Ninja Gaiden is the game that originally popularized the use of cinema "cut-scenes" to tell a game's story in-between levels. (These were sort of the predecessor of today's FMV.) However, most gamers probably remember Ninja Gaiden more for its high level of challenge than its plot. Playing it again years later, I still think it's a great game, and one of the best ever made.
Ninja Gaiden's graphics have a very grainy look to them. Unfortunately, there's almost too much detail, and the backgrounds end up looking very grainy, which at times, can make you wonder what you're looking at. However, it's not entirely bad. Some of the levels look much better than others, though. In the Amazon jungle level, it almost looks like the graphics are scrambled, but in the Temple of Darkness, the graphics and details in the backgrounds are much crisper and clearer. The characters and enemies are all very small, but to be honest, I don't mind this. For such small characters, they have a good level of detail, and there's a very good variety of them, including boxers, ninjas, eagles, soldiers, cheetahs, bats, and some things that look like monsters or mutants. The animation of Ryu looks a little funny when he runs, but I love his flip jump! The bosses are much larger and more detailed than the normal enemies, and look excellent. But the highlight of Ninja Gaiden's graphics is the cut-scenes. They're colorful and well-drawn, and they usually show close-ups of the different characters talking to each other. The one cut-scene of Ryu looking out across the jungle at the Demon's Temple is really impressive. While many future NES games would also incorporate cut-scenes, none really surpassed the quality of Ninja Gaiden's.
While I like the sound of this game, I do not think it is the best NES soundtrack I've ever heard. The PCB drums sound good, but not all of the actual music compositions are that great. About the only two I can think of that I would rank among my all-time favorites are the music in the mine level, and the music used when you fight the Masked Devil. The cinema scene music is usually more moody than the stage music, and fits with what's going on. As for the actual stage music, it is like a rollercoaster: In one level, it'll be good, then in the next, it'll be less than impressive, and themes are often repeated. I've seen many people say that the first level's music is the best in the game, but that one is probably my least favorite. Overall, I don't think this game has bad music, but it's just not among my most favorite NES soundtracks. The sound effects are okay, too, but some of them seem funny to me. For example, the noise that Ryu makes when he gets hit is a little odd, and when you destroy enemies they make a "thwack!" sound.
Ninja Gaiden truly has some of the most excellent and intuitive play control of any game! Ryu is very responsive to every push of the button, from running and jumping, to using his sword and special weapons. Even his trademark "wall-spring jump" is extremely simple and easy to pull off. To do a wall-spring jump, you have to get between two walls, then leap onto one, then leap over to the other. Then you repeat this until Ryu gets to the top. This is necessary to get over certain walls, because Ryu can only climb up directly when there's a ladder. There's only a few minor quirks that are so insignificant that they probably aren't worth mentioning, but I will, anyway. Sometimes, if Ryu gets hit by an enemy, he'll fall into a wall and cling to it. That leaves you very vulnerable to further attacks. However, things like that just take practice to overcome. To use a special weapon, such as fireballs or throwing stars, just press Up and A at the same time (a la Castlevania.) Overall, the controls are very easy to learn and master.
Looking at it now, Ninja Gaiden's story may not seem like all that much, but it was very good for its time, both in the way it was written and presented. This game pioneered the use of cinema cut-scenes to tell a story, rather than just using the previous trend of putting all the game's story in the manual. Ninja Gaiden was probably more of an influence on story-telling in videogames than any RPG. As mentioned several times before, the plot unfolds in bold cutscenes that are shown between the levels. The story begins when Ryu finds a letter left behind by his father, Ken, who went to duel with a mysterious enemy ninja and lost. The letter instructs Ryu to take the Dragon Sword of the Hayabusa Clan and travel to America and find the archaeologist, Walter Smith. During his travels, Ryu meets a woman from the CIA named Irene Lew, and gets entangled in a massive plot of epic proportions, involving the government, mystic statues, a mysterious evil man named Jaquio, and a demon that's been asleep for 700 years. I don't want to reveal any spoilers, so I'll just say that the way the story plays out is pretty cool, and you'll want to keep playing just to see what happens next. A big plus is that you can also skip the cutscenes by pressing "start" if you do not wish to see them the next time you play the game.
Although I have scored this game very high in this categoy, I'd like to begin by saying that I think the difficulty of this game is somewhat overrated. The first and foremost overrated aspect are the boss battles. I do not understand why I've seen so many reviews claim that the boss fights are impossible. I can beat the first 4 bosses of the game without taking a single hit, and without using much effort, either. The last few bosses can be extremely difficult when first encountered, especially if you don't know exactly how to beat them, but they're nothing that cannot be overcome with some practice and experimentation. As for the actual stages, they can be tough for beginning players, but I don't think the game starts to become a serious challenge until you get to Level 5. Every level of Ninja Gaiden is "patterned". The enemies appear in set areas throughout the level. The trick is to memorize where the enemies appear, what they're attacking methods are, and how to best deal with them. You also have to be careful about backtracking! When you move back, then go forward again, sometimes enemies will reappear, even if you defeated them before backtracking. But once you learn the "right" way to get through a level, you may find yourself able to get through it without taking more than a few hits...maybe without taking any hits at all! I have even gotten through Level 6-2, the so-called "source of nightmares" for many gamers, without taking a single hit. However, I am not, in any way, implying that Ninja Gaiden is too easy. Nor am I implying that you'll be able to get through any stage on your first try. It does offer a decent, solid challenge for even hardcore gamers. The levels are timed, but I don't think I've ever run out of time once in all the times I've played this game.
I really love the action and gameplay of Ninja Gaiden, and even though I've beaten it several times, I still get the urge to try to play through it now and again. The action is incredibly fast and the different levels are just a blast to play through. Even though the difficulty can get frustrating at times, it's fun to figure out how to get past that enemy or obstacle that's giving you trouble. Mastering the game will be tough, but not impossible. But even once mastered, it's fun to replay it again to see if you can beat it in less lives or continues, or take less hits. The cinema scenes also make the game fun because you'll want to keep playing, no matter how difficult it gets, to see what happens next. Of course, a good story can't save a bad game, but fortunately, Ninja Gaiden has great gameplay to back it up. The different special weapons that Ryu can use, like the Spinning slash attack, the throwing stars, and fireballs, are fun to use and experiment with, giving the game added depth. My only minor complaint about this game is that I think most of the early boss battles are kind of lame. There are three bosses that can be beaten just by standing in front of them and swinging your sword, making very little, if any evasive maneuvers. A second, more difficult quest, would have given this game more replay value, too. The game is a little short, too. But other than that, Ninja Gaiden is really fun to play, especially once the action picks up on Level 5.
SCORE (not an average): 9.5/10
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