Ninja Gaiden (Arcade) review
"Tecmo made a Double Dragon type game, where the screen scrolled sideways and you could walk up into the background, and added some interesting spices. The result is the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden. Fans of the NES series will find things dreadfully amiss here, (where's the wall climbing, the swordplay, the magic?) and no doubt immediately consider this much different coin-op to be inferior. It is, actually. But not by as much as you'd think. "
I used to love this game. No, really. I would play it in the arcades, and spend what little hard-earned coin I had on it during fleeting lunch breaks. I never considered just how difficult it was, not then. I just played until the quarters ran out. Sometimes our Ninja Gaiden fan club of sorts would do a little trick. We would enlist a spare player, someone not good enough (or popular enough) to be on our Ninja Gaiden starting line-up, to play and keep things going just long enough for us core players to get another handful of quarters from the aged clerk at the counter. Then we would rejoin just as the rookie left our legacy threatened on the cryptic ''game over'' screen. The falling coins would stop the falling blade just in time; the excitement was paramount.
Fast forward to the present day, and things are quite different. There are no Ninja Gaiden machines anywhere to be found in my forsaken area. The arcades are inundated with wall-to-wall smartly dressed 3D clones of Street Fighter and Outrun. Lest I sound a little too tearfully nostalgic, I will admit freely that the blue ninja’s gaiden, or mission, is not as engaging as it once was.
Tecmo made a Double Dragon type game, where the screen scrolled sideways and you could walk up into the background, and added some interesting spices. The result is the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden. Fans of the NES series will find things dreadfully amiss here, (where's the wall climbing, the swordplay, the magic?) and no doubt immediately consider this much different coin-op to be inferior. It is, actually. But not by as much as you'd think.
This beat 'em up has got so much going for it in the personality department, it’s natural to want to ignore the fundamental shortcomings. I have managed to stay strong, in an effort to present you with the bottom line untainted by emotion: the game is extremely, unfairly difficult. It is a quarter muncher in every sense of the term. You don’t finish this game, you survive it. You sustain your onscreen character through sheer will and coinage.
Skill is completely secondary. The skills that are necessary for success are very similar to Double Dragon, or even better - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game. There are generally two keys to success to abide by. The first, is to constantly circle with your character, always maneuvering so that there is rarely anyone behind you. If you move quickly enough, and often enough, you can always manage to get that straggler from behind you to meet you head on.
The second technique is no less important. When facing off with enemies - this is essential with stronger foes - you should always try to position your character slightly below or above the adversary. Then begin pounding that attack button. The enemy will come down - or up - to meet you, and unluckily for them, your fist or feet in the process. In Double Dragon and many of its antecedents, these techniques, when executed adeptly, could see you through the game with few losses to your man count incurred. The reality in Ninja Gaiden is much, much different.
The game is dangerously close to falling into the disposable title category, but evades this pitfall by the slightest of margins. It is feasible to play a good game with a considerable helping of luck and make it through by expenditure of a handful of continues. But the ''I cleared Ninja Gaiden on one man!'' chant doesn’t seem likely anytime soon for the average gamer, while it was quite likely for the difficult, but skilled technique-laden NES version. Let’s observe what enemies and hazards await the player that create such a relentless difficulty.
Your blue-clad ninja can be joined by his twin in orange, should you manage to find a friend worthy of accompanying you. Then there are the ninjas who look just like the two of you; only the colour of their garb differentiates them. The colour treatment is often given to action game bad guys, but it comes off less on the lame side here, and leans more toward the cool side.
Other enemies include a gargantuan wrestling tag team, an appropriately massive Sumo, thugs toting hockey sticks (no more joiners!) and fat men bearing tree trunks. More weirdness ahead: iron masked men with claws leap around with unfair litheness. Mermen surge from beneath murky waters as you swing from branch to branch in the trees overhead. Bikers attempt to make you roadkill, but you're quicker, and manage to neck throw (yes, neck throw, more on that later) one of them right off the bike and into a telephone booth, yielding a time extension power up. Jason look-alikes, complete with hockey masks a la Jacques Plante, attack you in swarms in the streets early on, and more memorably, by the railroad tracks later in the game. This creativity bordering on the esoteric is what makes the game so irresistible for many gamers.
Regrettably, most of these same enemy characters are able to perform a most frustrating 'interrupt attack'. They interrupt your attack, with one of their own. This is easily the worst thing about Ninja Gaiden. The 'interrupts.' They were prevalent in the Double Dragon games, but not to this degree!
Here’s how it starts: you start your sequence of attacks by pounding on the attack button. Rapid punches and roundhouse kicks ensue. You are clever, because you are using key technique number two, and waited for the assailant’s arrival on 'your level'. But even this key move does not alleviate what can only be described as a interruption of retaliatory action from even the feeblest of enemies. A straightforward punch will serve as an adequate interjection from even the Jasons, and unlike Double Dragon, you cannot recover. Once they’ve gotten a shot in, it’s curtains.
This combat failing leads the player to try to master the other, more impressive looking and more difficult to pull off technique. It is an throw - a neck throw. It’s both awe-inspiring and unique when you first see your ninja cartwheel by an enemy, head-locking him and tossing him en route. However, during encirclements by gangs of hoods, it is not very practical.
Now you might be forming an idea of how frustrating it can be to play such a fun looking game, with the option to bring a friend along, and tackle amazingly unique foes in equally amazingly unique places, and get stuck with fighting flaws that threaten to ruin everything.
Fortunately, they don’t. But that is more of a testament to the excellent atmosphere that Tecmo packed into the game than anything else. A unique, powerful soundtrack featuring tunes you'll remember for years to come, and competent, well-realized hand drawings of all the weirdness will draw you in if you give Ninja Gaiden a chance. If you expect the NES version you will be sorely disappointed. If you've got a few quarters and expect to get by on your sharp platformer skills, you will be frustrated. But play Ninja Gaiden with a suitcase full of money at your feet and feel enormously grateful.
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 17, 2003)
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