tiistai 21. helmikuuta 2012

REVIEW - Ninja Gaiden (1988)

GENRE(S): Action / Platform
RELEASED: December 1988
AVAILABLE ON: NES, PC Engine, Wii Virtual Console
PUBLISHER(S): Tecmo, Hudson Soft (PC Engine)

In early 1988 Tecmo, previously most known for the arcade classics Bomb Jack and Rygar, published an arcade beat 'em up called Ninja Gaiden. In less than a year, Tecmo made an 8-bit "version" of the game, which actually shared only its name and promotional art with the arcade game. Ninja Gaiden for the Nintendo Entertainment System was lauded for being perhaps the most cinematically enthralling video game of that time. Ninja Gaiden is often considered an overlooked 80's gem, which was way ahead of its time from nearly every possible angle, as well as one of the most difficult games to ever break out of the Japanese market. It is indeed a classic - a game that just won't die. But you will. Countless times.

Don't stop 'til you die dead enough

"I will... but first..." "WHAT THE...?" BLAM!
Classic stuff.
Ryu Hayabusa, a young man trained in the ways of the ninja, travels to the United States to search for his father Ken's murderer, the only clue being a cryptic letter left behind by Ken. Ryu gets entangled in a plot involving the CIA, a demonic cult, and statues that maintain the universal balance of darkness and light.

OK, so when I was a kid, I knew this game by the very boring name of Shadow Warriors, which it was given in Europe due to the word "ninja" being somewhat taboo, and foreign, as in non-familiar; in case you didn't know, even the TMNT were known as the Teenage Mutant HERO Turtles around these parts, at that time. Even the box art was different than that of the other versions, it featured Ryu without his ninja mask although he wore it in the game. No matter what the game was called or what it looked like from the outside, it ruled. It was one of my favourite rentals, and one of my favourite games on the NES - I just never got around to buying it, probably 'cause my bro hated it for some reason. Probably for being too difficult.

Please let me land on the platform this time.
Back then, the Internet didn't exist in an average Joe's world, so every bit of information usually came from magazines. I read about some game called Ninja Gaiden, and I immediately confused it with a totally unrelated Konami game called Legend of the Mystical Ninja for some reason a little bit too odd for me to explain. Anyway, there were pics of Shadow Warriors linked to that story, and I was actually about to write to the magazine about that, if they had possibly made an error. Some guy or gal beat me to it, and asked about Ninja Gaiden, and if there was any connection with that game and Shadow Warriors. The magazine clearly stated that they're one and the same, AND that there were actually two sequels to the game - which never made it to Europe. They didn't state a sure, clear reason for that, but they speculated that the lack of decent promotion for the first game (which may have partly been caused by the title change), and the extremely high level of difficulty present in the sequels may have caused some concerns that they simply wouldn't sell here in Europe. This was in 1992; Ninja Gaiden II did see release in Europe in 1994, under the title of Shadow Warriors II. Too bad 1994 wasn't a really good year to be an NES game.

You're lookin' kinda pale, Walter.
When I read the editors' answer to the question was when I first realized that games that had the potential of being my favourite ones in the world were held back from me... sometimes, if they WERE released in Europe, they were watered down shells of their former selves, and they might've taken years after their actual release to emerge here in Europe. Look at Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. It came out in Europe THREE YEARS after its release in Japan - nearly a month AFTER Super Castlevania IV was released on the SNES around here. Castlevania III was a great game, but it bombed in Europe - not much of a surprise. I remember my friends going on and on about Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (also released in Europe three years late), and most of them owned the game - but they didn't even know of a third, way better game's existence. They actually thought Super Castlevania IV was the third game; they didn't really pay attention to the title. The more I think about the European video game market back in the early 90's, and the older I get, the sadder I feel. Alas, things have changed.

The time has come to seek out Yoda for guidance.
TMNT is TMNT. Castlevania: Bloodlines - previously botched as Castlevania: The New Generation in Europe - is listed as Castlevania: Bloodlines in every timeline, regardless of the region. In perhaps the most known example, all re-releases of classic Final Fantasy games have been blessed with the proper numerals to retcon their confusing past. Ninja Gaiden was rebooted in 2004 with a critically acclaimed Xbox exclusive, which brought the original series back into the spotlight, finally rid of the Shadow Warriors title which somewhat drowned the first game in the masses of bad and forgettable names for 8-bit games. Although the third game in the original 8-bit series always remained unreleased in Europe, people went to great lengths to dig it up along the rest of 'em, and voluntarily get their asses handed to 'em by what I consider perhaps the most difficult game in history. The sudden and massive increase in Ninja Gaiden's popularity was kinda surprising. What was even more surprising was that after so much time, the original Ninja Gaiden's revolutionary style of cinematic storytelling had retained so much of its magic. It had perhaps even more magic to it than when the game was released - when no one really knew whether to appreciate it or not.

It definitely deserves appreciation; Ninja Gaiden is one of the most visually astounding games on the NES. The level design is simple, yet far from straightforward. The enemies (including bosses) are basically robots moving and acting on pre-determined tracks, but Ryu's movement feels more spontaneous. The cutscenes were cinematically amazing and completely unparalleled at the time, as was the game's fine use of the English language; there are only a few typos and bits of Engrish here and there. The soundtrack isn't the most consistent bunch of killer 8-bit tunes there is (that's Castlevania), but it's very good and includes a couple of true, overlooked gems, such as the Act 4-2 theme, which I brought up as the VGTune of the Week a while ago.

I have brought up Castlevania a few times for an actual reason, that being Ninja Gaiden's strange familiarity. It's reminiscent of Castlevania in numerous ways, but it has its own thing, too, besides the outspoken cutscenes - this thing can't really be compared to anything that came before. First off, Ryu was one of the coolest playable characters to emerge in those times - he felt more like a living person than most protagonists due to many factors, those being his relatively realistic movement and the dramatic events that carry the character-driven story forward. The fact that Ninja Gaiden is a story- and character-driven 8-bit platformer made as early as 1988 already separates it from every other game.

Besides his blade, Ryu can use a variety of secondary ninja weapons such as different types of shurikens and a flame bomb, or something like that. These weapons are usually used by pressing Up + B, just like in Castlevania, but one of the weapons directly powers up Ryu's somersaults, which means he can destroy or damage anything he jumps at as long as he has "Ninja Power" left. Since this is an 8-bit platformer above everything else, there's also an invincibility item that guarantees Ryu safe, destructive passage for a time.

It's Jason Voorhees' video game debut.
The coolest - yet also the most fatal, deceitful and downright frustrating - trick in Ryu's playbook is his ability to cling onto walls, and hop along two parallel walls to reach a higher ground level. Again, you will die plenty of times while playing Ninja Gaiden - and most of those deaths will most likely have something to do with those damn walls. You see, Ryu can't simply let go and drop down from a wall - he has to have a jump point. He can't jump back from a wall and somehow make it higher up that same wall - there has to be a point on the other side, either a platform or another wall. Sometimes your only choice is to jump down a chasm and hope that your luck's better next time and that you will make it high enough on the next first try. Ryu's also a bit reluctant to follow orders while he's hugging a wall - which makes him perfect prey for flying bastards. Oh yeah, now that I mentioned them, I guess I should also mention that Ryu makes an impressive jump backwards every time he's hit by anything. Yep, Ninja Gaiden follows Castlevania's guidelines in better and worse.

If you don't see it before, I'm betting you will see it once Act 2 begins; more wall-related fun, that is. The enemies in the game have a ridiculous respawning rate. Move away from an enemy you just killed by half a pixel, just to dodge his still live projectile attack, for example - or get hit, which leads to the aforementioned jump backwards - and there he is again. In Act 2, there's some sort of a hooded figure who throws shit at you, waiting on the other side of the chasm. There are walls beneath to supposedly save you from death - it's just that if you happen to cling on to the wall beneath that dude, there's no chance in hell for you to get back up, and back on track. The only real benefit that "save" has in store for you is the chance to study everything going on above, then intentionally jump to your death and try again, (none the) wiser. Seriously, surviving a lot of individual stipulations in Ninja Gaiden is up to luck, as well as the right kind of power-ups. There are instances you simply won't survive without invincibility, for example.

The humping monkeys from Castlevania have
gotten big. And much easier to off.
A game this hard and unforgiving has to have a password system, right? Yeah, sure there's one - in your dreams. You have to beat this one in a single sitting - however, Ninja Gaiden pays back in full for its level of difficulty in the best ways you can imagine out of the standard, hard as shit game. First and foremost, it has killer gameplay and an addictive story that will keep you wanting to try. It has fast tempo, and the levels are of the exact right length to keep most of the deepest frustration at bay. Also, there are unlimited continues, and even a Game Over simply means that you'll return to the beginning of the act, not the beginning of the game. The bosses are perhaps even too easy to study and kill - with the exception of the final one, who has brought many seasoned players to their knees and forced them to sail on a river of tears. Beating Ninja Gaiden is a true achievement - an achievement that is surprisingly fun to aim for, year after year. Even though it very often makes you want to feast on your own brain and smash the controller to a million little bits with your bare fists, Ninja Gaiden is definitely one of the greatest games of its time. Sure, it's hard, but it compensates for it more than most of its peers. How many times are you willing to die for Ninja Gaiden?

I'm yet to have beaten this game, but I will surely keep trying - just because Ninja Gaiden is so damn cool and exciting, a timeless action game. Playing it in 2012 beats the living shit out of playing many more recent games, even popular ones. You can't honestly say that about many games of the time.

+ A rare, elaborate story
+ Great graphics and unparalleled 8-bit cinematics
+ The soundtrack shifts between good and ultra-awesome
+ Core gameplay which is influenced by many, but has influenced many in its own right
+ Fast tempo
+ The game's extremely challenging, but also extremely compensating
+ The game is of what I would call perfect length, for a difficult 8-bit game without a password or save feature 

- Like I said, no password or save feature
- The wall clinging mechanics are far from perfect
- Even though the game compensates for most of its high difficulty, trial and error is never fun - not even in small doses
- (Most of) the bosses are way too easy opposed to the rest of the game

< 9.0 >

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