While I’ve spend a considerable amount of time with the various incarnations of 3D Ninja Gaiden, the upcoming release of the 1989 Ninja Gaiden on 3DS’s virtual console is my first experience with the classic series.
To my surprise, I think I like 2D Ninja Gaiden more than 3D.
Given the somewhat poorly-conveyed story in the modern series, I was surprised to see how heavily the original Ninja Gaiden focused on storytelling. In between each level are these well-drawn motion-comic-y cutscenes. While not completely well-translated, they’re entertaining and remarkably impressive for 1989. It’s a pretty basic story, full of demon resurrection, inept CIA agents, and revenge; but between the fantastic music and careful use of the limited animation, I found them more effective they are than anything that the 2004-and onward Ninja Gaidens have done.
That said, all the cutscenes in the world wouldn’t matter if the game wasn’t fun to play. In a lot of ways, Ninja Gaiden’s skeleton reminds me of Castlevania’s. Instead of destroying candles to find hearts and sub-weapons that cost hearts to use, Ryu destroys lanterns (or stationary birds or bugs or whatever fits the theme of the level) to gain ninpo or a sub weapon that costs ninpo to use (both games assign use of the subweapon to Up and B, too).
After that point, however, the Castlevania comparison falls apart because Ninja Gaiden is fast.
When I say Ninja Gaiden is fast, I mean it’s fast. Practically every non-boss enemy you come across takes a single hit to kill. You can even cut through enemy projectiles if you time it right. You can’t move while slashing, but if your spacing is right, you never have to stay in one place for too long. The game also has a tendency to place rather helpful sub-weapons in each lantern, so you’ll often have the right tool for each job. Shuriken for ranged enemies, fire for diagonal ones, and the jumping spinning slash for when you need to clear a platform below you. It’s well-balanced, but it’s not an easy game by any means.
Ninja Gaiden is quite a bit different from your typical platformer. For one thing, Ryu has the ability to cling to walls. Simply jump at a wall and he’ll stick to it. This isn’t that useful on its own, but should you be between two pillars, you can hop from pillar to pillar and ascend. Because of this, a lot of stages have two layers of platforms. The ground layer might be a bit safer, but the upper layer might have more breakables to get health, ninpo, and subweapons from. It’s cool to see the mechanic used in more than just the mandatory “YOU NEED TO DO THIS TO CONTINUE” way.
There’s a rather sadistic design philosophy behind it, too. The game likes to throw a lot of enemies at you at once, particularly when you have a challenging bit of platforming to do. For instance, one particular jump seemed simple enough to do. I was quite a bit higher up than the bit of land I had to jump onto, but I had three enemies in my way.
The first was a cheetah or wolf or… something on all fours (the sprite’s not really that clear), which would come at me from behind. I seemed to be in exactly the right spot so that whenever I turned around to slice it I’d be moved back to the exact spot it needed to respawn, so I’d inch forward and another one would come running out. On the platform below was a soldier moving back and forth, which meant I had to time my jump carefully, or take damage.
Now, bear in mind that taking damage in Ninja Gaiden also means Ryu flying backwards, which in this case would toss Ryu into a bottomless pit and kill him.
Lastly, there was an eagle. A goddamn eagle. Eagles take three segments off of Ryu’s health with each hit (that’s more than bullets and explosives!) and have just the right flight pattern to ruin your day if you mess up a jump. I played to this segment multiple times. I kept dying. Each time, I restarted from the beginning of the stage. This single was all that kept me from taking on the boss of the level.
However, after prolonged suffering, I realized that I could time my jump so that I cut through the eagle and landed right behind the patrolling guard as he turned around.
I had finally done it. I finally figured it out. I felt like I was on the top of the world! I could face any challenge! All obstacles were nothing to me!
Then the boss killed me and I had to restart the level again.
Food for Thought:
1. While the 3DS re-release doesn’t add very much, I definitely appreciated that it added save states to the game. While Ninja Gaiden offers infinite continues, it doesn’t offer saves, and it’s rather nice to have that option on a portable.
2. The music in the game is fantastic. Yet another way I prefer 2D Ninja Gaiden to 3D!
Ninja Gaiden will be released on the 3DS Virtual Console on December 13th. Screenshots used are from the Japanese version.