Saturday 20 February 2021

Ninja Gaiden for the Nintendo Entertainment System

A month has passed since last visiting a notorious Nintendo game, so why not another? Ninja Gaiden, or Shadow Warriors as it was known in Europe in pre-internet days is one of the most praised and feared video games in the NES library. While it never made a splash on these shores, its mix of precise gameplay, stunning sound and presentation (at least for the humble grey box) and the most punishing difficulty was legendary in North America. Its reputation secured the game an appearannce in The Wizard, a Hollywood/Nintendo tie-in to market Super Mario Bros 3 ahead of its release. Before the coming of YouTube, all I knew of Ninja Gaiden was a positive review in Mean Machines. While a canonical game over there, it was a curio over here. Thankfully, it was one of the first games I was able to score for my NES in 2011 when one of the local emporiums was basically chucking retro titles out the door on a three for two offer. My gain was, um, my gain.

The origins of Ninja Gaiden lay in a duff but, at the time, well-reviewed arcade beat 'em up called Shadow Warriors, Having had this game for the Commodore 64 it was next to impossible and an exercise in frustration thanks to crap controls and terrible collision detection. The NES iteration, like many other conversions for the system, opted to use the branding and intellectual assets but were reworked into an entirely new game. The arcade machine, apparently, was about doing battle wth a descendent of Nostradamus determined to fulfill his doomy quatrain for 1999 and raise an evil king to take over the world. A trace of this remains in the NES plot. You are Ryu Hayabusa and you are tasked with preventing a ne'er-do-well from raising a demon for world conquering/being annoying reasons. The name of this baddy? Jaquio, a play on the jacquerie evoked in Nostradamus's riddlesome prophecy. An interesting nugget of trivia, but plot actually matters in this game. One of the most celebrated aspects of Ninja Gaiden is its use of cut scenes. There are 20 minutes worth of panels and animations setting the scene and linking the action between levels to move the story along. This was virtually unheard of at the time outside of role-playing games, and conferred the game a level of narrative depth absent from any other contemporary action platformer. The famed introductory duel between Ryu's father and an unknown ninja, getting blindsided by a young woman, and seeing the baddy's castle at the end of the jungle level pull the player into and along with the game. It wasn't really until the 32-bit generation that this level of presentation became customary.

As for the game itself, most of the time it is as flawless a ninja game you could hope for. Certainly better than Shinobi on the Master System and almost on a par with the MegaDrive's The Revenge of Shinobi. Almost. There are few Nintendo games reporting for duty with controls as precise as these. And, like any ninja game, there has to be magical special abilities because ninjas. These abilities are acquired by picking up magical icons along the way, with other icons that refill the amount of times it can be used. For example, while fire is dangerous at the best of tims for Ryu a set of fireballs can surround him for a limited time, rendering him virtually invulnerable. Very handy for the numerous death runs later in the game. He can fling fireballs too, chuck shuriken, and whip out his sword and make like a whirligig of doom - all used to stunning effect by the game's community of speedrunners. The actual gameplay is very straightforward. Traverse the level from left to right, or in some cases right to left, kill baddies (a mix of thugs, soldiers, dogs, monkeys, birds(!), and an assortment of weirdies, take out the end of level boss and rinse and repeat. All the levels are well laid out. There are no opportunities for getting lost, but some properly test your platforming abilities. Clinging to walls and working out how to jump right, while assailed by birds is, um, a favourite.

And then there is the fabled difficulty. The problem is despite the bells and whistles, the flawless controls, and the hugely gratifying action the game is super hard, and it's because the developers resorted to some very cheap tricks. These include respawning enemies, placing them on narrow platforms you cannot clear in advance, getting overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of running and flying bad 'uns, having enemies come at you when you're vulnerable - like climbing walls/ladders. And some of the late bosses are very cheap as well. They all have predictable patterns, but the penultimate boss cycles through his pattern super quick. Lightning fast reflexes are required. Like a lot of NES games, getting hit knocks Ryu backwards, which means instant death if you're surrounded by bottomless pits. And last of all, die during the end of game confrontation with Jaquio and his subsequent incarnations and you're sent all the way back to the beginning of the level. This was apparently noted during playtesting and was a mistake, but they left it in anyway. Hence why the MegaDrive game edges it out in the best ninja title stakes.

Yet this did not prevent Ninja Gaiden from becoming a hit and something of a sought after cartridge, and there were two things going for it apart from its excellence (after all, not all great games are hits). First, as discussed here many times, the lone wolf action hero was neoliberal masculinity du jour in the 1980s. Forget the constraints society places on you, deal with your enemies as if rules don't matter. As a one-man army (though later, in collaboration with the US security apparatus) Ryu manly enters battle without constraints. Second, following the success of Bruce Lee in the 70s, the ninja trope was built up by film after film featuring martial arts and sprinkled with a flavouring of orientalist mystery. This framing of the East as mystical, traditional and exotic was picked up on by Japanese audiences of Western film (and media), and in turn was re-repackaged and sold back as the premises for hundreds of video games. The second was the theme of urban decay and crime fighting. Indeed, the first level sees Ryu battling with street gangs and their (literal) attack dogs. As acceptably disposable baddies when authoritarian governments in the US and UK were cracking skulls and declaring the war on drugs, the theme of fighting back against the decay, vigilante-style, was very much in the air. This was the time of the Guardian Angels and kids cartoons relentlessly pushing anti-crime populism. The zeitgeist was there and Ninja Gaiden rode it.

Then there is the overall culture of difficulty. Old farts talk about the how hard 8 and 16-bit games were versus most modern titles, but it was not a myth. Games were tougher and demanded they be played on their own terms. Yet the cheap deaths, the respawning enemies, the dreaded knock back, and the tough level of challenge were common mechanics in NES titles. Konami's Castlevania being another notable example. In this sense, Ninja Gaiden's basic unfairness was not a disadvantage as far as its reception was concerned. The meta-habitus of NES gamers had long grown accustomed to similar cheap tricks and they were accepted as part of the gaming scene, just as infinite player respawns are in most first person shooters today.

For the casual gamer is Ninja Gaiden worth a go? Absolutely. As a landmark if not a monument to difficult games, its canonical status is well deserved. And because its ludic qualities are so compelling, it is hard to put the game down. New players might overlook its unforgiving countenance and, who knows, perhaps accept the ridiculous challenge it represents.

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