Retro Review: Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom

Ninja Gaiden III returns to the series’ roots of brutal difficulty. However, this is a much more refined game than its predecessors, and despite being tough as nails, it’s actually a lot of fun.

Sadly, the best part of Ninja Gaiden II (shadow ninja options) did not make it into the finale of the trilogy. However, the items in general have been upgraded in a number of ways. First and foremost, you can now see what item or powerup is in each floating orb before you hit it, which makes it much easier to keep the weapon you want. One new ninja power, a vertically-oriented blade, has also been added. This power plays well with the new movement mechanic, which allows Ryu to hang on some overhead platforms. Finally, a new powerup which will significantly extend the range of Ryu’s dragon sword has been added. This is a must-have, and fortunately is usually pretty easy to get. Given the game’s brutal enemy placements, this serves as a nice equalizer for the player.

More so than in previous games, you’ll find a lot of use for your ninja powers in Ninja Gaiden III. The game is generous with power refills, and it throws a ton of nasty enemies at you from angles that your sword alone can’t handle, even when upgraded. There is a large focus on vertically-scrolling areas that increase the utility of most of your available powers. The game’s levels are very well-designed, and learning them is quite fun. And it’s a good thing, too, because you will spend a lot of time dying as you learn them.

Mercifully, the game offers 1UPs in many stages, giving you some breathing room to screw up from time to time. You’ll need to take advantage of these, because Ninja Gaiden III also introduces limited continues to the series. In fact, the game was made significantly more difficult than the Japanese release (in order to counter the rental market), and it shows. On a stage-by-stage basis, the game is not unfairly hard like the original was at times, but getting through the entire game with five continues will require you to master every stage. Most of the bosses are predictable and can be easily beaten after a few tries, which is good because you’ll have to fight them after difficult stage areas and will likely have low health.

The presentation is as good as you’d expect from the previous games in the series, and Ninja Gaiden III features a number of highly imaginative level designs and some great music. It also features the coolest (and grossest) implementation of a sinking-into-the-floor mechanic I’ve seen. The cinematics are great as usual, though the plot is gibberish.

Really the only thing going against Ninja Gaiden III is its difficulty. It doesn’t feel unfair like the original game, and you won’t have to deal with constantly respawning foes, but make no mistake: this game is very hard. The difficulty works very well, though. In some ways it feels like Contra, and like that game, finishing it is extremely satisfying. Of course, there is no 30-life cheat to use here. The faint of heart may want to play this game on the Wii U Virtual Console, to take advantage of the save state feature.

If you want to play a game with a great gameplay loop and tons of challenge, Ninja Gaiden III is the game for you. This game requires mastery, but won’t have you throwing your controller in frustration. At least, not as often as the original did.

Review Score: A−

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