Author: John Legendoffzelda
I believe in a sort of honor system between video game companies, at least when it comes to the compilations they make. These updated collections get created when they are important, when the amassed games matter. They aren’t just made to serve only nostalgia, but the justification of nostalgia – the proof presented to newer players that these mysterious works from before their time are as hip and entertaining as their older siblings and all the game magazines say they are. In this regard, the absolute best of these collections are able to uninhibitedly show how timeless their titles are, because the most important reason for their existence should be for a company to demonstrate its place in game history. And the history of any medium is always defined by its classics. This is the decisive threshold that Super Mario All-Stars and Sega’s Sonic Mega Collection cross, and although it doesn’t do it to that exact extent, Ninja Gaiden Trilogy crosses it too. Tecmo’s own piece of video game retro-reminiscence compiles and ramps up one of their most famous series, retelling the thrilling tale of Ryu Hayabusa and the events that made him such a notable figure in the world of 2D platforming.
As many NES owners can recall, Ryu Hayabusa is a young man who at the very start of his adventure loses his father to a duel. Following the instructions of a posthumous letter, Ryu dons a sleeveless ninja cloak and travels to America to avenge his late father. Here, he learns about the guy’s history and gets wrapped up in a strange plot involving government agents and dastardly men who mean to summon demons and bring disaster upon the world. His long battle against these demons was equally loved and hated by players from the beginning. 1989’s Ninja Gaiden, a transferring of an arcade property, is still remembered today as one of the NES’s best titles.
Strictly in the sense of gameplay, it didn’t exactly earn its praise because of originality – rather, as was the case with several of the other great NES titles, the game earned that stature through rigid conformation to the Mario pattern. Super Mario Bros. founded an exciting new school of thought based on the character jumping and propelling himself through the air to clear obstacles and move from surface to isolated surface; the idea was what basically saved video games from The Crash, and it caught on with third-party developers and their own characters. Whether the player was a musclebound vampire slayer, a diminutive blue android, or a wealthy pogo-hopping duck, they were always doing the principle action of jumping; the consistent difference involved was how that action was happening. Ninja Gaiden offers its own variable by making the player a ninja: a sleek human shadow that can move with the swiftness of a breeze and contort gravity to his will.
This manipulation of gravity allows for cool forward flips, but more notably it lets Ryu the Ninja stick to walls – a skill that translates into leaping off of these vertical surfaces to reach another area in the level. The levels make sure to include a lot of walls to accommodate this display of his agility. And they line up the enemies and running surfaces so that he can slice through enemies with his katana and leap across gaps with only a negligible amount of his forward motion lost; those two features are what set apart this game’s platforming business from the others. They grant that key, post-Mario uniqueness factor. The rest of the game’s design is for the most part more casual, created with the notion that there are only so many ninjutsu theatrics the programming of its day could support and filling in the blank spaces with a rather obvious gloss on Castlevania; there’s a time limit for each level that factors into the score, objects that hover in the air can be knocked down to gain power-ups and their requisite ammunition, and the screen displays dual health bars used for the hero and for the level’s boss.
Fortunately, these copied elements avoid rip-off status, as the game chooses to be about bee-lining action and not tensely methodical situations. The power-ups particularly are given interesting ninja twists as well: Ryu can knock down street lanterns or dragonflies to gain stuff like shurikens that throw themselves back to him, or the ability to throw circles of fire, or a spinning move that lets him stick out his sword in the middle of a flip. These items mean a lot when used in the main action, as those same NES players who contributed to building Ninja Gaiden’s legacy can attest that it is capital-D Difficult – bottomless pits are practically all over the place, their danger intensified by enemies that can move unpredictably or re-spawn should Ryu move too far from one section of a stage. His immobility when clinging to a wall calls for precision movement when reaching for another space, or else …
Being able to hit an enemy from a safe distance and not having to risk falling to yet another death makes the action enjoyable, and dying regardless is what makes the overall design tick. Nintendo Power magazine gave this game a “Best Challenge” award back in its release year and they never said things like that unless they meant it. They were experts with games for Nintendo consoles, and they knew this game would stand, as it has, as one of the NES’s best challenges.
Its true legacy didn’t come from its high difficulty, which was a common theme among video games of the time anyway. The game’s truest innovation was instead technical; it was one of the first popular uses of cut-scenes in a console title. Tecmo had the crackerjack idea of advancing the game’s narrative by interrupting the game itself with dramatic comic-book panels and matching dialogue. It was the developers’ idea of delivering the story with a greater sense of detail and importance. Seeing Ryu’s masked face so up close that you could see the wrinkles in his fabric, the player found out that they weren’t just looking at pixelated avatars but at characters, and these scenes were like watching a martial arts fantasy movie unfold on the screen. This combination of forward-thinking ingenuity and appealing gameplay is the main reason why people regard Ninja Gaiden as one the best video games ever.
This compilation does a stellar job of re-creating the game’s greatness. The 16-bit technology helps clean up the original pastel tones into more robust colors, and also sharpens the music to get across the Eastern influences. But by design, it must also remind game players that it initiated a trilogy. Ryu’s story continued in 1990’s Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos and 1991’s Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom, and his adventure seemed to repeat itself. The struggle for him to save the world from dastardly demons and defend his love interest Irene Lew unfolded and escalated normally, but the games themselves were intent on repeating the success of the first installment. They both have the same kinds of cut-scenes, nearly the same kind of wall-climbing, and identical jump and slash swashbuckling. The second game lets the player move up and down on a wall he was stuck to and introduced the ability to project clones of Ryu, while on top of that the third game lets him climb along horizontal pipes and put previews of the secondary weapons in the floating items, which do count as improvements. They’re the kind of improvements, though, that feel bulky and odd. They paradoxically render the first game obsolete with their ease of use, and at the same time they cause their games to have a lack of the commitment to craft that the first one had. Ninja Gaiden II and III are good games, and this port also gives them audio and visual touch-ups while reducing the difficulty of III, but they’re safe and soft sequels that in the end don’t look like they need to exist.
Along with the inclusion of passwords and a menu screen that showcases the old box arts, this is Ninja Gaiden Trilogy in its entirety. This collection doesn’t establish Ryu’s series as one of the all-time classics, like Mario’s or Sonic’s; it instead establishes it as one great game and two self-conscious follow-ups that aren’t quite at the same quality. For anyone who enjoys the trilogy anyway, or for Super Nintendo owners who desire to look further at the third generation, this game is ideal for them.
Four out of five stars.
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