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Ninja Gaiden (NES) artwork

Ninja Gaiden (NES) review

"Before Sekiro, we were screaming at some other ninja-themed game..."

Way back, I might've recommended a quarter to half of the NES library with confidence. However, over the years, I've whittled that list down to a cool dozen or so. And as my recommendations dwindle, another list composed of games I absolutely loved at one time slowly grows. I call this category "play with caution," because these titles still boast some wonderful content, but at some weighty expense. Maybe you have to sacrifice bits of your sanity or health, or perhaps you'll have to endure some nonsense that ultimately hampers the experience as a whole. In some cases, as with Ninja Gaiden, it's a little bit of both scenarios...

Don't get me wrong; I still love a substantial portion of developer Tecmo's ninja platformer. The first few stages take you through action-packed sequences, where you hack up the most random assortment of henchmen ever assembled: boxers, sword jugglers, mechanical turrets, machete-wielding masked men, knife-throwing druids, armored cats, monsters whose heads resemble toothy potatoes, plus several types of mercenaries. All of them fall with graceful swipes of your sword, exploding into nondescript splashes of pixel.

Few of your foes require more than a simple stab, too. With proper timing, experimentation and daring, you can eliminate most of your opponents quickly and move onward without taking damage. This allows the action to flow quickly, maintaining a solid pace throughout this six-level campaign. Sometimes, though, your sword can't hack it (pun kind of intended), because it only extends about two feet in front of you. During such situations, ranged sub-weapons, a la Castlevania, do the trick. A lone sword thrower perched on a tiny platform in the middle of a killing gorge is no match for a well-placed shuriken or a rising burst of flames, plus it's wiser to hit him from afar than to try to jump at him and hope he doesn't smack you into the pit below.

Ninja Gaiden screenshotNinja Gaiden screenshot

You'll feel like a professional after the first stage or so, as you slice through simple obstacle courses and dumb marauders without much trouble, maybe perishing a couple of times. However, this game is an unforgiving bastard. In response to your shenanigans, it throws a wrench into your cogs, then a few other tools, and finally the whole toolbox for good measure. The nightmare begins when you encounter tight platforms more frequently, not to mention foes who pop out of the side of the screen unexpectedly. Sometimes you don't realize one's coming until its already knocked you back into a pit.

Believe me, it only gets worse. You'll navigate numerous areas where enemies appear all over, granting you little breathing space. Worse yet, stage designs prevent you from taking some of them out efficiently. You'll find plenty of them waiting on top of huge structures or positioned in out of reach spaces, where they can easily shoot at you without fear of reprisal. Other times, you'll run afoul of a floating platform sitting right at the very edge of the screen, guarded by a simple fiend. You try to lob sub-weapon to deal with that pest, only to see it respawn before your very eyes. Yes, adversaries hanging out on the very right side of the screen come right back when you kill them, leaving you no choice to perfectly time a jump-slash combo with your fingers tightly crossed.

Out of nothing but hatred and malice, the game has one last, horrible trick in store for you: birds. These winged pricks flap in at tricky angles and slam into you. After they're done slamming into you, they shift directions and repeat the process until they either batter you to a pulp or throw you off a cliff. The only way to deal with them is precision, which doesn't exactly jibe with their erratic behavior. And yeah, if a bird's spawning point is too close to the right, expect him to come soaring back into your personal space after you kill him.

Ninja Gaiden screenshotNinja Gaiden screenshot

Yet, despite those above gripes, most of the adventure remains exhilarating. The stiff challenge factor combined with simple mechanics not only provide addictive mayhem, but scenes that require quick reflexes and problem solving to overcome. With practice, you even become good enough to play through a stage via muscle memory. Hell, you might even learn to roll with all of the stiff punches and land a few haymakers of your own. Granted, you'll die a lot, but continues are infinite. All you need to do is hone your skills, and before you know it you're fighting Bloody Malth at the end of stage five.

Then level 6-2 happens...

Somewhere in Hell, there are people huddled around numerous televisions, forever playing level 6-2 in an endless loop. It all starts off fairly reasonable, until you reach an area where numerous jetpack-donning dudes rain shurikens down on you. If one star nails you, then so will several others. If you survive that mess, you get to move on to a segment where you navigate several platforms positioned above a ravine. A rogue in a green cloak chases you to the end of one platform, where several birds and bats emerge to pulverize you. You could try to leap to the next platform, except a robed swordsman waits there, lobbing blades in a lazy arc. If you manage to clear that without dying of an aneurysm, you're pretty much golden.

Still, the main issue with 6-2 is that the most difficult areas ridiculously spam enemies. A few of those segments are unreasonable, even if they are doable. More than anything, the veritable orgy you face on the floating platforms serves more to frustrate than to challenge, and comes off as mean spirited rather than clever.

After hours of playing through 6-2 and regularly checking my blood pressure to make sure I wasn't going to legit die, I finally reached 6-3. It's a more than doable sub-level that ends with an encounter with the final boss. Having never fought this guy, I didn't know what to expect. Despite my best efforts, I ended up losing all of my lives. I thought this would be no biggie, because the worst was behind me. I'd just respawn at 6-3, blast through all that nonsense and give the antagonist the thrashing of his life.

I respawned at 6-1.

Ninja Gaiden screenshotNinja Gaiden screenshot

I stared at the screen in utter disbelief for probably five minutes. When I did move, I got up and silently shut the game off, never playing it again.

There's no reason you should have to restart that far back, especially since 6-2 presents such a steep, ridiculous challenge. It's unfortunate when a game as technically solid as Ninja Gaiden descends into nonsense, but it happens. If the first eighty or so percent weren't so awesome, I would never recommend it. However, it remains on my "play with caution" list, because almost everything leading up to the sixth stage is still worth experiencing. Advance beyond that and you're asking for heartache.

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Featured community review by JoeTheDestroyer (August 30, 2019)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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overdrive posted August 30, 2019:

I liked the theme of this review, where you start out by talking about how the list of NES games you would recommend to others has fallen dramatically over the years and then showed just why that happens with your review of this game -- one that I remember fondly through those "25-30 years ago rose-colored glasses".

How the game gets utterly sadistic at the very end is probably the main issue with those old NES games and why they haven't aged well. Can't count how many fun games I've played on that system that get marred a bit in my mind because at the end, the challenge level goes from "tough, but doable" to "WHATTHEFUCKISTHIS!!!!!!"

And this one is no different in that regards. Added degrees of difficulty PLUS changing the game-long method of where you respawn after death to make you have to go back a couple levels is just evil. Reminds me of Ironsword, where after reaching a certain point in the game, you suddenly stop being allowed to continue after death and have to use the last password to clear a good amount of terrain again. At times it feels like designers were of the mindset that since the game costs $50 or so and they are fairly short, they might as well make them near-impossible to complete.
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Masters posted August 30, 2019:

The thing is, NG is hard, but fair, and it's got unlimited continues, and the blueprint is out on how to get through it. It's aged remarkably well, I'd say. I replayed it maybe two months ago and flew through to the last level. And then that bullshit at the end rears its head.

Save states for the win, I guess.
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CptRetroBlue posted August 30, 2019:

Ninja Gaiden is as brutal as it is amazing. No matter how many times you pull your hair at its brutal difficulty you come back to play once more. It is quite a guilty pleasure of mine.

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