Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom
  • Genre:
    • Platformer
  • Developer:
    • Tecmo
  • Publisher:
    • Tecmo
  • Released:
    NES
    • JP 06/21/1991
    • US August 1991
    Lynx
    • US 1993
    • UK 1993
Score: 85%

This review was published on 02/05/2017.

Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom is a side-scrolling platform video game developed and published by Tecmo for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Famicom. It was originally released in Japan on June 21, 1991, and North America in August 1991. While the previous two NES games were released in Europe, this one strangely wasn't. The game was then ported to the Atari Lynx in North America and Europe in 1993. As its title suggests, this is the third entry in the Ninja Gaiden series on the NES, being the sequel to Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos. This is the final game in the NES trilogy. The first two Ninja Gaidens were designed by the creator of the series, Hideo Yoshizawa, but Masato Kato, who did the art and cut scenes for the previous games, took over the job of designing the third installment. As a result of that, Ninja Gaiden III has a slightly different feel to it, but it's still just as good as the previous two.

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Before the title screen has a chance to show up, you'll see one of Ninja Gaiden's trademarked cut scenes to fill you in on the story. First of all, this game is actually a prequel, because the events of its plot take place in between the first and second Ninja Gaiden games. During the first Ninja Gaiden, a male ninja named Ryu Hayabusa worked together with a female CIA agent named Irene Lew to take down an evil dude known as the Jaquio. At the end of that game, Foster, Irene's superior, ordered her to kill Ryu. Because she fell in love with Ryu, she was unable to do this, and the game ended on a cliffhanger. Ninja Gaiden III opens with Irene investigating a mysterious lab during a mission codenamed "Cardinal." Suddenly, a man who looks suspiciously like Ryu chases after her, and she falls off a cliff, presumably to her death. The real Ryu is then accused of Irene's murder, but insists that he was framed. Now Ryu goes to the laboratory Irene was investigating to do some investigating of his own. As usual, he'll encounter many dangers along the way.

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Those trademarked Ninja Gaiden cinematic sequences make a return for a third time, and they're even better than before. In between most major segments of the game, known as "Acts," there is usually an elaborate cut scene full of dramatic close-ups and different camera angles. The artwork for these scenes is truly impressive for the NES, being that it consists of large anime styled portraits and full body shots of the various characters, and occasionally sweeping backgrounds. At times, you may forget that you're watching an NES game. Character dialogue is clearly depicted via text within the black borders surrounding the screen, which is an effective use of space. The story itself is full of crazy plot twists like the last two games, but they're even crazier this time around. It's not the best written plot in the world, but the twists are sure to keep you on the edge of your seat. Some of the later cut scenes do drag on for a bit too long, but rest assured you can always skip them with a single button press.

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Again, you control the protagonist, Ryu, as he runs around being all ninja-like. He can run, crouch, jump, and swing his legendary Dragon Sword. This time, Ryu makes an audible grunt noise whenever he attacks, which is a nice touch. Like the first game, Ryu can cling to walls by jumping towards them, and like the second game, he's also able to climb up or down them. Previously, Ryu had to jump off one wall in order get on top of another, but now he can climb and jump all the way to the top of a single wall without using another. However, his biggest new ability is being able to hang off horizontal bars or bar-like objects, which he automatically does whenever he jumps beneath one. If you press the jump button while hanging off a bar, Ryu will climb on top of it. When standing on top of a bar, he can drop through it by holding down and pressing the jump button, and if down is let go at the right time, he'll hang off it again. While hanging off bars, Ryu can climb left or right freely. This is a really cool ability, as it further expands Ryu's movement options. Also, when climbing walls or bars, Ryu is limited to attacking with special weapons.

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On that note, special weapons return once again. Like vintage Castlevania, Ryu can obtain secondary weapons or abilities that are used by holding up and pressing the attack button. These special weapons are found within floating orbs scattered throughout the game, and this time, you can conveniently see what power-up or weapon is inside an orb before breaking it. While the regular throwing stars are missing, most of the good special weapons from the previous games make a return, like the Windmill Throwing Star that functions as a boomerang, the Fire Wheel spell that shoots a wheel of flame at an upward angle, the spell that shoots fireballs at a downward angle, and the temporary invincibility spell. However, there is one new special weapon in the form of the Vacuum Wave Art, which shoots a wave of energy above and below Ryu. Each of these special weapons use a varying amount of ammo, called Ninja Power, that's also found within orbs. Ryu's maximum Ninja Power capacity can be increased by rare scrolls hidden throughout the game. A new power-up was also added that increases Ryu's sword range, but the phantom clones from the second game have been removed.

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Acts usually consist of around two or three smaller linear stages, where Ryu must run through various enemies and hazards to reach the end. Graphically, things look flatter than the last two games, as the environments no longer have a slight tilt to give them illusory depth. However, everything generally looks better now, as the backgrounds, foregrounds, and sprites are far more detailed, and there's lots of parallax scrolling layers and even some nice lighting effects. The screen also scrolls vertically now when ascending tall areas. This game also has a killer soundtrack, just like the previous two titles. Thematically, Ninja Gaiden III explores some new environmental themes for the series, such as laboratories, deserts with quicksand, mechanized caves with rising magma, and even a spaceship. The enemies are now also mostly comprised of robots instead of demons. Surprisingly, unlike the previous games, slain enemies will stay dead, even if you scroll the screen back and forth. The game does make up for this by spamming tons of enemies, though. This slows down the game's pacing slightly, as retreating in between attacks is now advantageous, but that also makes things a bit more strategic.

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Despite enemies no longer respawning, this game is still fairly hard. The Japanese version of the game has unlimited continues, which the previous two games also had. Unlike the previous two games, however, it also had a password system. Unfortunately, the North American version gets rid of the password system, and for the first time in the series, gives you limited continues. You've got only five continues, to be exact. On top of that, you take more damage, power-ups and special weapons are scarcer, and dying always sends you to the beginning of the current stage. This means the North American version is substantially harder, often to the point of being frustratingly unfair. While the Japanese version of Ninja Gaiden III is the easiest game in the trilogy, the North American version is the hardest. Due to that, it's actually recommended that you play the Japanese version if possible, because it's far more balanced.

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In case you don't know, the Atari Lynx is a 16-bit handheld released by Atari in 1989. As mentioned, Ninja Gaiden III was ported to the Lynx for some odd reason. Somehow, this port is actually pretty faithful to the original game, at least as far as how the stages are laid out. However, while the cut scenes look surprisingly good, the in game graphics are awful, being that everything is squished together to fit the portable's smaller screen. It's very hard to see what's what, especially since the sprites for enemies and objects are a garbled mess. The music and sound effects also sound very bad, definitely not doing the original game justice. The positions of the attack and jump buttons were also swapped around, which while the least of this port's problems, certainly doesn't help. Unless you're absolutely desperate for the portability, there's no reason to play the Atari Lynx port of Ninja Gaiden III.

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The first Ninja Gaiden was a big hit when it came out in 1989, in part due to its revolutionary method of storytelling using elaborate cinematic sequences, but also because it had excellent action packed game play. Ninja Gaiden II extended that success by being even better. Ninja Gaiden III is the most polished game in the NES trilogy, though that doesn't necessarily make it the best. It makes a couple of mistakes, like the insanely high difficulty level of the North American version, but it's still a fantastic game that's about on par with the series' second entry. There's really no better way to end the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy than with Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom.

Word Count: 1,597

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