Review by Tachibana Ukyo

Reviewed: 04/25/03 | Updated: 04/25/03


Ninja Gaiden: a name that inspires pleasant waves of nostalgia for many a gamer, conjuring images of fiendish platform action, a tightly woven story, and exceptionally dangerous birds as one fondly recalls young Ryu Hayabusa's epic journey to avenge the death of his father and save the world from the powers of darkness.

Well you won’t find any of those in this game, mister!

Not to worry, though; the original arcade game is a stark contrast to its legendary Nintendo counterpart, yet remains a worthy challenge in its own right with thumb-pounding beat ‘em up action akin to Technos’ Double Dragon. Your nameless practitioner of Ninpou is the hottest import from Japan, newly arrived in the heart of New York City and mixing it up with the neighborhood welcoming committee, a group of miscreants decked out in hockey masks and brass knuckles. Cornered by a veritable army of thugs, lugs, and pugs, our foreign friend can unleash a flurry of punches and kicks to send his attackers reeling, or nimbly flip over an unwary foe and seize him by the neck in mid-air, flinging the fool to the hard concrete a yard away in the blink of an eye. HA!

Don’t get cocky - this game is tough, as the aggressive AI incites a ludicrous number of enemies to surround your blue-clad ninja from all sides and proceed to thrash the living daylights out of him before you can say “Bloody Malth.” Team up with a friend and the equally mysterious red ninja can lend a much-needed hand and watch your back; all it takes is for a lone goon to sneak in a single punch before your character will find himself on the receiving end of a slow beat-down and powerless to prevent it. Run out of lives and Ninja-san finds himself strapped down amidst a sea of grinning devils, his eyes frantic as he struggles against his bonds. Frantic for good reason; a whirling sawblade slowly descends from overhead, its screaming steel promising to make red ruin of those internal organ things that one generally requires to continue living. Ah, but think back to your training - a single quarter is all our hero needs to execute the ancient Chinese technique known as “Continue” and escape this deadly situation with all his major parts intact.

Yes, Ninja Gaiden is a ravenous beast that devours your tokens, bashes your head in, and then cries out for more, yet it remains a very enticing one with its constant action, synth-laden rock, and imaginative visuals that often border on the surreal. Every level is begun in style as your shadowy lead leaps into the air and crashes through the screen with a menacing glare on his covered face. Packs of the hockey mask goons are soon joined by bearded men wearing rising sun headbands and armed with wooden tonfa in each hand along with burly hairless bruisers that swing at our hero with entire tree trunks; an experienced ninja, knowing that vandalism can be fun and profitable, can hurl these hoods through signs, barrels, garbage cans, and other private property to yield a satisfying crash in addition to bonus points, health restoratives, and even temporary use of the dragon sword; with trademark blade in hand, your character can quickly cut down his opponents with flashing slices of Japanese steel. Of course, you’re not the only stealthy assassin in town - enemy ninja take the battle to the metal frames of billboards pressed high against the buildings’ walls while men armed with nagitana attempt to spear you from above and below. The fight rages across town to a nearby bar, where our protagonist grapples with an enormous tattooed Sumo before vanishing in a soaring whirlwind and dining on maki sushi to alleviate those post-battle blues.

Night falls over New York as you cross the busy highways leading out of the city before commuters and trailer trucks can splatter our hero against their windshields; manage to overcome a gang of motorcycle-mounted bikers and you’ll encounter a pair of gigantic pro wrestlers announced by a midi incarnation of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, who are all too happy to fling pesky ninja across the screen before launching them high into the air with a primal roar. Looking for a bit more of the nightlife, we turn our attention to the bright lights of . . . Vegas. Who’s that suave foreign man in the casino surrounded by bunny girls as they admire his tuxedo, mask and all? It’s not the Black Manta. Awash in the glow of tacky neon signs, you-know-who resumes his battle on the hotel rooftops where a single missed jump can spell instant doom before heading out West. Whether in the dusty hills flipping from tree to tree over a river filled with malformed creatures, eluding a trio of acrobatic killers with steel masks and razor-sharp claws, or facing overwhelming odds atop a rotting railway bridge suspended high atop an immense valley, the journey continues strong until you arrive at your destination: an ornate mansion filled with ominous works of art and home to the thugs’ mysterious, socially maladjusted leader.

While it may fail to reach the prestigious heights accomplished by the subsequent NES spin-off, Tecmo’s arcade effort is an entertaining if brutal killer of quarters that stands out among the early wave of beat ‘em ups inspired by Double Dragon. With only a single conversion for the Atari Lynx, this ninjutsu journey’s modern presence is little more than shadow in today’s rapidly fading arcades, but excellent graphics and music coupled with a poverty-inducing challenge make Ninja Gaiden an experience that . . . hey, what’s that over there?


Rating:   3.5 - Good

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