Though its legacy began in the arcade, Ninja Gaiden cemented itself in video game history with three dominant NES titles and a lot of dead bodies in their wake. Things looked bright for the future, but burnout had also crept in. The team didn’t stop completely after Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom, as Ryu Hayabusa and his stories were licensed out as the franchise tried to spread to handhelds and other consoles.
Ninja Gaiden Shadow – Game Boy (1991)
It was no surprise that Tecmo wanted Ryu to slash his way onto portable systems after dominating the NES. Unfortunately, as 1991 came around, their fledgling attempts to make that happen had all produced no results.
So Tecmo seemingly swooped in during late production and made a deal with Natsume to release the game as a Ninja Gaiden title. The exact terms of the contract were not released, but a lack of complete ownership may explain why the game has not appeared on virtual consoles or in some other form. After a name change, some repurposing, and a reskin in some areas, Ryu was set for a brand new prequel adventure on Nintendo’s Game Boy.
Set three years before the events of the NES trilogy, the player guides Ryu Hayabusa, facing perils across the New York rooftops to take on Emperor Garuda, Jaquio’s underling. The Japanese title to this side story even translates to “Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword GB: Skyscraper Showdown.”
Tecmo even slapped the original artwork from the first game onto this cart, perhaps in an attempt to convince consumers they were buying an official Ninja Gaiden title. Mostly, it was a Shadow of the Ninja Game Boy game, but with some additions to help conceal the truth. The new experience wasn’t simply some swapped sprites, tweaked text, and altered music, but tweaked mechanics that played off of the original groundwork.
Many handheld ports play like a facsimile of the original, but that doesn’t mean Shadow wasn’t good in its own right. Ryu is still early in his training — at least that is the excuse for his limited arsenal — as he only has access to his basic sword attacks and the Fire Wheel. He can no longer cling to walls or scale them, but is able to hang from some structures and possesses a grappling hook to augment his mobility.
Ninja Gaiden Shadow is also remembered as potentially the easiest game with the Ninja Gaiden name on it. There are simple but fun bosses, plenty of power-ups, and, most importantly, no timer. This was the stepchild of the franchise. It tries its hardest to be good for the audience, but not everyone accepts it.
Ninja Gaiden – Game Gear (1991)
The series graced SEGA’s handheld system, the Game Gear, after receiving the go-ahead and license from Tecmo. There is an odd line on the title screen saying that this was a ‘reprogramed’ game, but it is a new creation. Some believe that development fell to Japan System House, but this is hard to corroborate, especially when the credits at the end are mostly codenames like potato, carrot, and the letter P.
The plot is simple compared to most other Ninja Gaiden stories. An evil entity is out to steal Ryu’s sword and wants to start WWIII. Being on the Game Gear, it should be no surprise that the title is short and also much easier than the home console versions. There are still plenty of opportunities to die, but a little persistence is all that is needed to complete the game.
Unlike the other titles the Game Gear installment shares a name with, this version of Ninja Gaiden is less about platforming and more of a side-scrolling hack and slash. The game plays a bit slower, but the level design and mechanics encourage the player to keep up momentum and react quickly with the sword. The controls are fluid for a handheld, however, there is a bit of slowdown in some spots. Effort was put into the soundtrack but the music and effects don’t come across as appealing to the ears in some areas. Tracks like “Pursuit in Tokyo” or “Samurai in Kendo” and come across more hollow and simpler than their NES counterparts, while pieces like “Escape in a Forest” and the ending theme are appeasing, but can’t carry the entire game.
It is a good looking game and being on a smaller screen, the sprites were made bold and bigger. Backgrounds and color looked lively for the time and the final boss looks particularly creepy. As a small complaint, some variation in enemy appearances would have been appreciated.
Ninja Gaiden on the Game Gear does stand out as the only one to be called Ninja Gaiden in all regions (instead of Shadow Warriors in PAL regions and Ninja Ryukenden in Japan), however, the lack of a subtitle may confuse some fans.
Ninja Gaiden – Master System (1992)
SEGA also made a game for their Master System console that played differently from the NES games. This entry felt more unique and was a welcomed addition to the library, but it was only released in PAL regions, as the Master System had already fizzled in Japan and North America, making way for the Genesis. This game was made by SIMS, but also featured the ‘reprogrammed by SEGA’ text.
This new adventure takes place in Japan as the Bushido scroll has been stolen by the Dark Shogun. The story does not attempt to connect to the other games in the franchise. Once again, Ryu seems to have fewer moves in his basic arsenal, but new power-ups like the homing fireballs make him seem like a master ninja and unbalance the game, while the new desperation attack hurts the experience. The developers put in some solid work, but they did not quite have the formula down on their first attempt.
This SMS version plays more like the NES counterparts, but with the ninja bouncing off of walls instead of attaching to or scaling them. Ryu controls well though and there is some thoughtful level design, making this entry a worthy contender for the Ninja Gaiden name. It begins much easier than the original trilogy, but Ninja Gaiden ramps up the difficulty later on. This, however, could not save the game from weak and uninteresting boss fights.
The music is often brought up as a positive by fans who are familiar with the SMS’s soundtracks, but the consensus still seems to be that those tunes do not match up to the NES classics. On the other hand, as an overall experience, many players and critics agree that it was an excellent game, one which helped elevate the system, that just came a little too late.
Ninja Gaiden – Genesis (1992)
What was to be the third entry for SEGA in their Ninja Gaiden releases was initially referred to as Ninja Gaiden IV. The company thought this would perform best out of each of their licensed Ninja Gaiden games, releasing on the Mega Drive/Genesis, but instead, it never made it to shelves.
The story saw Ryu traveling to the USA once again to track down Jin and Rika, siblings, and rogue ninja, who had stolen some secret scrolls. It was mostly based off of the arcade game, sharing the same beat ‘em up style gameplay. It was not believed to be a copy or port, rather another original creation — even though this one also said ‘reprogrammed by SEGA’ — but some stages and enemies seem to come from the arcade version, while other parts feel loosely inspired by it. Most believe it not to be a port because of the changes in graphics, mechanics, and awkward basic movement.
This version of Ninja Gaiden was canceled due to poor development and performing badly when showed off. Electronic Gaming Monthly previewed the game in November of 1992 and claimed that Ninja Gaiden IV was 60% finished, but that may have been as far as the game made it. SEGA most likely saw good reason to pull the plug on what still looks like a botched mess, but fans were once again denied a 16-bit Ninja Gaiden title.
Fans were eventually able to see how buggy and unfinished this version of Ninja Gaiden was through emulation when the ROM was dumped. It is unknown if the version that was dumped was the one EGM spoke of or an earlier beta build, but many of the cutscenes end too early and some of the text is still in Japanese. A few stages are not completed and bugs can sometimes trigger, causing a player to miss entire sections. There was no guarantee that the finished product would have been good, but it isn’t hard to see some potential.
Ninja Gaiden Trilogy – SNES (1995)
Collecting all three of the NES Ninja Gaiden titles into a single cart for a new console seemed like a great idea, but Ninja Gaiden Trilogy misfired and became more infamous than honorable. The three games are ports and they may seem better at first due to some updated graphics and redrawn cinematics, but they were not properly optimized for the next generation. Oddly, the parallax scrolling was no longer present in some stages, causing a lack of movement. These games do not have any closing credits for some reason. There is also some slowdown during gameplay and trying to replicate the controls properly on the Super Nintendo controller caused many players to have difficulty with precision maneuvers. A few tracks were also removed or altered, leaving most fans to see this as a much weaker version of the excellent soundtracks the original games provided.
Various visual aesthetics were altered to fit with Nintendo’s family-oriented guidelines that were popular in those years. The color of blood was changed and pentagrams were erased. In a strange move, though, some text was redone to include harsher words, like when Jaquio says “Damn” instead of “Argh!”
This is a collection featuring three of the tougher games from the original NES for most, but this new version makes them a bit easier. There is now a password system that will allow players to pick their game back up or begin where they want. Also, Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom is based on the Japanese build, meaning it comes with infinite continues, better checkpoints, fewer enemies in some areas, and the player takes less damage from most attacks. (source: https://www.giantbomb.com/ninja-gaiden-trilogy/3030-8268/)
Many fans were disappointed with the state of their beloved adventures on the new hardware, but also that the series would not receive a proper outing on the SNES. The platform felt ripe for a deeper, more visually stunning side story for Ryu Hayabusa. Ninja Gaiden Trilogy also released late in the console’s lifespan and was not as heavily produced as the originals. Now the SNES cart is a pricey collectors’ item and the most expensive way to play the original games.
Ninja Gaiden II – Arcade (1994)
What existed as a rumor for a long time seems to have had some backing in recent years. Fans now know that there was a Ninja Gaiden II being made as a direct follow-up to the arcade game.
The new adventure would play differently from the original and allowed players to take control of three different characters, but it did not test well. The arcade sequel was rumored to be in development on Neo Geo hardware and even had some location testing in the summer of 1994. An ad has surfaced and the profile of composer Takuya Hanaoka listed tracks for the game. Like a ninja though, as quickly as the rumors struck, the game was gone, never to be finished.
With that, the first age of the Ninja Gaiden dynasty ended on a whimper, disappointing its loyal fans. The series would lie dormant for almost a decade, with Ryu Hayabusa venturing off for the Dead or Alive tournaments. Fans wanted more adventures, and, eventually, they would get just that.