The History of Ninja Gaiden: Slaying the Early Demons

The infamous origins of one of the most infamously punishing franchises ever made.

Ninja Gaiden
Ninja Gaiden

From Tecmo to Team Ninja, there’s a game franchise that has garnered respect and created a legacy that is hard to match. The series has legions of diehard fans. It was renowned for its tight controls, combat, and brutality. It has many names, including Shadow Warriors in PAL regions, Ninja Ryukenden “Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword” in Japan, and Ninja Gaiden in the United States. No matter what name it is under though, Ryu Hyabusa’s side story has spanned multiple decades and is known to many.

The company responsible for this legendary gift of a game series was originally called Tehkan Ltd., back when they made pachinko machines and even tried selling cleaning supplies at one point. Just before releasing their first arcade game, the name was changed to U.S. Tehkan, Inc. and a merger bore Tecmo in 1986.

The company now had its attention fully on video games and was determined to make something that would stand out. The team that would create Ninja Gaiden was originally just told to make a ninja game in an effort to capitalize on the growing fad of those mysterious figures in the West. Tecmo would set two teams out to make similar but different games with the same names, agreeing on several aesthetics and some basic details, but most importantly, that the games would be challenging.

All of this culminated in the beginnings of a legacy fans would never forget.


Ninja Gaiden – Arcade (1988)

The first game that would hold this legendary title was made for American audiences, hoping to piggyback off of Taito’s success with Double Dragon. A co-op beat ‘em up seemed like a perfect idea at that time and it would stand out above the others with its theme, visuals, and new platforming elements as well as the addition of an extra button on the joystick. Players would also have to learn how to throw enemies into crates to break them for power-ups and deal with the fact that they couldn’t rely on their swords. Those were only available as one of the aforementioned limited items. Once the idea was set, the only thing left was to dial up the pain.

Ninja Gaiden would attract a lot of attention with its visuals. The opening showed a ninja busting through the glass, which would become an iconic image in arcades and for the series. The main characters would descend on the stage looking like tornadoes. The superb animation, number of enemies on the screen, and destructible environments made it fun to watch. The most distinguishing thing may have been when the player would fail, showing the visual of the protagonist struggling as a circular saw came down on him in a beautiful and disgusting finale for many who had run out of offerings for this quarter guzzling machine.

I’ll never forget standing in the skating rink at this machine and dying just as a random parent and kid walked by. She was shocked at the sight and quickly took her younger child away. This image has always stood out as a defining element for the series for me.

The story is a bit ridiculous, focusing on fighting an evil cult led by a descendant of Nostradamus. It was over-the-top and rode off of the uniqueness of being a ninja in the USA. No matter what attracted players to the game, Ninja Gaiden had gained quite the number of hardcore fans and it was successful enough to generate several ports, like for the Commodore 64 and Amiga, even on the handheld Atari Lynx (which may be the best port), but most looked much worse or were missing stages, meaning that nothing beat the arcade experience. Raze Magazine even ranked it as the best arcade game in the US for 1990.

What the development team took away was that people enjoyed the brutality just as much as they did the theme. Ninja Gaiden threw as many enemies at the players as it could from every direction. The damage was increased for the American cabinets and many who considered themselves seasoned in the beat ‘em up genre couldn’t even manage to make it past the first level. All of this taught the newly formed Team Strong a lot for the version heading to the Nintendo Entertainment System.


Ninja Gaiden – NES (1989)

Hideo Yoshizawa (a.k.a. Shuichi Sakurazaki) led the freshly christened Team Strong in the attempt to ship Tecmo’s next hit game by expanding the reach of the Ninja Gaiden idea on a home console. Instead of going for another beat ‘em up this time — possibly due to hardware limitations as well as a desire to develop gameplay — Ryu Hayabusa would take up his sword in a side-scrolling hack-and-slash adventure that would set a new standard.

The NES game is vastly different from its arcade counterpart, taking none of the mechanics, but borrowing much of the style. The opening stage and some of the enemy designs show this influence. It also kept the aforementioned challenge. Many will claim that this version of Ninja Gaiden was one of the most harrowing challenges on the console, but that is highly arguable. It is, however, tough and many will never see the ending without cheating.

As the box cover claims, Ninja Gaiden on NES is “The Fight of Your Life.” That was true for the team members who playtested the game, as they were reportedly close to tears. What makes the game hard to conquer toward the end is actually a glitch. Ryu must defeat three bosses back-to-back, but death here brings with it a trip back to the beginning of the stage, not just to the boss fights. Though Yoshizawa says that the team discovered the bug before the game was finished, someone decided to leave it in to challenge players.

This new outing would focus more on the story, which centered around two statues with the potential to destroy the world and Ryu’s father, Ken, would play a key role. Ninja Gaiden brought its cinematic cutscenes to the NES and impressed fans with this new way of telling a story on home consoles.

It’s a platformer that didn’t re-create the genre but rather tightened up the design. One of the most notable attributes is the ability to cling to walls and shimmy up them with some creative thumb work. The game also added to Ryu’s arsenal with Ninpo, the ninja arts. These magical weapons allow him to kill more efficiently by tapping into his ‘spiritual strength.’ Each attack also helps the player not have to slow their momentum when moving through the stage, keeping the action going.

Ninja Gaiden’s debut on the NES was successful and earned not only high marks but a port as well. Hudson worked on a version for the PC Engine that was only available in Japan, but it did thankfully have English text. The game sported a different translation, upgraded graphics with parallax scrolling, and scaled down difficulty. The best change was being able to keep sub-weapons after death.

This port also featured re-arranged tracks, but many fans are not fond of these assortments. This is a shame, as the original introduced audiences to some of the best music on the NES.

There was also an attempt to put the NES version of Ninja Gaiden on phones back in 2004. It was going to be broken up into multiple parts, but only the first was ever released. Unfortunately, the game seems unplayable now.

Though the arcade game came first, this NES game would be the first step in cementing the game’s legacy. The first Ninja Gaiden is mostly renowned in the industry for its cutscenes and narrative but won several awards for its gameplay also.


Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos – NES (1990)

After achieving success with the previous game, the drive to follow it up sent the team back into the studio quickly. They would produce a piece that was slightly bigger and a bit more ambitious while not changing any of the core concepts. Ninja Gaiden II also had a higher marketing budget and Nintendo took more time to build up the hype for the second adventure.

Ryu returns to face a new villain, Ashtar, the Emperor of Chaos, who was apparently Jaquio’s master. The story sees him rescuing former CIA operative Irene Lew and attempting to destroy the titular Dark Sword. The story isn’t quite as good and still had to lean on the old game a bit, but the presentation and gameplay made up for that.

This entry looked better, possibly the best in the trilogy, with smoother animations and stronger colors. Weather effects were added that made stages stand out and helped with the action. These environment alterations were not designed just for the visual touch, but also would hinder the player in most areas. One of its best feats was introducing clones, a new sub-weapon that caused multiple transparent versions of Ryu to appear on the screen at the same time. For these new copies to occupy the same plane as the player character and work so well on the NES was impressive.

New sub-weapons were added, like the clones that mimick Ryu’s attacks. More importantly, these power-ups were carefully placed throughout the level, which helps the flow of the game. Ryu always starts with the Shuriken in his inventory as a default. Additionally, the ninja protagonist was now able to scale walls he could cling to without the need of jumping and D-pad manipulation to reach the top.

Combat was the same but the team made sure to improve on the boss battles. These fights force players to make use of Ryu’s mobility and are much easier if the given sub-weapon is used. Once again there are three encounters at the end, but no bug to send players back to the beginning of the stage this time. Health and extra lives are readily available and easier to obtain while other pickups feel more beneficial all around.

Ninja Gaiden II was well-received and had ports developed by GameTek, showing up on MS-DOS and the Commodore Amiga with an improved color palette. It also allowed for a player to save at any point in the game, making the experience easier.

In many ways, this entry was the safe follow-up that was guaranteed to give fans more of what they wanted, while still advancing the mechanics to show change, but not enough to stand out. It is often seen as the easiest of the original three, though not by much. None of these titles are a walk in the park. But for many eager players, Ninja Gaiden II was hard to justify acquiring — or to get their parents to buy for them — as the previous one was still quite new, and for most of the fans, remained unbeaten.


Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom – NES (1991)

With two hugely successful games under the franchise’s belt on the NES, it made sense to try and dip into the well once more. This time, however, the new outing would be a little less safe and experience some changes. The team would change slightly and series mainstay Hideo Yoshizawa would take a new position in the company, meaning he was involved much less in the third installment. Masato Kato (a.k.a Runmal) was calling the shots now.

This changed the direction of Ninja Gaiden’s aesthetic, putting in more of a technological influence rather than the realistic settings in which Ryu fought against the occult. The stages look much more mechanical and the enemies are robotic or look like reject lab experiments called ‘Bio-Noids.’ This time around, the plot is more interesting but also harder to follow. Our protagonist is accused of murdering Irene Lew, there are look-alikes and betrayals, and that is all before the interdimensional rift. To be just a bit more confusing, this tale takes place between Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II.

Another change was in the core mechanics, as Ryu himself moves differently. His movements are a measure slower while jumping, but can reach greater distances at the cost of some height. Several players may not even notice this if they aren’t familiar with the first two entries. The ninja master has new surfaces to scale and can now hang from many of the vertical platforms. The new main Ninpo now extends the reach of Ryu’s sword and persists until death or finishing the stage.

However, this may be the hardest entry on the NES, as the North American version of the game was made much more challenging. Players had been used to throwing themselves against the challenging stages with unlimited continues, but Ninja Gaiden III only offers five before restarting the game entirely. Attacks against the hero now deal double damage and offer a less-forgiving knockback. There are fewer health pick-ups and helpful items available. Also, dying on a boss will send the player back to the beginning of a level as well as checkpoints being more punishing when a continue is needed. The timer is also unforgiving and the password system was removed on top of everything else.

The increased difficulty between the versions is believed to be brought about by game rental culture and the fact that higher-ups in Tecmo were convinced Americans preferred the brutal nature of the series. It isn’t all bad. Sure, they added more enemies to the American release, but they do stay dead now when dispatched; a new feature for the series. There are fewer weather effects and gimmicked stages, while the last set of bosses are a bit more fun.

The game was ported to the Atari Lynx handheld system without having to sacrifice any of its content, which made it the first mobile version of Ninja Gaiden, minus the Tiger Electronics games. Though it was reviewed well, critics did not seem to enjoy the third game quite as much as the previous two entries. Ninja Gaiden III did not sell well, in part for the same reason that fans were skeptical about purchasing the second installment so soon after the first, and that a new console would be releasing in less than two months. The game has its dedicated fans who claim it to be the trilogy’s finest, but for most, it was seen as the black sheep for years to come.

Though these Ninja Gaiden games left a legacy that began in the arcade and exploded on the NES, it came and burned out quickly, but they wouldn’t be the only titles to grace this era.

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