Friday, August 27, 2010

Ninja Gaiden Series Retrospective

Final Fantasy. Sonic the Hedgehog. Super Mario. Half-Life. Metal Gear. Halo. Resident Evil. Kirby. Call of Duty. Dragon Quest. Diablo. Gran Turismo. Ask a gamer what video game series is their favourite, and you'll often hear them name one of the above, along with a multitude of other diverse answers. One series that, for reasons I cannot understand, seems to get overlooked, even though many of the entries in the series are among the best of the genre on their respective platforms. The series to which I am referring is none other than Ninja Gaiden.

For my money, Ninja Gaiden is the finest series of games ever crafted; an action gamers' dream come true. You like platforming? Ninja Gaiden has you covered. Like fast, responsive action and sublime control? Ninja Gaiden has you covered. Want to look graceful while doling out justice with a measured, but swift vengeance never before seen? Ninja Gaiden has you covered. Do you seek, not challenge, but challenge? Ninja Gaiden has you covered. Do you wish to be rewarded for persevering in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds with a feeling of having accomplished the impossible? Ninja Gaiden has you covered.

Ninja Gaiden is my Halo. It's my Mario, my Kirby, my Sonic and my Smash Bros. all rolled into one. Ninja Gaiden has provided me with more challenging, amazing, fun, visceral, brutal and fluidly animated gameplay than any other series off video games ever crafted. It's also provided me with much frustration. It's been a love/hate relationship at times, but, like the best of relationships, it always manages to find its way back. And it's one I hope to be in until, well, until death do us part. So, I am here today to pay tribute to the finest crafted series of video games known to man:

Ninja Gaiden, I salute you

So, please sit back and enjoy as I, magx, take you, the reader, on a journey through time. We'll begin with the series' inception; we'll see how it rose to high levels of acclaim, fell,was nearly lost forever, and then eventually resurrected, and end up at the present day, having learned about each game along the way, as well as seeing how I rated the five titles for which I have included reviews. We'll also see how Tecmo used Ninja Gaiden as they pulled a fast one on the gameboy audience.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I hope you learn something about Tecmo's magnum opus along the way. I worked really hard on this, so I hope it's going to be enjoyable to read.

Series History

Created in Japan, by the video game developer known as Tecmo, Ninja Gaiden was originally known as Ninja Ryukenden, which means ''Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword.'' The first Ninja Gaiden game was an arcade beat em up, in the vein of Double Dragon and the like, which were very popular at the time. The game, released in 1988, was fairly well received, although it was also regarded as being far too difficult, which basically foreshadowed the things to come for the series starring the as of yet unnamed Ryu Hayabusa.

Later that year, the first NES Ninja Gaiden title was released. The game starred the same Ninja as the arcade title, only now, he had a name: Ryu Hayabua. Also new was the direction the gameplay took. No longer a beat em up with the occasional sword wielding, the game was now an action platformer, and this time Ryu was equipped with the Dragon Sword from the start. The game was a success, and spawned two more sequels, Ninja Gaiden II, and Ninja Gaiden III, released in 1990, and 1991, respectively. All three games were well received, although the third was not considered to be of the same quality as the first two. Also, as was becoming a staple for the series, all three games were brutally unforgiving. Difficulty seemed to be the name of the game for Ninja Gaiden, as well as the tight gameplay and, new to the NES, the use of cutscenes to tell the story.

In 1991, a spin off entitled Ninja Gaiden Shadow was released for the original gameboy. Supposedly a prequel to the original NES title, what this really was is actually a bit insidious. Tecmo had purchased the rights to a game called Shadow of the Ninja, which itself was a Ninja Gaiden clone released for the NES by Natsume. The gameboy version of Shadow if the Ninja had some changes made, and voila! Super Mario Bros., rather, Ninja Gaiden Shadow (huh, Shadow even in the title!) was born. It was fairly similar the the NES titles, with a few key differences. Namely, a much reduced difficulty (but not easy), a reduction in the number of available ninpo, and........a grappling hook, as Ryu no longer had the wall climbing and wall jumping abilities that had helped make the series famous. So, Ninja Gaiden Shadow has the distinction of being the Ninja Gaiden title that's not really a Ninja Gaiden title, although it bears enough resemblance thanks the to the changes made. A con job as it was, it ended up being a pretty good title.

After the release of the trilogy and the gameboy game, Tecmo felt the series was losing steam, and had no immediate plans for it. They licensed the franchise to SEGA, who developed three games under the Ninja Gaiden moniker (although they only released two). The first title released by SEGA was Ninja Gaiden for the SEGA Game Gear, which was SEGA's portable gaming system at the time. The game was released in 1991, and was a bit of a departure in that it focused less on the platforming and played slower than the others did.

In 1992, SEGA followed up with Ninja Gaiden for the SEGA Master System, which was their fledgling 8 bit system. It was more powerful than the NES, and this fact was exploited by SEGA, who released a faster, better looking Ninja Gaiden, although with arguably worse sound. The story and setting were completely different. The wall cling ability was changed to a wall bounce, similar to the Shinobi games, also made by SEGA, which this game bears a strong resemblance to. The ability to bounce between walls enabled faster wall jumping than did the wall clinging mechanic, and this went well with the overall faster pace. This ability was also used in the modern Ninja Gaiden titles. The game was only released in Europe, as the Master System was failing in the other territories. Consequently, this game did not garner a huge audience.

Also during that year, SEGA had been working on a beat em up for the SEGA Genesis console. It resembled the original arcade Ninja Gaiden beat em up, although the levels and story were all new. The game had garnered some bad press pre-release, and was dropped by SEGA during the beta stage of development. A nearly finished version has been available for several years through online means, and so many gamers have been able to experience it despite its unreleased status.

In 1995, Tecmo gave the series another shot in the form of the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy, an aptly, if uncreatively titled port of the original 3 NES titles. It was a mixed bag. There were some improvements made in the form of better graphics and retouched cutscenes, as well as the brutally difficult (for the wrong reasons) third game was made more playable by the implementation of infinite continues and the reduction in damage taken from enemy attacks. However, the game also suffered from some problems, namely, framerate issues and unresponsive controls, two unforgivable problems for a hardcore fan to have to endure. There was some censorship as well, due to new Nintendo policies (many other games suffered for this as well, the most famous example being Mortal Kombat). The music also changed for the worse.

By 1995 there had been several missteps in the series. Some poor sales seen by SEGA for their two released titles, and the cancellation of their third game resulted in them giving up on the license. Tecmo had bungled the SNES re-release, and had no plans for any more Ninja Gaiden titles.

Ninja Gaiden was dead.

In 1996, a fighting game created by Team Ninja (a Tecmo development team headed by the games' creator, Tomonubu Itagaki) known as Dead or Alive was released. One of the fighters in the game was none other than Ryu Hayabusa, who quickly became a fan favourite. The game was a smash success, and saw several sequels and re-releases both in arcades and for home consoles. The star of the series was Ryu, who was a fan favourite, and a character who aroused much interest in the DOA series' creator, Tomonubu Itagaki. Itagaki knew that Ryu was an interesting character, and knew he had quite a following, and so, the decision was made in 1999 to begin a game based around Ryu Hayabusa. After a couple of platform changes (from an arcade board, to the Dreamcast, then the PS2, and, finally, the xbox) and 5 years of development, Team Ninja and Tecmo unleashed Ninja Gaiden upon the world in 2004 for newcomer Microsoft's entry into the console market.

Welcome back, baby.

The game was a rousing success, receiving extremely high critical acclaim and commercial success. The game featured a heavy emphasis on action and platforming, and an extreme level of challenge (it has been said that, during development, the game testers complained that the game was too hard. Hearing of this, Itagaki retooled the game to be even harder). The game also featured stunning graphics, a flawless framerate. and an incredibly adept level of control. The combat was now combo heavy and featured intense battles against several enemies at a time. There were also some light adventure elements in the game. The bosses were numerous and memorable, and there were 16 chapters in the game, making it a rather lengthy action title.

The game was re-released in 2005 as Ninja Gaiden Black. This version featured many significant improvements to the already stellar game, including those improvements found in the Hurricane Pack downloads- save for one. The Intercept maneuver, intoduced in Hurricane Pack 1, was not included in Black, as Itagaki felt it rendered the game too easy when mastered. In addition to the refinements, improvements, and added content, both taken from the Hurricane Packs and entirely new, Team Ninja added a Mission mode to the game. Mission mode consisted of 50 challenges that took place in differing environments. These challengs were varied, and difficult. They tasked the player with, for example, beating 100 enemies with one life bar, and some tasked the player with beating multiple bosses at the same time.  Ninja Gaiden Black sold for a reduced price.

In 2007, Tecmo published an enhanced port of Ninja Gaiden Black entitled Ninja Gaiden Sigma, on the Playstation 3 console. It featured a new character, Rachel, who was present, but not playable, in the 2004 title.

2008 saw the release of two new Ninja Gaiden titles, Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword, for the Nintendo DS, and Ninja Gaiden II, for the xbox 360. Dragon Sword is played with the DS held sideways, and all of the action is controlled with the stylus. The game is played in a diagonal top-down view with 3D graphics, and it switches to a fully 3D viewpoint during boss battles. The emphasis was solely on action in this game, although it was actually much easier on the default setting than other games in the series. It was stated from the start that a reduction in difficulty would be seen, although the hardest difficulty did bring the challenge back up to suitable franchise standards. The game received good reviews, and sole modestly, although it of course was not able to match the greatness of the console games.

The hotly anticipated Ninja Gaiden II was released in June of 2008 for the xbox 360 console, and while it featured many improvements over its predecessor, it also took a few missteps, and ultimately, left fans divided. The emphasis was on action. Puzzles were removed. The combat was shifted to a more offensive focus, rather than the more defensively oriented 2004 game. Battles were larger, although enemy AI and health was reduced. Combo counts were up, several new weapons were included, and everything was cranked up for maximum carnage, including the gore. However, many technical difficulties were present, and the difficulty occasionally strayed from the super hard but fair territory into the cheap and unfair territory. The level design was also a bit bland, and the bosses were not as memorable as those found in Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden Black. No mission mode was included in this game, although one was made available for purchase online some time after the games' release.

In 2009, Ninja Gaiden II was ported to the PS3 under the title of Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. The game featured some major changes, most for the better, but also a few omissions and less popular changes. It was also the first Ninja Gaiden title to feature online play, in the form of co-operative missions. There were 2 new playable characters, one from the DOA universe, and one from the DS title.

At present, Tecmo has stated that they will be developing a third title, that will be simultaneously released on the 360 and PS3, although the original members of Team Ninja will not be at the helm, as they left the company along with Tomonubu Itagaki shortly after the release of Ninja Gaiden II, due to contractual disputes and creative differences. Itagaki an co. have formed their own development studio, and are working on a new action title called Devil's Third, which, unfortunately, is primarily a shooter. *sad face*

Final Words/Personal Thoughts

Well, here we are. The end of the retrospective. Allow me to close with a few quick personal thoughts. The original arcade title was good. It was also really, really hard, and had an awesome continue screen, which I saw a lot of back in the day. Ninja Gaiden was an excellent NES game. II perfected the formula. It's my favourite of the original trilogy, and one of my favourite games of all time. III was a letdown. I've never actually played the SMS or GG games. I have played the Genesis beat em up beta. It's alright, but nothing particularly memorable.

The xbox game(s) is/are legendary and my absolute favourite all time game(s). I've only played the demos for Sigma 1 and 2. The Sigma 1 demo is beautiful. I have the DS title, and have beaten it several times on all difficulties. It's a great handheld title and a worthy entrant into the series, although it tends to get repetitive, especially on Master Ninja, as fights just drag on and on and on. Ninja Gaiden II is absolutely amazing in some ways, and a huge step up from the original......and a gigantic letdown in others. It doesn't have the same charm, quality of level design, technical proficiency and delicately crafted gameplay balance and difficulty. It does though, have absolutely ridiculous combat and insane gore. It's a huge adrenaline kick.

 I look forward to Ninja Gaiden 3, and hope that it doesn't suffer because of the change in team. I also hop it bridges the gap between one and two, and finds the sweet spot in terms of balance. Maybe bring back some of the open endedness to the level design.

Well, that's it, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it and found it informative!


  1. Is this the same retrospective that was on Game Trailers? I plan on doing a retrospective on my favorite series, Resident Evil.

  2. 'sole modestly' - Not to take the piss for the mistake, but to show you I managed to read it thoroughly enough to find a mistake!

    That was a lucky break for the franchise, for Ryu to be loved by fans in 'Dead or Alive' to help allow the franchise to reemerge as a glorious game. And 16 chapters seems incredibly long for an action game.

  3. "Is this the same retrospective that was on Game Trailers?"


    "I plan on doing a retrospective on my favorite series, Resident Evil."

    Link me to it when done. Post back here if you wish. I'd love to read it, as my knowledge of the series is not too deep, and it's always better to read from a real fans' perspective than it is some half assed IGN retrospective full of facts but no love.

    "'sole modestly' - Not to take the piss for the mistake, but to show you I managed to read it thoroughly enough to find a mistake!"

    Ah, that should be sold. I will edit that momentarily. Thanks for noticing, and I don't don't that you are one of the few who does read throroughly, as I do your blogs. I think we both respect each others' work.

    That being said, point out another one of my mistakes, and I will beat you to death with a 200lb barbell. One handed. And I'll do it nice and


    "That was a lucky break for the franchise, for Ryu to be loved by fans in 'Dead or Alive' to help allow the franchise to reemerge as a glorious game."

    Yep. I'm so f'n glad it transpired the way that it did, because it serves as a lesson to other devs and publishers: In the right hands, a property thought not to be viable CAN be. And viable it was, as we now know. Something like 1.5 million copies of NG/NGB sold iirc, which, for a brutally hard (as most people saw it) hack n slash, is daaamn good.

    " And 16 chapters seems incredibly long for an action game."

    40 hours my first time through. Sure, a few hundred hours later, and I was blasting through in 3-4 hours, without actively attempting to speedrun it, but still, most people were averaging 25-40 hours for their first playthroughs, based on what I recall of forum comments.

    I was at the high end for a number of reasons, some of which are for good reasons, others not so favourable.

    Good reasons:

    It's long, at least when you don't have the damn thing commited to memory and can beat down most bosses in like 60 seconds.

    Lots of deaths.

    The fiend challenges, like the Archive Challenge and the Zarkhan Stadium challenge.

    Getting stumped by a few puzzles.

    Taking my time on purpose, just relishing every minute of it.

    Not so good reasons:

    Getting lost. Like, reeeeaaaaaallllly lost at one point, and fairly lost a few other times.

    A few (3) borderline unfair checkpoint placements (addressed in Black). Not a huge issue, but a small contributer.

    Some platforming sections where the few flaws in the platforming added up to some wasted time due to fuckups (many on my end, mind you, but certainly some were the game's fault).

    A few sections, like the MOTEHRUCKING GODDAMN ZOMBIE ARCHER UPWARD SPIRAL GAUNTLET where, before you knew how to beast that shit, you were ready to TEAR YOUR FUCKING HAIR OUT and were cursing the game with force!

  4. Also, I would like to apologize about not putting up my other blog. I've just been busy with a lot of stuff, for it is the month of Ramadan.

  5. Just updated this, after all this time. Guess perfection is an ongoing process ;)

  6. Nice retrospective. I loved EVERY SECOND of Black and I was going crazy over the talks of NGII but unfortunately the game wasn't as good as Black and was disappointed that I had to buy the missions. Overall it was fun and great.

    I can't wait for Devil's Third and NGIII

  7. Thanks so much for the feedback. I agree, obviously, about NGII. I haven't touched it much since I finished PotMN.

    NGIII....I'm incredibly skeptical of, and Devil's Third is a shooter, so I don't much care but I'll be watching it to see how much the melee combat factors into it.

  8. myles the guitaristJuly 31, 2011 at 8:07 AM

    i love the newer releases in the ng series but i think they are straying to far from the original trilogy. i hope that in ng 3 they bring back some of the original factors, such as the ledges in the originals which made those evil birds so notorious. i just hope that in ng 3 you are able to unlock the original trilogy, but unlike in splatterhous, you should be able to get achievements in them, but just a handfull per each one so they don't take away from the actual game itself.


Tell magx01 and the rest of The Thoughtful Gamers what's on your mind!