Ninja Gaiden
  • Genre:
    • Beat 'Em Up
  • Developers:
    • Tecmo
    • Blue Sky Software (Lynx)
  • Publishers:
    • Tecmo (Arcade)
    • Hi-Tech Expressions (DOS/IBM)
    • Ocean (C64/Amiga/CPC/ST/ZX)
    • Atari (Lynx)
  • Released:
    Arcade
    • US October 1988
    • UK 1988
    • JP February 1989
    DOS/IBM
    • US 1990
    C64
    • US 1990
    • UK 1990
    Amiga/CPC/ST/ZX
    • UK 1990
    Lynx
    • US 1991
Score: 70%

This review was published on 02/10/2017.

Ninja Gaiden is a side-scrolling brawler video game developed and published by Tecmo for the arcade and various other platforms. The arcade version was originally released in North America in October 1988, Europe in 1988, and Japan in February 1989. In 1990, the game was released under the title of Shadow Warriors by Ocean Software for the Commodore 64, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, and ZX Spectrum. The Commodore 64 version also came out in North America that same year. The game was also released by Hi-Tech Expressions for DOS and IBM PCs in North America in 1990. Lastly, Blue Sky Software developed a port of the game for the Atari Lynx handheld that was published by Atari in North America in 1991. Despite sharing the same title as the first Ninja Gaiden for the Nintendo Entertainment System, this is an entirely different game. It also came first, as the NES Ninja Gaiden was released in 1989. Even though arcade hardware was way more advanced than the NES at the time, the NES Ninja Gaiden is far superior to the arcade one.

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During the 1980s, ninjas were extremely popular in North America. Due to that, a ton of ninja related media was created for the North American market, like the Enter the Ninja movie in 1981, and an arcade game released in 1987 by Sega called Shinobi. This period in history is when the obscure Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic became a highly successful franchise that spawned toys, an animated television show, and video games. Ninjas did have a negative stigma in Europe, though, hence why Ninja Gaiden was renamed to Shadow Warriors over there. The late 1980s also saw the release of the Double Dragon arcade game in 1987, which was one of the first successful side-scrolling brawlers, otherwise known as beat 'em ups. After the success of Double Dragon, beat 'em ups became very popular, and many developers exploited that popularity by making countless clones. Tecmo sought to exploit the popularity of both of those concepts, ninjas and beat 'em ups, by putting them both in an arcade game known as Ninja Gaiden.

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Gaiden is a Japanese word that roughly translates to "side story," which is generally in reference to spinoffs or materials that don't relate to the main canon of a story. Despite that, Ninja Gaiden isn't a spinoff or side story to anything, but the development staff named it as such for American audiences "because it sounded cool." Speaking of stories, the story to this game is that there's an evil cult doing some evil things in America. The cult is led by a man named Bladedamus, who is an ancestor of Nostradamus. If you don't know much about history, Nostradamus is a real life historical figure from the 1500s who allegedly prophesied various events, such as the end of the world. We're still waiting to see if that last one will turn out to be true. Anyway, the fictional Bladedamus wants to make Nostradamus' end of the world prophecies come true, by ending the world himself. Two nameless ninjas, one wearing blue and another clad in red, were hired from Japan to assassinate Bladedamus in America. That's where you come in.

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This game can either be played solo or cooperatively with a friend, and the first player controls the blue ninja while the second player controls the red one. Each player uses a joystick for free movement in all eight directions and one button for attacking and another button for jumping. If you press the attack button repeatedly, you'll do a basic three hit combo. Pressing the attack button while jumping over an enemy will cause you to do a neat guillotine throw attack. Your ninja will also nimbly run up walls and back flip away when you go near one. This is all pretty standard for the time, but one unique thing was how the joysticks had a single button on top of them that you pressed to make your ninja grab onto horizontal bars and other bar-like objects. While holding onto a bar-like thing, you're able to swing from the bar or kick nearby enemies. You'll also occasionally find power-ups, like life restoring pills and a sword that temporarily increases your range and damage output. Unfortunately, like most beat 'em ups of the time, the three hit combo is what you'll be using for most of the game.

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Enemies tend to be the primary focus of most beat 'em ups, and that's no different here. There are guys with Jason styled hockey masks, dual baton wielding men, barehanded martial artists, fat men wielding giant logs, ninjas, samurais with spears, motorcycle riders, silly guys in tiny helicopters, and stretchy dudes in the water. The hockey masked men are the most prominent enemy in the game, though. I guess the hockey mask is part of the cult's official attire or something. Bosses also appear at the conclusion of each stage, and they include sumo wrestlers, regular wrestlers, and three clawed men that initially pretend to be a giant man concealed under a cape. The enemies and bosses are all cool, but this game still suffers from a problem that plagues most beat 'em ups: lack of enemy variety. The same few enemies get recycled all throughout the game, albeit with different colors. Even the bosses get recycled. What's worse, you encounter nearly all the enemies the game has to offer at the opening stage, so the repetition starts early. Also, enemies are much harder in the North American and European versions of the game, as they do far more damage.

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These graphics were amazing in 1988, completely blowing most home consoles away at the time. That shouldn't come as a surprise, though, as arcade games were always ahead of consoles in technology. The stages are quite varied in their visual themes, featuring many famous real world cities and locations from America, such as San Francisco, Brooklyn, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon. Unlike many beat 'em ups of the time, stages automatically scroll forward, so you can't stay in one place for too long. The environments aren't purely there for looks, either, though they certainly do look good. Many objects in the environment are destructible, like signs, phone booths, barrels, and the like. Usually, environmental destruction is the result of enemies being knocked into stuff, or you being knocked into stuff. This adds an element of thrill to the game, plus power-ups sometime pop out of broken objects. Additionally, some stages have hazards you must avoid, like cars in busy streets, floating casino bumpers, and bottomless pits.

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Like mentioned earlier, the game was ported to lots of platforms. The original arcade game is obviously the best version, but it's not exactly the most accessible. None of the other ports are particularly accessible, either, though. Of all the ports, the one closest to the original is the Amiga version. It's the only one to keep the cooperative play, and it keeps most of the graphics intact, though it has smaller sprites, fewer colors, and some animations were removed. There are also fewer enemies, so you fight more hockey masked men. Limited continues and no checkpoints also make this version much harder. The Atari ST version is nearly identical to the Amiga port, but it has a black info bar to the left side of the screen, lacks screen scrolling, and the music is vastly different. All the other ports aren't even worth mentioning, let alone playing, because they're absolute trash.

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While the Ninja Gaiden on the NES is an absolute classic, the arcade one is simply okay. It's not great, but not terrible, either. Outside the impressive graphics and decent music, what sets this apart from most brawlers of the time is the stage design. The flashy environmental destruction is satisfying, and the hazards help alleviate some of the repetition. There is certainly still repetition, though, as you'll be using the same three hit combo on the same few enemy types and bosses for the whole thing. If you play with a friend, then it can provide some casual entertainment for a short time, but don't expect too much.

Word Count: 1,390

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