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Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom (NES) artwork

Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom (NES) review

"DISCLAIMER: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game, which is much more lenient than the American one. Differences include enemies inflicting less damage, more lenient re-spawns after you die, more reasonable enemy and power-up placement, infinite continues, and a password system. Since the text is Japanese, I don’t have to waste time on the hack video game storytelling, which no doubt consisted of dialogue like “Hurry!”, “What’s going on?” and “We must continue to fight for ..."

DISCLAIMER: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game, which is much more lenient than the American one. Differences include enemies inflicting less damage, more lenient re-spawns after you die, more reasonable enemy and power-up placement, infinite continues, and a password system. Since the text is Japanese, I don’t have to waste time on the hack video game storytelling, which no doubt consisted of dialogue like “Hurry!”, “What’s going on?” and “We must continue to fight for peace!” By the way, this is the version you want to play, but I suppose you kind of guessed that.

Here is a moment I dreaded, the time I would have to subject myself to a third “Ninja Gaiden” outing as Ryu Hayabusa. I braced myself for frustration, for boorish, re-spawning enemies being thrown in waves at me. Bring on the birds and 30-story drops, I thought. “Ninja Gaiden II” brought gimmicks like wind gusts and pitch-blackness to add to the frustration. What would part three bring to the table? Having to balance books while leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper, constantly hounded by flying penguins wearing football helmets? Jumping in and out of an electrified pool, while swamp things fired homing missiles at me?

As it turns out, “Ninja Gaiden III” does not live up to the legacy of the series. It is a “black sheep” in its franchise, shunned by the fanboys who wasted hours of their lives in devotion to the first two games. But when your legacy is the bottom of the barrel in video game entertainment, not living up to it is a very good thing. Actually, it’s a great thing.

This is an older, wiser “Ninja Gaiden”. It has shunned the childish ways of its overrated predecessors and embraced a code of discipline. It doesn’t blindly throw obstacles and opponents at us. Instead, it adopts tactics of escalation. In its easier, early levels, we get hooked on the sheer visceral action. By the time that we reach the gauntlet that is the final stage, we’ve eased into the challenge. But even at this point, at its most brutal, “Ninja Gaiden III” is reasonable. Take the final boss, which has the usual multiple forms, each one a revelation. The game could easily force us to fight them back-to-back again every time we lose, but it realizes what a beast it’s throwing at us. Once we defeat a form, we never have to fight it again, even if we get Game Over and continue.

Maybe that example applied to the other “Ninja Gaiden” games. I don’t know, because I never made it to the end of them. I did make it to the end of this one, because I could find the motivation. It’s all in the details. The disposable power-ups from before, which never registered due to their slipping in and out of my fingers, are actually critical this time. A key difference is that you can see through the red orbs and glimpse what’s inside. To our astonishment, a tactical element is added to this brainless “run and slash” format. Hayabusa’s ninja magic is much stronger, some of them being able to wipe out half a screen of enemies if positioned and aimed properly. There’s a burst of flames shot upward, a wave of fiery orbs that descend to targets below, a shield, two vacuums that guard you from the top and bottom, and the ever-dependable throwing star. Each has its advantages, both in general and in specific situations, and certain decisions in item placement by the level designers suggests they’re aware of the latter.

Remember those useless “ninja clones” in the second game? Did anyone really think they were nifty? Part three didn’t, so it eschews them for something much better: a sword power-up. It’s kind of like the whip system in “Castlevania”, extending the range of your attack, except you only to need collect one. It’s one of those things that once you experience it you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it, and how you’ll make due if you lose it.

There is a recurring theme in the stages and enemy design, which is industrial cyber-punk with a dash of biological-horror. Incredibly, there is not a single bird to be found, although there are floating probes that make for much larger and more credible targets. There are ninjas, gunner machines, charging mutants, soldiers, laser droids, missile-equipped probes, probes that creep up on you, and an assortment of insects and bio-mutants. I suppose the enemies have the same simple programming as before, but there seems to be a larger variety in their functions. The developers also make the brave decision of eliminating re-spawns once and for all. Instead of just tossing an assortment of meandering goofballs, charging drones and aerial pests at us, the level designers approach everthing like a chess game: each pawn has an ability, and they’re played according to the possibilities of the stage layout.

The levels lack the lamentable gimmicks of “Ninja Gaiden II”, opting to go the route of good old-fashioned stage design. The stops are really cool: deserts, volcanoes, factories, swamps, a fortress of guts and flesh. There are sheer perils in the form of rising magma, retracting spikes lined horizontally and vertically, and crumbling footholds. We sometimes find ourselves having to leap up to avoid being swallowed by the floor beneath us, or working with or against a current that we’re submerged to our waists in. The bosses are all winners, even the first one. They don’t rely on girth, but cunning: blocking our attacks with shields, hovering about, splitting in two, burrowing underground and counter-attacking.

Whether it’s the pawns it throws at us or the changing conditions from level-to-level, “Ninja Gaiden III” hits every note perfectly. It chooses not to throw its lot with brainless action, but to have the confidence to go beyond that, to pair the visceral with an element of judgment. Before, Tecmo was on auto-pilot. This time we can feel the gears turning, theirs and ours.

Rating: 10/10

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Community review by joseph_valencia (July 07, 2009)

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zigfried posted July 07, 2009:

Really good point about the improved fairness factor. In the first Ninja Gaiden, if you lose to one of the final boss's forms, you have to not only fight all of the bosses again, but you have to repeat the entire previous two stages. That was one of my big gripes about the first game, even as a blindly devoted child.

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zippdementia posted July 07, 2009:

I played the American version. Hardest video game ever. I don't care how many contras you've beaten, you'll never beat the American version of Ninja Gaiden III. We played with infinite health and lives and still it took us hours.
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randxian posted July 08, 2009:

Can't be any worse than Ghosts and Goblins. It takes several tries to get past the first red devil in the first level. That's halfway through the first level in the game.

At least you can progress a ways in Ninja Gaiden 3 before it knocks you on your ass.

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