When I was little and just learning games from my older brother, I would watch him and his friends play our NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) for hours at a time. I remember watching him beat all of Super Mario Bros. 3 in one sitting (no warps). I remember watching him play The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and many other games which were far above my level at the time, and absolutely rip them to shreds! To me, he was a gaming god!
Yet, there was always one game that was a constant source of consternation for him. I honestly never remember him getting past the first few levels. I can remember hearing him shout the curse words that he knew as a prepubescent boy, throwing the controller across the room (or the 3 and a half feet that those early NES controllers gave you), and our mom coming in shutting off the TV and saying something like, “If you keep using language like that, no more games.” And as surely as not, as soon as mom left the room on some errand, he would switch the TV back on and continue trying to complete this seemingly impossible game. This game was the infamous Ninja Gaiden.
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For true old school gamers, you can play the death music from Ninja Gaiden and watch them fall into fits of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Ninja Gaiden is a terribly difficult game. It is the epitome of classical game difficulty. But Ninja Gaiden is so much more than just that. It is nearly a study in opposites, it is a Japanese game series that is more popular in America. It is nearly impossible, yet is massively popular. You will die hundreds of times in a playthrough, but you will never feel the game itself is unfair.
It is an early NES game, but it was like watching a movie. Ninja Gaiden is one of the most important games of the NES generation. Even if you have never beaten it (which would be 99.9 percent of the population), you will see the influences of this game today. Ninja Gaiden was the first game that was more than just a game – it was a cinematic experience.
To understand Ninja Gaiden, we have to understand where it came from. And for that, we have to travel back in time and space to July 1st, 1967 in Chiba, Japan. Like many of the great gaming giants, Tecmo comes from humble beginnings in an entirely different business sector. Tecmo originally started as a sister company of the Nippon Yacht Corporation to deal with yacht real estate.
As time passed, leadership saw the rise of electronic entertainment and began to sell and distribute such equipment. In 1970, it opened its first amusement facility. In 1982, it was renamed Tekhan Ltd. By 1986, after a few more name changes, they finally landed on something that would stick – Tecmo.
Tecmo managed to survive the gaming bubble of the ’70s and ’80s that fell Atari because the Japanese gaming market did not suffer as badly as the American one did. Tecmo’s first internally developed game was Pleiads, a Galaxian style game in which you play as a ship at the bottom of the screen taking on gaps of enemy ships which spawn out of the mothership on the top of the screen. Tecmo was doing very well in the home arcade market, but by the mid-1980s, a new fever was sweeping the world, a force that seemed to have died out – home console gaming.
Nintendo reawakened the home console market with its Famicom (Family Computer) in Japan, and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in America. Tecmo saw that this might be a market worth delving into and developed Mighty Bomb Jack, a sequel to their hit arcade title Bomb Jack. Much of the game was a carbon copy of the arcade game. If you have ever played any of the old arcade games, you will know that they are pants crappingly hard!
The reason for this was, of course, money. The key to creating a successful game was a satisfying gameplay loop. You wanted to challenge the player and reward them, then offer a greater challenge with a reward. Wash, rinse, and repeat. When done correctly, this creates a quarter guzzler. But the gameplay loop for a console game is entirely different. Home consoles want more from their games and have higher expectations. Tecmo found that if they wanted to find the same level of success that other companies were enjoying, they needed to change the style of game they were creating.
Most gamers know Ryu Hayabusa, the protagonist of the Ninja Gaiden series. But most of them probably don’t know that Ninja Gaiden was not his first game. The earliest incarnation of Ninja Gaiden was not on the NES or Famicom, it was an arcade game.
Tecmo decided to create a new franchise that would span both the arcade and the home console markets. Instead of just releasing a port of the arcade version, which they had basically done for Mighty Bomb Jack, two different versions of the same game would be developed at the same time. The arcade version would be realized a few months earlier. This arcade version would be a Double Dragon style beat ’em up. But the team developing the home console version would go in an entirely different direction.
The developers creating the home console version (including Masato Kato who was one of the writers of Chrono Trigger) knew that the game could not feel like an arcade game. They looked at the other popular games on the system to try to figure out what would be best. One of their main inspirations was Konami’s Castlevania. They copied a lot from Castlevania but made some major tweaks. In both games, level design and enemy placement is key. The teams devilishly placed enemies in the perfect places to make you fall into pits or do you damage. They also both have similar sub-weapon systems. The player can collect different projectile or area-based special attacks. Both games have a similar feel, both are side-scrolling action games.
Yet, despite these similarities, Ninja Gaiden is no Castlevania clone or rip-off. It differentiates itself from Castlevania in a few ways. First is speed. Castlevania in comparison is a very slow game, but in Ninja Gaiden, you move at turbo speed the entire time. You move like a ninja! Similarly, enemies move much faster as well. Some of the enemies have guns and can shoot you from the other side of the screen. And the birds… Oh! CURSE THOSE BIRDS!!!
Secondly is platforming. In Castlevania, the character is very much grounded. You often have to jump over pits but nothing like Ninja Gaiden. The developers took a lot of cues from the Super Mario series and made the game a platforming action game. The main mechanic was that your character, as a ninja, could stick to walls and then jump off them. This made the game much more vertical than other side-scrolling games at the time. And it lent another level of difficulty to the game since each movement had to be carefully considered because the screen is nearly filled with enemies and projectiles and one wrong move could send you into a pit of instant death!
This game was largely intended for the American gaming market because of its size and the sheer size of the NES install base so the developers thought carefully about the name. The original Japanese title was Ninja Ryukenden (忍者竜剣伝) which translates to “Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword.” But the American marketers felt that this title would be too long and unwieldy for American audiences. So, they went with the title Dragon Sword, but in the mid-1980s, ninjas were all the rage in America. Thus, Tecmo decided to go with the original development title Ninja Gaiden (忍者外伝). In Japanese, “gaiden” means side story. So the title does not really make any sense because it is not a side story of anything. But the developers thought the title sounded cool and apparently, the marketers agreed with them.
The title had to undergo some more changes in the European market. While ninja was a hot marketing term in the US, it was considered taboo in Europe. For example, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were renamed Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in Europe. The term “ninja” seemingly offended tender European sensibilities, so the game was renamed Shadow Warriors.
Apart from impeccable gameplay and intense gameplay, what really makes Ninja Gaiden stand out from other similar games was the movie-like structure of the game. The opening of Ninja Gaiden is classic. We see two ninja facing off against each other in the moonlight, they charge, jump high into the air, and clash silhouetted against the full moon. Both the warriors land, and one falls dead. All of this was done in an anime-like style and came to be known as “Tecmo Theater.”
Like I said earlier, the gameplay loop for a console game is different from an arcade game. Ninja Gaiden designers decided to forgo classical arcade-like game rewards and would reward hardworking players with epic story sequences instead. These were not done with the in-game engine but were animated like a manga or anime with text appearing below. These cinematics or cutscenes were the first in gaming history and were peppered throughout the game in between each act. There were over 20 minutes of story! Today, that might not seem like much, especially when you consider some of the recent Metal Gear games that have single cutscenes that rival entire movies. But in 1986, this was absolutely unheard of and extraordinary.
Most games didn’t even have a story, or the story was in the instruction manual. For example, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link starts you off in front of a seemingly dead Princess Zelda and you have to figure out what to do from there on your own. To get any backstory or to just know that is going on, you have to read the manual.
But these cinematics caused some trouble for the programmers when it came to translating. In those days, you could not simply translate the Japanese text and drop it in. The game had to be reprogrammed. Due to hardware limitations, the text was basically a picture file, so the Japanese team would roughly translate the Japanese into English and fax it to the American team. The American team would look at the garbled mess and try to put it together into something that an English speaker would understand. You have to understand, this was still the early days of game localization – the “all your ships are belong to us” phase.
When the game was finally released, it got a lot of press from Nintendo in their magazine Nintendo Power and quickly became a huge hit. It was such a huge hit, in fact, that they could not make enough copies of the game to meet demand. Tecmo was surprised. It performed well beyond their already high expectations. They were even more surprised by how influential the cutscenes turned out to be. Soon after the release, many other games began to implement similar cinematic cutscenes. Tecmo immediately began development on a sequel. Two more games would be released on the NES. Handheld and computer versions would also be made.
The Ninja Gaiden Trilogy would be released on the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) which was a remastered version of the original trilogy. The series would then go on a nearly decade-long hiatus, only to return on the Xbox. Tecmo was one of the few Japanese developers to make games throw their hats in with Microsoft. The new Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox would prove to be just as successful and difficult as its NES progenitor. But due to the relatively poor success of Xbox in the Japanese market, it would prove to be much more successful abroad than at home. This new iteration of Ninja Gaiden would spawn a franchise that would bounce back and forth the rival systems for many years, and still is considered one of the better franchises in the action genre.
Ninja Gaiden is one of the most important games ever. Without it, we would not have the great cinematic games like the Metal Gear franchise or the Uncharted franchise. If you are like me and love story in games, then Ninja Gaiden is the game you have to thank for taking the whole gaming genre up a notch.