By the mid 1980s, Taito’s Double Dragon was the king of arcade brawlers. Tecmo, a competing videogame developer, was anxious to capitalize on Double Dragon‘s success with their own, similar franchise. Tecmo set their Team Strong, lead by Shuichi Sakurazaki, to develop a game to stand toe-to-toe with Taito’s hit. Starring Ryu Hyabusa, 1988’s Ninja Gaiden was a challenging beat ’em up that mimicked Double Dragon, but established its own identity. Tecmo’s management was pleased, but knew that Ninja Gaiden was destined for more. In the late eighties, anything that saw success in the arcade was given serious consideration to be ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System, which is exactly what Tecmo decided to do with Ninja Gaiden. Sakurazaki was also placed in charge of development of the home console version, but he had plans for Ninja Gaiden far beyond a simple port.
In a surprise move, Sakurazaki threw out almost everything from the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden, save for the lead character. Rather than remain a brawler, the game became an action-platformer. Sakurazaki also threw in an assortment of new weapons to make Ryu as lethal as possible. Ryu’s set of moves was diverse and made combat immensely satisfying. While the gameplay alone was fun and fast-paced, it was something else that Sakaurazaki added to Ninja Gaiden that would really cement its place in gaming history.
An industry first, Ninja Gaiden made heavy use of cinematic cut scenes to tell an involved (though… confusing) story between levels. This focus on narrative was different than anything gamers had experienced on a home console up to that point. Fans were sucked in by the finely crafted cinematics, which were similar to panels from comic books. Ninja Gaiden is important for laying the groundwork for future innovations in storytelling in videogames.
Beyond fun gameplay and an engaging story, Ninja Gaiden is also known for being gut-wrenchingly difficult. This game chews up and spits out players who can’t keep up. Like Mega Man, though, Ninja Gaiden is tough but fair. Similar to Capcom’s blue bomber games, mastering Ninja Gaiden is all about practice and pattern recognition. Players who familiarized themselves with the game’s intricacies were treated to tricky enemy types and creepy, hulking bosses. Ninja Gaiden was much like Castlevania, too, in that it offered a more mature gaming experience that appealed to older gamers. Its solid visuals and dark tone have made Ninja Gaiden remain as fun today as when it debuted.
Players weaned on Tomonubu Itakagi’s reinvention of the series might think the classic NES version of Ninja Gaiden to be too tame, but they’d be mistaken. While not a bloodbath by any means, Ninja Gaiden is as immersive and kinetic as its XBox brother. There are a number of ways to experience this game today across a variety of consoles, so be sure to give it a whirl and re-experience the heyday of hardcore gaming!
Developed by Tecmo. Released 1989.
Ninja Gaiden is available on the NES. It’s also available via download on the Wii and 3DS Virtual Console, and as part of the SNES compilation Ninja Gaiden Trilogy.