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Ninja Gaiden (NES) artwork

Ninja Gaiden (NES) review

"There are moments that define your video gaming career. The first time you play a game in an arcade. The first console that you ever own. The first time you complete a game. And, for many veterans of the NES days, the first time you beat Shadow Warriors: Ninja Gaiden (or just plain Ninja Gaiden as it's known outside of Europe). Those who weren't there can't possibly understand what it was like.... playing through those last few levels.... it was harsh. Sometimes, at night, I still wake up scream..."

There are moments that define your video gaming career. The first time you play a game in an arcade. The first console that you ever own. The first time you complete a game. And, for many veterans of the NES days, the first time you beat Shadow Warriors: Ninja Gaiden (or just plain Ninja Gaiden as it's known outside of Europe). Those who weren't there can't possibly understand what it was like.... playing through those last few levels.... it was harsh. Sometimes, at night, I still wake up screaming..... screaming........ screaming................

It's hard to believe that this game celebrates it's fifteenth anniversary this year. It seems like just yesterday that I first picked up the game (admittedly I didn't get the game when it first came out - I got it second hand in 1994, but it's still a fair few years ago, and I'm trying to set the scene here). I had seen the game in a local shop, and become transfixed by the image of the menacing looking Ninja who almost seemed to be jumping out of the front cover. Although my understanding of the world was limited back then, since I had only just turned eleven, after all, I still knew a basic truth: Ninjas are rad. Over the next few weeks I saved up my pocket money, and eventually had enough to send my mother to pick up the game. It was Friday - I had the weekend ahead of me, and the promise of a new game to spend it on. I duly invited one of my friends to stay over, and we spent the majority of the weekend playing the game. Despite the fact that by the Saturday we were well and truly hooked, and stayed up playing until we were literally on the brink of falling asleep at the wheel, so to speak, we never really got very far. It was with this game that I discovered what true difficulty is. And it was with this game that I discovered I that I liked it.....

The game tells the tale of young Ryu Hayabusa. When Ryu hears that his Ninja father, Ken, has been killed in a duel in America, he heads to the States for some answers: why did his father fight, and more importantly, who killed him. What begins as a simple quest for vengeance soon becomes much more intriguing, however, and before too long, Ryu finds himself a central figure in an ancient battle between good and evil. A dormant power is awakening, and if it is to be stopped, Ryu must take up the sword of his family, and prepare to do battle.....

The plot for Shadow Warriors is astonishingly strong, especially considering the sort of storytelling generally seen in other action / platformers of the era. What stands out is not only the very strong set up that this game presents via an impressively-animated intro sequence, but the fact that the plot is maintained throughout the game. Numerous cut-scenes are employed as the game guides you through a twisting, complex plot that manages not only to draw you in and get you hooked, but also to throw up some genuine surprises: I spent the last few cut-scenes of the game (when I finally reached them that is) with a sense of utter shock - there are some moments in the plot that are so unexpected that they literally turn the whole tale on it's head and make you question just what you do know about proceedings, and it is all the better for it.

But a strong plot, no matter how well conveyed, is nothing without the gameplay to do it justice. Thankfully, Shadow Warriors delivers in this regard, too. The game provides a winning combination of platform action and all out sword-slashing combat. Playing as Ryu, you must run and jump around the various stages (climbing ladders where you feel it appropriate), and take out the various enemies who attack you - ranging from no good street punks to butch commando types.... even the innocent bird-life is made to suffer at the edge of Ryu's blade. The game takes you through a wide variety of locales on your quest to kick some arse - from back-alleys and bars to southern swamplands; from snow-covered mountain tops to temple ruins, there is a great sense of globetrotting on display here. Despite the great plot and varied locations, however, it would be rather easy for this game to become merely another action platformer. But this game truly stands out against pretty much every other game of this ilk, due largely to it's insane difficulty level.

Despite the fact that this game grants you infinite continues, this stands out as one of the most genuinely challenging games out there. The first few levels aren't too bad, considering, but by the time you reach the third 'act' (the game is broken down into six acts, each with a varying number of levels) you'll be ready to scream at your television. The reason for such difficulty is due solely to the pixel-perfect level design that Tecmo have created here - the further you get the more precise the jumps become. The enemies are always placed in just the right location so as you can dispatch them, but it's going to require every ounce of skill and timing at your disposal. Coming across a stupidly small platform that you must jump onto, occupied by an enemy half as wide as the platform itself, who is walking back and forth at quite a speed is not uncommon in this game. So often you'll make a jump, before a bird appears out of nowhere and flies into you at breakneck pace, knocking you into the abyss. All too regularly you'll stare at the screen, utterly convinced that the latest pit you're facing is just too damn wide to clear. And literally never have I faced anything as inconceivably challenging as the last act of the game, where following three levels of the most difficult platforming action you're likely to see on the system comes a trio of deadly bosses. Let a boss defeat you and you begin again at the very start of the act.... at times it seems as if beating the game really is not possible. And yet the appeal is in the fact that you know it must be possible; never have I felt so compelled to keep playing through a game just to spite the developers. The difficulty is in many ways what makes this game so compelling. The generally jumping and fighting thing has been done before, and it's been done well. As such it's the extreme difficulty level that really gives the game it's identity.

It isn't just the challenge that Shadow Warriors has in it's favour, though. Ryu handles extremely well. He is an agile little chap, all things considered, and is capable of some rather smooth moves. As well as being a very quick character (as all Ninjas should be) he is blessed with a wall-climbing ability that comes in extremely useful. It is possible to latch on to a wall that is in your way, and then launch yourself off of the wall again. With a little practice you can use this to climb most of the walls in the game (and it can also provide a useful get-out clause if you drop into a pit - provided your reactions are fast enough...). What is impressive is just how smoothly this move has been put to use. A common complaint with moves such as this is that you can end up sticking to walls when you really don't want to, and this can hamper your progress. However, due largely to the clever design, there aren't many areas in this game where you could be faced with such a problem - for the most part you only reach walls when climbing would be of an advantage to you, which is thoughtful.

As difficult as Tecmo may have tried to make things, there are items scattered throughout the levels that are designed to actually help you in your quest. By smashing light-bulbs, candlesticks and other such items that adorn the walls of the various stages that you visit, you can collect various icons that give you action points. Various sub-weapons can be collected, the use of which costs you different amounts of these points. Some of the sub-weapons are very useful, such as the jumping spin attack (utterly priceless as it allows you to dispatch and enemies that may be lurking on platforms that you are jumping too), while some are a pain, such as the one that grants you a shield of fire for a few seconds, but then leaves you with a severely reduced number of action points, and without a sub weapon to use... Each and every sub weapon has different qualities that makes them invaluable for different situations. As such, deciding whether to drop the weapon you are carrying in order to collect another becomes a big decision. The presence of these weapons greatly adds to the experience, as not only does the right weapon present a possible solution to whatever section may be causing you trouble, but it also serves to prevent monotony from sinking in - since you're likely to be playing this game for some time, it's good that they've given you more than just the standard sword attack to play with.

Graphically this game is above average. The various locations are presented very well; from the neon signs on the city streets to the candlelit caverns that you visit during the game, every area looks lovely, and is afforded a rather gritty look that compliments the feel of the game very well. What's more, the cut-scenes are on the whole very impressive - while the attempts to make it seem that people are running - presented on screen by a pair of pumping legs with moving white lines in the background to signify the landscape rushing by - are somewhat less than successful, the faces that are on display are extremely well presented - you can actually see the emotion on these people's faces, and that really helps to make you feel involved in the plot. Several other graphical touches manage to impress during the game, such as the way the scene 'fades in' at the start of a level, which adds to the cinematic atmosphere of the game no end. However, the character design as you actually play is a little dodgy. Although it's clear who's who, and what the enemies are supposed to be, the characters are rather small on screen, and Ryu has a very faded look about his general colour-scheme, which is a little odd ad first.

The music, though, is exceptional. Every single song that plays in this game is seeped in atmosphere: the tune that greets us at the start of the game, when you first meet Ryu as he learns of his Father's fateful duel is simple, yet full of sadness. From there, when play commences and you take control of Ryu, a much more rousing number kicks in, and rightly so - the action is kicking off, and the music represents that very well. Ultimately, this is one of the better sounding games on the NES. It's not up to the standards that Capcom set with their Mega Man games, but it does come quite close.

Ultimately, though, this is a game that is destined to be remembered for it's maddening difficulty more than anything else. This may well put some people off, but I found it to be an enticing aspect of the game. The feeling of satisfaction that is afforded when you finally beat this game is undeniable, and is one that you'll never forget. Buy it. If nothing else, just so that you can play the last few levels, and understand what other Shadow Warriors players mean when they say that they were there.......

tomclark's avatar
Community review by tomclark (February 02, 2004)

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