Jaquio means to take control of the earth. A demon of monstrous proportions will rise from a 700-year slumber and a young man named Ryu Hayabusa wears the burden of their inevitable confrontation on his slight back. His father was killed by someone, or something, under the Jaquio’s deft, devilish influence, and so the letter delineating his mission, his gaiden, becomes two-fold. It even becomes three-fold later on in the proceedings, but to reveal that final theme would be criminal. And so, Ryu’s undertaking must involve both avenging his father’s murder and saving the unsuspecting world from an unspeakable fate.
If you’ve played the arcade game with the same name, forget what you’ve seen. The Double Dragon-esque play and look of that coin-op has been replaced by straight up side-scrolling swashbuckling and a massive dose of taxing platform-leaping. If Super Mario Brothers is your nemesis, you may well forget about taking on the Jaquio and his forces – you’ll be sliced and diced, dropped into bottomless pits and, despite unlimited continues, you will curse and beset upon your controller with intent to kill. Bring your ”A” game to Ninja Gaiden, and a good measure of patience to boot, and Ninja Ryu will have a chance against overwhelming odds.
Tecmo has blessed what appears to be a simple Castlevania-like platformer with compelling interludes interspersed between levels, here, dramatically called ”acts.” As we venture forth into the unknown grasp of evil, we learn en route of how Ryu is truly in over his head. The supernatural super-villain Jaquio has assembled his five best henchmen to insulate himself from any possible threats. But he has underestimated you. You will regard these obstacles only as checkpoints on your way to eventual success.
Ryu brims with this confidence due to his incredible skills. He is like Spider-Man. He can cling to any surface and leap from wall-to-wall following zigzag trajectories that would leave any onlooker awe-stricken, before Ryu leaves them dead. You will be called upon to perform these maneuvers constantly, often fumbling with your thumbs as your sword is brought to bear on enemies betwixt jump button presses.
Barbarian, the hunchbacked warrior, is your first true threat. You imagine that Crocodile Dundee style, he regards your family heirloom, the Dragon Sword, saying ”that’s not a knife…” and you know the rest. But you will leave him clinging to the hilt of his much larger blade as explosions and darkness come to claim his soul. You’ve worked your way through the mean streets and left the ashes of Jaquio’s first guardian blowing about the musty interior of the deserted, seedy bar you met him in.
And this is just the beginning. Besides the Dragon Sword, which in itself is a potent stabbing weapon, Ryu can learn a variety of auxiliary magic skills by collecting the appropriate power ups. These techniques range from the use of simple, yet effective shurikens, a ninja staple; to the invincible Art of the Fire Wheel, which encircles Ryu by congeries of blazing flames, bringing instant death to any and all enemies that he touches – while it lasts. These skills require other power ups to drive them, so that you must be constantly slashing down icons as well as opponents.
Back to our journey: you will meet up with Bomberman next, the sadistic, sickle-and-chain bearing beast of a man, who certainly has left his cute space suit at his in-laws’ house. Through jungles and snow-capped mountains, Ryu will press on, running into the fearsome giant knife-thrower, the Basaquer, in a dark, foreboding cave that seems disturbingly fitting as a tomb. You’ll need to sweat it out with the Windmill Throwing Stars to ensure that it isn’t to be yours.
Sheer will, and incredible platformer skills will see you through to see environs that become steadily darker and more singular. If you manage to stumble upon the menace that is Kelbeross, Jaquio’s drooling, deviant dog-like pet, you know you are close to the final confrontation. You’ve traveled from familiar city streets to evil, antiquated, crumbling castle parapets to meet the Jaquio’s lieutenant, Bloody Malth. Has this half-man, half-metal monster controlled your fate as he so effortlessly controls the lightning to wield against you? Never mind – you know that you must streak this yellowing man-made plateau with both blood and bolts.
To reveal anymore would be reprehensible. The storytelling in Ninja Gaiden takes an excellent jump and hack and slash game and elevates it to very special and rare air, despite the simplicity of the drawings and crudeness of the animations. Truly, the graphics throughout your adventure are somewhat plain and even dull at times, even by 8-bit standards. But the imagination behind the conception of said scenes, as well as the delightful score that plays in the meantime, more than make up for this cosmetic shortcoming.
Other than the unspectacular graphics, Ninja Gaiden may only disappoint you with its incredible challenge. It’s extremely hard, featuring a common 8-bit action game player-killer. The ‘small, evilly-placed enemy knocks you into a hole’ function. While the challenge this creates is mostly welcome, occasionally, it becomes frustrating and unfair. Imagine surging Ryu forward, killing three tough enemies only to have a bird knock you backward on the screen, and have those three tough enemies – plus the bird – reappear as you retrace your forward steps.
Worse than that, though, is the infamous final stage punishment. If you are fortunate enough to meet with the Jaquio in his inner sanctum, make sure you have plenty of charges for your fire throwing magic technique. If you don’t, you’re dead. And when you die, you will be unceremoniously displaced – from stage 6-4, where you had earned access, back to stage 6-1, an action that will likely prompt you to switch off the NES unit with something other than your finger. Tecmo! There was no need for this kind of pain; the game is hard enough without it.
These concerns keep Ryu’s first mission from being perfect. Still, if Ninja Gaiden was any better – that is to say, if it was a little more forgivable, if the graphics were a bit sharper, it would be the perfect action platformer. Hell, it would be Ninja Gaiden 2. This is highly recommended thumb gymnastics.