ninjagaiden.JPGTecmo’s Team Ninja is bringing the highly anticipated Ninja Gaiden 2 to Xbox 360 very soon. What better way to celebrate than to take a look back to the very beginning, when Ninja Gaiden was at the peak of its popularity on the 8-bit Nintendo? Even back then, Ninja Gaiden was known for its cutting-edge action gameplay, catchy music, and punishing difficulty. After three well-received games on the NES, a game boy spin off , various Sega-developed games featuring the title, and a Super Nintendo compilation pack of the three NES games, the most we would ever see of the series would be Ryu Hayabusa’s appearance among the cast of the Dead or Alive series. When the Xbox was nearing its release, one of the games announced for it was Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden, an all new game unrelated to any previous game in the series. It would finally see a release in 2004, and became as much of a favorite among Xbox players as the originals had been among Nintendo players. The Xbox game took what was awesome about the NES games and bought it into 3-d. As a nod back to it’s past, it even included the three NES games as unlockables. Lets take a look now at this franchise’s 8-bit roots.

ninjagaiden1nes.PNGHere is where it all started. After a forgettable arcade game, Tecmo bought Ninja Gaiden to the NES as a side-scrolling platformer rather than a beat-em-up like its arcade cousin. As Ryu Hayabusa, you come to America to discover the truth about your father’s disappearance. You then get caught up in a plot involving the CIA, an ancient demon, and a mysterious statue. You make use of your agility, weapons, and magic to make it through the various levels. This game pretty much set up the tone of the series. It’s look and gameplay were inspired by Castlevania. There were life meters for you and the boss, platforming segments were everywhere, and you had a secondary weapon which you could use at any time (as long as you had ammo for it of course) by pressing up and the B button. However, the similarities end there, as Ryu was much more agile than Simon Belmont. He could move faster, jump higher, and could even stick to walls. This was also one of the first NES games to feature cinematic movie sequences which helped to advance the story. This was one of those games where after the level ended, you didn’t want to press the start button right away, least you miss something important pertaining to the game world. The game was hard, and similar to many other games from the early NES era, it had no password or battery backup save of any kind, meaning that you had to finish the game in one play through. Still, for players who could brave the heavy difficulty, this game became an instant classic.

On a side note, this was one of several NES games which were novelized as part of the World’s of Power book series, which turned the stories of several NES games into novels. The novels are geared towards children, and as such, the books frequently retcon the original plots of the games to remove any instance of human death. Also, depictions of weaponry are removed from the cover. Castlevania 2, Metal Gear, Mega Man 2, and Infiltrator are other games which have been included in this line.

ninjagaiden2.PNGNinja Gaiden 2 pushed the series even further. After Jaquio’s defeat, a new villain known as Ashtar makes his presence known. Ryu’s girlfriend is kidnapped, and Ryu must set forth again. This time Ryu gained some new tricks to help him. Along with a few new ninja arts, he could now climb up and down walls (as opposed to simply sticking to them in the previous Ninja Gaiden). Perhaps the coolest new move of all, by gaining a special item, he could create up to two ninja clones of himself, which would trail behind him and attack enemies. Even cooler, you could position them mid air and have them strike. This technique came in handy against several of the game’s bosses, and it’s a wonder why Tecmo took this trick out of Ninja Gaiden 3. The story itself maintained the same standards as the first, complete with a shocker of a plot twist midway through the game. The difficulty was even more brutal, this time adding environmental hazards such as blowing wind, and a sticky wall.

ninjagaiden3.PNGNinja Gaiden 3 was released at the beginning of the SNES era. Due to its convoluted storyline, it was the least favorite of many fans. Even so, it’s gameplay still held up. This time Ryu is framed for the murder of his girlfriend Irene. Once again he heads out on a quest to find out the truth. He’ll explore genetics labs, deserts, jungles, and the titular ‘Ancient Ship of Doom’. He has some new ninja weapons, and the ninja clone was thrown out in favor of a sword extension power-up, which is found in each level, and makes your sword bigger and more powerful for the duration of the level or until you are killed. This is the most difficult of the three NES Ninja Gaiden games for the simple fact that you only have a limited amount of continues. Oh, that’s just for the American NES game. The Japanese game (as well as the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy remake) has unlimited continues and a password feature.

Well that’s all for the golden era of Ninja Gaiden. Sega released a couple of Ninja Gaiden games for the Sega Master System and Game Gear, but they are unrelated to the NES games. They even planned to release a Genesis beat-em-up, but it was never completed (although you can find a ROM floating around on the net). The Game Boy Ninja Gaiden Shadow began its development as a Game Boy version of Natsume’s Shadow of the Ninja. As such, while it was still enjoyable, its story had some continuity problems. There was also a Ninja Gaiden Trilogy compilation pack for the Super Nintendo, but it was rife with bugs, control problems, and missing music tracks. The only good thing about the pack is the remixed music and the password save option. The Xbox unlockable Ninja Gaiden games are based on the SNES remakes. However, the three original NES games are available on the Wii Virtual Console. If your first introduction to the series was the Xbox game, then you owe it to yourself to check out the original series. It stands the test of time as one of gaming’s greatest old-school franchises, and even today it remains a hit amongst gamers everywhere.