By Nathan Meunier
Things got a bit out of hand with the trilogy by the time Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom saw the light of day in mid-1991. The bizarre, convoluted story became decidedly less ninja-like and began to resemble something out of bad sci-fi flick. Framed for the murder of his girlfriend, Ryu attempts to clear his name and ends up wrapped in a plot involving his own doppelganger, a pack of bio-engineered mutants, a weird castle fortress, trans-dimensional rifts, and the titular ship of doom. The enemies throughout the game are comprised of an odd medley of zombie-like things, robots, cyborgs, and guys in military uniforms, and the scenery takes on a more industrial feel. Without unlimited continues like the two games prior (and a decreased ability to handle damage dealt by foes), Ninja Gaiden III is an exercise in sheer willpower to complete.
The trilogy was eventually upgraded and ported to the SNES. Ninja Gaiden Shadow also appeared on the Game Boy, though the game was essentially a port of Natsume's Shadow of the Ninja that was tweaked and edited to fit into the Ninja Gaiden license. The Atari Lynx even saw ports of the arcade game and The Ancient Ship of Doom. Beyond that, things began to look rather grim for the series. Under license from Tecmo, Sega picked up the franchise and further ran it into the ground with two mediocre Ninja Gaiden titles for Game Gear and Master System. A third game was canned in the beta stage, and Sega abandoned ship with Ninja Gaiden in 1992. Ryu dropped off gamers' radars for a time. Despite appearances, all hope was not lost for the wayward ninja.
Waiting To Strike
It would be over a decade before Ninja Gaiden would return to the spotlight in grand fashion, but its legacy lived on in an unexpected form throughout the 1990s. With game designer Tomonobu Itagaki at the helm, Tecmo's Team Ninja began churning out the popular Dead or Alive games - a series that eventually became well-known for its buxom maidens and over-elaborate boob physics as much as its intense fighter gameplay. Buried in the roster of DOA characters was none other than Ryu Hayabusa. Ryu would actually become a regular favorite and re-occurring character throughout the series.
Team Ninja built an elaborate world around the fighting tournament, and Ryu factored heavily into the plot of several of the games. His popularity grew among players, and Itagaki began work on plans to make the ninja shine (more like glisten with the blood of those dispatched with his blade) once again. The team's efforts came to fruition with the release of Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox in 2004. The game ditches the story and setting from the NES trilogy in favor of a new plot set in the Dead or Alive universe.
Not unexpectedly, Ryu walks the gore-strewn path of vengeance after evil forces lay waste to his village and make off with the powerful Dark Dragon Blade. As a fully 3D, third-person action adventure, Ninja Gaiden was impressive in its depth and capacity for violence. Also, any question of whether the game would stay true to the formidable level of challenge laid out in the classic series dissolves when players reach the first quasi-boss encounter against a nunchaku-wielding badass. The ability to run along walls, cast Ninpo magic, and disembowel foes gracefully with an array of deadly weapons proved to be as entrancing as the awesome feature to behead opponents in a spray of blood is horrific. The game was also released with additional features as Ninja Gaiden Black and later ported with upgrades to the PS3 as Ninja Gaiden Sigma. Indeed, Team Ninja's revival of Ninja Gaiden ushered in an appropriately bloody new chapter for the series.
Drenched In Blood
In its earlier years, the Ninja Gaiden series was not the gruesome, blood spraying affair players have come to enjoy of late. However, that's not to say there weren't a few envelope-pushing moments scattered here and there. Anyone who played the arcade original would have more than likely encountered the precarious continue screen on numerous occasions. It featured a bound Ryu struggling against his bonds while a circular saw blade descended slowly towards his mid-section. Failing to insert another coin within the 10-second countdown resulted in Ryu groaning in anguish as the screen turned a dark crimson. It's not very unsettling by today's standards, but it was still something to talk about in the late 1980s.