprites are appealing enough, and the player’s surroundings are drawn quite nicely for the time. However, the isometric perspective is not implemented well, and as a result the backgrounds tend to encroach on the active area a bit. Nothing ever gets lost in them, per sé. They are just distracting at times; and in a game where precision jumping and projectile avoidance are of absolute necessity, distraction is one thing the player cannot afford. I suspect this could have been rectified if Tecmo had done something to curb the game’s frequent overuse of black, but that’s just a hypothesis. The action is so frenetic and up-tempo that one won’t have much time to worry about the game’s appearance anyway -- so it doesn’t make too huge of a difference.
Of necessity in a game with action this fast-paced is quickly responsive play control. Thankfully, the player is supplied with just that. Of course, as we’re dealing with the makers of Tecmo Super Bowl, that comes as little surprise, but it’s still damn pleasing. Ryu jumps, slashes, and invokes special maneuvers precisely on command. Moreover, pressing up and right/left at the same time does not stop him from running, meaning that the player can invoke one of the “Arts” without having to stop and attract enemies for several seconds.** His recoil, however, is ridiculous. Even if it weren’t accompanied by that annoying “bash” sound, it would still be a terrible pain -- especially when one considers the number of enemies that are on the screen at once, and how much of the game is waged over pits (those boxers snap like rattlesnakes, too.)
That never makes for the excessive challenge it potentially could have, though. True, the player gets knocked into quite a few chasms, and certain enemies (the hawks, and those damn leaping demons) do more damage than they probably should, but every level is patterned. Even at the game’s quick pace, one can figure out how to make it through the stages without taking an excess of hits (including 6-2, if you can believe that.) NG is tough, make no mistake, but the challenge is plotted in such a fair way that it is manageable -- unlike other games of this kind, in which there are too many enemies on the screen at once for the player to realistically avoid being massacred. Infinite continues further curtail the difficulty, though I don’t recommend using them like an unlimited lottery, hoping that on one lucky occasion your faulty strategy will work.
It threw me for a loop when I first looked around the NES scene and discovered almost unanimous adulation for this game’s soundtrack. The instruments always struck me as mundane, and when the pace of the action was coupled with the rather raucous sound effects, it was rendered fairly inaudible. As a result, I never paid much attention to it, casting it off as dry and unworkable. It took an experience of the tracks in MIDI format to redirect my sympathies, but I now realize the soundtrack’s somewhat uncommon value. Aside from being composed with subtle aptitude, most of the action songs quite deftly tell a story, charting the course of an adventure within an adventure. The cinema themes are not quite so narrative, but supplement the environments to near perfection. In both of these cases, however, variety in the instrumentation is somewhat scarce. Outside of the “Bazilisk Mine Field” song, the soundtrack features two instruments exclusively. What it does with those instruments is prevalent, though. Thus, I hardly hold that fact against NG.
In light of everything the game started and its general quality, I’m always rather surprised to think of how little direct progeny it has -- especially when Mega Man, a similarly influential but, in my view, objectively inferior game, has spawned more offsprings than John Tyler. Aside from its two NES sequels, a Game Boy game that is really plotted after Shadow of the Ninja, and a swarm of other republications and games that don’t continue its plot at all, Ninja Gaiden hasn’t exactly become a dot on the horizon. Part of this can be attributed to Tecmo’s brief commitment to the exclusive production of sports games (how many dressed-up versions of Tecmo Super Bowl did they expect people to buy, anyway?), but there was nothing keeping them from making another NG after that brief spell of insanity. Granted, this game’s contribution was one more of stylistic inspiration than its own potential to captivate (I don’t see why, though.) Without Ninja Gaiden, we would have neither modern-day FMV*** nor Vice: Project Doom nor countless other fine games. ...But we wouldn’t have been made to suffer through Astyanax, either; so I guess this is kind of a mixed blessing.
* Well, that’s not entirely true. A few games did have talking NPCs, though few to none of them added any ambiance (Zelda II and its umpteen people who say “Sorry, I know nothing.”)
** I should also say, though I’ve gotten used to it to the point of not caring, that you might be put off by the fact that you never know what Art you’re acquiring until you’ve acquired it.
*** Overrated as it is, it could probably have been a great contribution had the industry not been in shambles by the time it arrived.
Play Control: 7.5
Intangibles (innovation): +1
Analytic Score: 9.2
Personal Score: 9
Sammo Hung couldn't have done it better.
I guess all that alcohol had to take its toll on Norm Peterson at some point.
It took an expedition to find this place?
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