By Nathan Meunier
May 15, 2008 - From its early 8-bit roots to the full-bore bloodbath soon to come, the Ninja Gaiden series has mercilessly stabbed and sliced its way into the hearts of gamers for nearly 20 years. Despite the franchise's reputation for chewing players up and spitting them out with its legendary and punishingly high degree of difficulty, many have developed an unwavering fondness for the varied and complex exploits of ninja Ryu Hayabusa. The release of what is likely to be the pinnacle of greatness for the ninja series quickly approaches, yet the series' ascension is as winding and bloody as it is magnificent.
Walking the Path of Vengeance: The Early Years
Ninja Gaiden made its 1988 U.S debut in arcades, but the first iteration was uniquely different from those still to come. Greeting players with a screen declaring "NINJA IN USA," the arcade version of the game was a beat 'em up similar in style to the likes of Double Dragon or Final Fight. As the ninja Ryu, players ventured to American shores to take out a sinister cult whose members were comprised of a bunch of Jason Voorhees lookalikes and other assorted masked thugs. Players used a combination of flying fists, occasional use of a sword, and a variety of acrobatic maneuvers to deal out pain to myriad baddies, but it didn't take much to succumb to the strength of their sheer numbers. The large swarms of enemies on-screen at any given time and an unflinching level of difficulty ensured only the best players - or those with a huge sack of quarters - would survive long enough to persevere in their quest. Those with mad ninja skill were treated to a rather anti-climactic final battle against the cult's leader (an über muscular, sword-wielding descendant of Nostradamus) before catching a rowboat back to Tokyo to bask in the glory of ninja victory. The rest were force-fed a painfully huge helping of Game Over.
Tecmo set a high difficulty benchmark with the arcade release of Ninja Gaiden, and the tough, unforgiving gameplay has become a staple feature throughout the series. Over the years many players have been dashed against the jagged rocks of the extreme challenge found in the early titles.
Other than the ninja theme, rigorously challenging gameplay, and a few similarities in the initial-stage design, little else from the first entry carried forward with Ninja Gaiden in its transition to the NES in 1989. Moving from a brawler format to a fast-paced 2D platformer, Ninja Gaiden on the NES introduces a complex plot delivered through entertainingly quirky cutscenes. The first in the trilogy of NES installments sees Dragon Ninja Clan member Ryu Hayabusa journeying to America to avenge his father's death. On his 8-bit slice-and-dice fest, he encounters mysterious statues, a love-interest who happens to be a CIA operative, and unruly demon gods. Aside from a cryptic story, players also have access to the Dragon Sword, shuriken, and ninja magic to assist in dispatching all manner of creatures that get in their way.
Despite being punishingly difficult, Ninja Gaiden was a hit, and Tecmo followed-up with Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos just over a year later. Steeped in magic, the second title offered up a tale of intrigue as Ryu attempts to save his girlfriend from the clutches of a dark wizard and obliterate an evil sword powered by a warped nemesis. The gameplay was pretty much the same as its predecessor, though a few new abilities were introduced. Namely, Ryu could now split into multiple spirit clones that would fight by his side (a cool feature ditched in the third installment), and his ability to scale walls was greatly improved).