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Ninjas. The only other pop culture icon more recognizable is Darth Vader (must be the black suit). Why do we love ninjas? Their history is murky, mostly unknown, or smothered in myths and legends. Most ninjutsu practitioners are actually practicing karate or are simply charlatans (Ashida Kim hack!). Nonetheless the public is as hungry for their ninja fix as they are for zombies, vampires, pirates, or zombie vampire pirates. Even during the early days of gaming, Nintendo recognized the irresistible appeal of Ninjas. Bow respectfully and watch out for that throwing star from my next pick for gaming’s forgotten favorites:
#7: Ninja Gaiden
Making its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) debut in March 1989, Ninja Gaiden was actually the latest in an already long line of Ninja themed games. The plot stars a young ninja named Ryu Hayabusa, who is on a mission of revenge for the death of his father. Throughout the story Ryu encounters a diverse variety of enemies ranging from earthbound to unearthly. For a NES game, the plot does a surprisingly good job of giving the player a full globetrotting adventure. After navigating a winding plot of espionage and secrets, Ryu comes face to face with a battle that will decide the fate of the entire world (naturally). In the days of the original NES console, having a game that not only followed a deep storyline but also featured cut scenes was completely unheard of. It created a new level of emersion that utterly captivated players. Completing each level not only elicited deep satisfaction for actually surviving but also meant we would get to see where the story was going next.
Of the many qualities and characteristics that paint Ninja Gaiden, there’s one that fans everywhere will never forget: IT’S HARD AS HELL! I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone in assuming that a ninja master gone nuts had a hand in crafting this game’s mechanics, because only a cranky sadistic madman would subject players to such unfathomable difficulty. Don’t get me wrong, the game functions just fine, very well even. However the pattern by which the enemies attack and reappear is relentless. Your ranged weapons are very finite and extra ammo is sparse throughout each level. Ryu does have a life meter but it’s rendered irrelevant by the fact that a single hit from any enemy will send him reeling off the edge to his death! Successfully navigating any area requires split second timing and reflexes so good they’d make a Jedi blush. The game developers must have assumed that you’ve spent years training in the caldera of Mt. Fuji; learning shadowy secrets from Ryu himself. That or sadism really is an endearing quality in a game developer.
Difficulty aside, Ninja Gaiden retains millions of longtime fans with its nostalgic characters and compelling story. The game is actually the epicenter for what many of its fans consider to be either a strange line of coincidences or sneaky crossovers. Ryu is the descendant of an ancient hero named “Shinobi”, who happens to be the main character of an earlier game released by Sega simply called Shinobi. Some years later, Capcom would release one of the most popular tournament fighters of all time, Street Fighter, in which one of the heroes of the tournament is a white clade Japanese fighter named “Ryu.” How did this all happen? Is it just a coincidence? Was it planned from the beginning? Are all these games part of an intricate web of ninja continuity? Much like the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body, the world may never know the answer.
Ninja Gaiden is a masterpiece in its own crazy way. It’s a game that mirrors its subject matter frighteningly well, demanding a great amount of discipline for a rich reward. It spawned two more sequels on the NES that are just as great in their storytelling and equally daunting in their difficulty. If playing a game that requires strict monastic ninjutsu training is your cup of tea, then head over to Amazon, eBay, or your local vintage game shop for a very affordable copy. Only prepare yourself for an experience that will not leave you the same way it found you. Prepare…..for NINJA GAIDEN! (TM)