Thursday, June 7, 2007

Ninja Gaiden - Review

The origins of this game are muddled. Most believe it was loosely based on the concept of the arcade game with the same name. The arcade Ninja Gaiden was a Beat 'em up brawler whose only real innovation was a button on the joystick that let you grab onto poles and bars. This game is a platformer, drastically different from the arcade game and seemed destined to be lumped in the category of "console games different from and superior to their arcade versions" like Bionic Commando and Contra. That's all well on good, but it is unclear whether the arcade game actually came out before the NES version. Even if it did, there wasn't much time, so the two games were likely developed concurrently. There are also those who postulate that the NES Ninja Gaiden ripped-off Castlevania. While it certainly borrowed the player/enemy life and power-ups in candles, those people are otherwise crazy.

Regardless of its origins, Ninja Gaiden stands as a classic NES game. People remember it to this day and have very fond memories of it. Generally, people remember four things about it: The story, the tight play control, the difficulty, and the music.

While there were certainly previous NES games that had a story and told you what was going on, Ninja Gaiden was one of the first to do it in movie style. Indeed, the game's main stages were labeled "Acts". Ninja Gaiden was a pioneer of the cut scene, or as it dubbed them, "cinema scenes". At the beginning, you are treated to a beautiful prologue, featuring two characters dueling in a field. One falls and you learn that this was the father of Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja of the Shinobi clan. Ryu finds his father dead and finds a letter left by his father saying that if he dies, Ryu should take the family's dragon sword and go to America seeking his father's archaeologist friend. All of this is told in beautfiul graphics accompanied by text and stirring music. As the story progresses, Ryu discovers his father's link to an ancient Amazonian temple, a madman intent on awakening a demon that has slept for 700 years, and the involvement of the CIA. While the story won't be winning any awards, it is written well, clever enough, and appropriate for an action game (as it would be in an action movie). Moreover, it is of appropriate length, whetting the player's appetite just enough between levels and serving as a reward for completing them, not a distraction from the actual game itself.

That is good, because the actual game is a delight to play. During the simple first level, you learn pretty much all of the platforming tricks. Ryu can jump a good height and has limited control of himself while in the air. Using his ninja training, he can grab onto any vertical surface and then jump off it in the opposite direction. This simple change to standard platforming really opens up a lot in terms of level design and is used very well throughout the game. By the end of the game, you will have mastered jumping onto a wall and then off it again to reach the desired platform. There is even one infamous series of jumps in level 5-2 that requires understanding of just how it works.

Beyond the platforming, Ryu generally uses his sword to attack the foes he comes across. His sword slashes out horizontally and he can do it in mid-air, so perhaps the similarities to Castlevania shouldn't be overlooked. Ryu adds to his arsenal by acquiring ninja arts which are located in the candles, birds, hummingbirds, spiders or various other small objects dotted throughout the stages. These ninja arts consist of basic throwing stars that shoot out horizontally, great flames that leap out diagonally, or slashing in 360 degrees in the air making you all but invincible. Each use of a ninja art depletes your ninja spirit level which is filled by finding power ups in the same object that ninja arts are found in.

All of these attacking techniques are used for the game's variety of enemies. Each enemy has a certain behavior it follows that must be taken into account. Basic warriors with swords or bats just move back and forth on one platform. More advanced boxers or crouching men lunge or jump at you when you come near. Other foes shoot or throw projectiles at you, some always facing you. And then there are the birds that home in on you. Those birds still give me nightmares. This variety and intelligence in enemy behaviors make getting through parts of stages almost a puzzle, requiring swift thinking to maneuver yourself into the right position and quick reflexes to slash your sword just when the enemy is in range. At the end of each act, you face a boss. Though big, colorful, and artistically designed, these bosses are generally not very difficult. They don't have interesting patterns that must be discovered and exploited, but rather simple ones that usually just require figuring when the right spot to repeated slash at them is. It isn't until the very end of the game that you face any truly interesting (in terms of challenge) boss fights.

Though the gameplay generally exudes polish, when you look close enough, chinks show in the armor. It is often possible to fall through platforms at the screen's edge. Worse, these platforms are often ones with ladders leading to the next area and so you may have to retry your jump several times before hitting it right (or worse, die in the attempt). The game also gets into trouble with too many sprites on the screen at a time, leading to flicker and difficulty in telling where you or the enemies are. Finally, and most frustratingly, the game sets certain points in a level for where enemies spawn. If you pass this point and then come back to it, the enemy will usually respawn - even if the first incarnation is still on the screen.

This is part of what makes the game so tough. If you are running away from an enemy to regroup and turn around to attack it, you will often now have a second one to deal with. Or if you finally figure out how to defeat an enemy on a precarious platform you need to jump to, you may find you've backed up too far and it will appear there again. The game gives you a health bar with sixteen slots in it, though certain enemies will do more than one unit of damage in a hit. When an enemy hits you, you are invincible for a temporary period, but you also are forced back and can't move for part of that which can lead to being knocked into a group of enemies and taking more hits, or worse being knocked into a pit. The pits are instant death and if you are in the air and are hit by an enemy of projectile, you have no control while you begin plummetting to your doom and have to hope you regain control of your character with enough time to maneuver onto a ledge or wall. But you probably won't.

Despite this challenge, people come back to this game because it feels tough, but fair. Much like the GnG series, when you die, it rarely feels cheap. It doesn't feel like you had no way to avoid the death, but rather if you were a little more careful or had reacted a little more quickly you could have been fine. Yes, the birds torment you with their dive-bombing, but once you learn how they react, you can dodge and attack and get them back. While memorizing levels helps and is probably the only way you will beat the game, unlike difficult games such as Battletoads, it is not required. If you move cautiously enough and react quickly enough, you can get through any situation. It is just very tough to do so.

Fortunately, while you are tearing your hair out over the game's difficulty, you will be listening to one of the best soundtracks on the NES. I'm sure the music is another reason people keep coming back to this game. Mega Man 2 has a great soundtrack too, but its lack of story means that its songs don't carry the same emotional impact. The music that plays during the prologue at the beginning is just what would play during the same sort of prologue in a movie. The music for Act 3, which is all about chasing someone feels fast and frenetic like a chase should. After being captured, mugged for the statue to reawaken the demon, and having your girl dragged off to be sacrificed, the music in level 5-1 carries the sense of desperation that Ryu Hayabusa would feel and in 5-3 the desperation twinged with hope that he might just get there in time.

The rest of the game is merely fine. The graphics for the levels and sprites are good, but not generally amazing. While there is some great background art for the level (which should be expected given the quality of art in the cinema scenes), it sometimes doesn't seem to have been checked with the sprites, so they can not be as visible as they should. The sprites themselves work, but aren't very special. They work, but don't stick out because of their detail or color. The same could be said of the sound effects. They are only used when they have to be - slashing your sword, an enemy dying, picking up and item, etc. The slicing/explosion sound when an enemy dies is the only memorable one, the rest are either beepy and bloopy or worse a bit muffled which is a problem when it is the one used to denote that you've hit a boss.

Whether this game is a great example of a game changing in the move from arcade to home console or a shamless crib of ideas from Castlevania, it stands up today. It is still incredibly fun to play despite the fact that better platformers have been made or other games have done stories better. I personally love this game, but I know that nostalgia clouds some of that. I like this game better than its sequel despite that fact that I think the sequel has more refined gameplay, more appropriate challenge, better music, and a better story. No matter how fun this game is to play, and just about everyone agrees on that, I have to concede that its relentless difficulty probably prevents it from being seen as great. I also have to remind myself that my rating system is supposed be both objective, and on a bell curve, so few games will rate at the extremes. Subjectively, this is one of the my top three favorite games for the NES. Objectively, it is a very good game that some flaws which are thrown more in the spotlight by how the sequel fixed many of them.

Rating: 8 / 10

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