Ninja Gaiden is a classic NES game marred by unfair difficulty. It’s one of the more stylish games on the system, and controls like a dream, but wastes that good will with cruelty to the player. The game rewards perfect play, and punishes anything less.
The mechanics of Ninja Gaiden are simple, with a few unique ideas tossed in that set it apart. Protagonist Ryu Hayabusa is armed with a sword that will take out almost anything, including projectiles, with decent range and blazing speed. You have to master this attack and learn to use it reflexively against enemies that spawn suddenly out of nowhere. Ryu also has access to various ninja powers, which work similarly to the sub-weapons in Castlevania. You collect ninja points and spend them to use the current power. These tend to be very powerful.
The game’s most unique mechanic is how Ryu interacts with walls. He can cling to almost any wall, even those that appear to exist as part of the pseudo-3D background. You’ll find yourself frequently jumping between two walls to climb and make precarious jumps. All of that is good, but this mechanic does have an important downside. Ryu cannot help but cling to any wall he hits in mid-air. This often results in accidentally stopping your progress by jumping on one of those aforementioned 3D walls, but the primary problem is that Ryu is tossed slightly into the air when hit. This can lead to him clinging to a wall above his opponents, and there’s often no good way to get back down (as dropping will simply result in him being hit again, repeating the cycle.)
Unfortunately, the repeated unintentional wall-clinging after getting hit is treated less like a bug than it is a feature in Ninja Gaiden. Enemy placement is essentially designed to screw over the player as much as possible. Enemies will spawn in the middle of the screen, sometimes repeatedly, or in mid-air. There are dozens of obstacles that simply will kill you the first time through the game, until you memorize which enemies need to be killed or avoided. The game is very short if you can beat it in one go, and they compensated for its length by making it totally unfair.
The problem with Ninja Gaiden is not that it’s difficult, but rather it’s the nature of the difficulty. The game will funnel you into situations where if you slip up at all, you’ll end up losing half your life or just falling into a pit. Once you’ve figured all of these out, the game is quite a lot of fun to play, but it’s aggressively hostile to the player. And lest you think this is just some unintentional quirk of design, the game has a mechanic where dying to any boss sends you back further in the game than dying anywhere else. The only concession the game makes is that you don’t have to re-play any part of the final sequence of bosses you’ve already defeated, but that’s a small comfort since dying to any of them sets you back three full stages.
While the gameplay can be quite uneven, the cutscenes in Ninja Gaiden are worth mentioning. While they don’t seem noteworthy in the context of today’s games, they were way ahead of their time, presenting detailed cinematics between each stage. The story holds up well, and actually lends a lot to the gameplay. The cutscenes are without a doubt the best part of Ninja Gaiden’s legacy.
Ninja Gaiden’s highs are quite high, but you have to suffer through its many lows to get to them. It’s a flawed classic, though the basic formula is a great one. This kind of player bullying may have been acceptable in 1989, but it doesn’t hold up today.