May 15, 2008 - From its early 8-bit roots to the full-bore bloodbath soon to come, the Ninja Gaiden series has mercilessly stabbed and sliced its way into the hearts of gamers for nearly 20 years. Despite the franchise's reputation for chewing players up and spitting them out with its legendary and punishingly high degree of difficulty, many have developed an unwavering fondness for the varied and complex exploits of ninja Ryu Hayabusa. The release of what is likely to be the pinnacle of greatness for the ninja series quickly approaches, yet the series' ascension is as winding and bloody as it is magnificent.
Ninja Gaiden made its 1988 U.S debut in arcades, but the first iteration was uniquely different from those still to come. Greeting players with a screen declaring "NINJA IN USA," the arcade version of the game was a beat 'em up similar in style to the likes of Double Dragon or Final Fight. As the ninja Ryu, players ventured to American shores to take out a sinister cult whose members were comprised of a bunch of Jason Voorhees lookalikes and other assorted masked thugs. Players used a combination of flying fists, occasional use of a sword, and a variety of acrobatic maneuvers to deal out pain to myriad baddies, but it didn't take much to succumb to the strength of their sheer numbers. The large swarms of enemies on-screen at any given time and an unflinching level of difficulty ensured only the best players - or those with a huge sack of quarters - would survive long enough to persevere in their quest. Those with mad ninja skill were treated to a rather anti-climactic final battle against the cult's leader (an über muscular, sword-wielding descendant of Nostradamus) before catching a rowboat back to Tokyo to bask in the glory of ninja victory. The rest were force-fed a painfully huge helping of Game Over.
Tecmo set a high difficulty benchmark with the arcade release of Ninja Gaiden, and the tough, unforgiving gameplay has become a staple feature throughout the series. Over the years many players have been dashed against the jagged rocks of the extreme challenge found in the early titles.
Other than the ninja theme, rigorously challenging gameplay, and a few similarities in the initial-stage design, little else from the first entry carried forward with Ninja Gaiden in its transition to the NES in 1989. Moving from a brawler format to a fast-paced 2D platformer, Ninja Gaiden on the NES introduces a complex plot delivered through entertainingly quirky cutscenes. The first in the trilogy of NES installments sees Dragon Ninja Clan member Ryu Hayabusa journeying to America to avenge his father's death. On his 8-bit slice-and-dice fest, he encounters mysterious statues, a love-interest who happens to be a CIA operative, and unruly demon gods. Aside from a cryptic story, players also have access to the Dragon Sword, shuriken, and ninja magic to assist in dispatching all manner of creatures that get in their way.
Despite being punishingly difficult, Ninja Gaiden was a hit, and Tecmo followed-up with Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos just over a year later. Steeped in magic, the second title offered up a tale of intrigue as Ryu attempts to save his girlfriend from the clutches of a dark wizard and obliterate an evil sword powered by a warped nemesis. The gameplay was pretty much the same as its predecessor, though a few new abilities were introduced. Namely, Ryu could now split into multiple spirit clones that would fight by his side (a cool feature ditched in the third installment), and his ability to scale walls was greatly improved).
Things got a bit out of hand with the trilogy by the time Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom saw the light of day in mid-1991. The bizarre, convoluted story became decidedly less ninja-like and began to resemble something out of bad sci-fi flick. Framed for the murder of his girlfriend, Ryu attempts to clear his name and ends up wrapped in a plot involving his own doppelganger, a pack of bio-engineered mutants, a weird castle fortress, trans-dimensional rifts, and the titular ship of doom. The enemies throughout the game are comprised of an odd medley of zombie-like things, robots, cyborgs, and guys in military uniforms, and the scenery takes on a more industrial feel. Without unlimited continues like the two games prior (and a decreased ability to handle damage dealt by foes), Ninja Gaiden III is an exercise in sheer willpower to complete.The trilogy was eventually upgraded and ported to the SNES. Ninja Gaiden Shadow also appeared on the Game Boy, though the game was essentially a port of Natsume's Shadow of the Ninja that was tweaked and edited to fit into the Ninja Gaiden license. The Atari Lynx even saw ports of the arcade game and The Ancient Ship of Doom. Beyond that, things began to look rather grim for the series. Under license from Tecmo, Sega picked up the franchise and further ran it into the ground with two mediocre Ninja Gaiden titles for Game Gear and Master System. A third game was canned in the beta stage, and Sega abandoned ship with Ninja Gaiden in 1992. Ryu dropped off gamers' radars for a time. Despite appearances, all hope was not lost for the wayward ninja.
It would be over a decade before Ninja Gaiden would return to the spotlight in grand fashion, but its legacy lived on in an unexpected form throughout the 1990s. With game designer Tomonobu Itagaki at the helm, Tecmo's Team Ninja began churning out the popular Dead or Alive games - a series that eventually became well-known for its buxom maidens and over-elaborate boob physics as much as its intense fighter gameplay. Buried in the roster of DOA characters was none other than Ryu Hayabusa. Ryu would actually become a regular favorite and re-occurring character throughout the series.
Team Ninja built an elaborate world around the fighting tournament, and Ryu factored heavily into the plot of several of the games. His popularity grew among players, and Itagaki began work on plans to make the ninja shine (more like glisten with the blood of those dispatched with his blade) once again. The team's efforts came to fruition with the release of Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox in 2004. The game ditches the story and setting from the NES trilogy in favor of a new plot set in the Dead or Alive universe.
Not unexpectedly, Ryu walks the gore-strewn path of vengeance after evil forces lay waste to his village and make off with the powerful Dark Dragon Blade. As a fully 3D, third-person action adventure, Ninja Gaiden was impressive in its depth and capacity for violence. Also, any question of whether the game would stay true to the formidable level of challenge laid out in the classic series dissolves when players reach the first quasi-boss encounter against a nunchaku-wielding badass. The ability to run along walls, cast Ninpo magic, and disembowel foes gracefully with an array of deadly weapons proved to be as entrancing as the awesome feature to behead opponents in a spray of blood is horrific. The game was also released with additional features as Ninja Gaiden Black and later ported with upgrades to the PS3 as Ninja Gaiden Sigma. Indeed, Team Ninja's revival of Ninja Gaiden ushered in an appropriately bloody new chapter for the series.
In its earlier years, the Ninja Gaiden series was not the gruesome, blood spraying affair players have come to enjoy of late. However, that's not to say there weren't a few envelope-pushing moments scattered here and there. Anyone who played the arcade original would have more than likely encountered the precarious continue screen on numerous occasions. It featured a bound Ryu struggling against his bonds while a circular saw blade descended slowly towards his mid-section. Failing to insert another coin within the 10-second countdown resulted in Ryu groaning in anguish as the screen turned a dark crimson. It's not very unsettling by today's standards, but it was still something to talk about in the late 1980s.
On the NES, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos included cutscene imagery of 8-bit blood dripping from a sword at one point as well as a pool of blood. This was censored in the SNES port of the trilogy by making the blood green. Pentagrams were also removed from the game.
Released in a time when gamers have grown more accustomed to graphic violence in action titles, the 2004 Xbox revival of the series made up for years of relatively tame swordplay. Ryu's ninja skill was now able to siphon ample volumes of the precious red fluid from foes and send it spilling forth onto nearby walls, into the air, and on the dusty ground. Even better, a quick flick of the Ryu's sword could also lop the heads clean off opponents and send them arcing through the air in a blood-misted display.
The gore was dialed-down to nothingness for the release of Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword on the Nintendo DS, though the game features intuitive stylus-based combat and picks up the story six months after the events in Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox. In contrast, the upcoming Ninja Gaiden II for Xbox 360 promises to tip the bloodbath scale to epic levels.
No longer content with mere beheadings (though this time the stumps spray fountains of blood several feet into the air like in old-school samurai films), Itagaki and his team have elevated the gut-churning carnage in Ninja Gaiden II to an artistic ballet of flying body parts. The lush scenery is Ryu's canvas; fiendishly twisted bladed weapons are his paintbrushes; and the crimson lifeblood of his mortal foes is in great supply to fuel this macabre masterpiece. Consequently, Ninja Gaiden II is shaping up to be the Hamburger Hill of the series. The game is not only incredibly bloody; the blood looks insurmountably real.
Like a psychotic, out-of-control surgeon, Ryu wields a bevy of hardcore weaponry to grind his foes into small bits. The giant scythe is particularly awesome, but players will have additional implements to cause bodily harm, including dual-katanas, missile weapons, and extended ninja claws, among others. Moreover, the damage they cause in combat is instantly apparent. Limbs are removed with dazzling ease, and opponents can actually be ripped completely in half. The visceral accompaniment of flying gore, body parts, and entrails is jaw-dropping. As a perfect added touch, Ryu even takes a moment to shake the blood off his weapons before sheathing them…sheer brilliance.
Ninpo magic also has stunning new effects. In one instance, Ryu summons a mystic wind that acts like a blender, reducing the nearby assassins to a form of gross human puree. The same goes with large demons and other nasty things Ryu will ultimately rip to shreds. Also, slain bodies (and other assorted messy leftovers) don't immediately disappear. This affords players a moment to reflect with satisfaction on their handiwork. Those who crave over-the-top ninja carnage will be satisfied indeed.
Anxious players will not have much longer to wait to experience Ninja Gaiden II in its full glory. It continues the exciting evolution of the franchise with an unrivaled level of production and effort to make this the ultimate ninja gaming experience. Still, the future of Ninja Gaiden beyond the upcoming release is uncertain. In a recent interview, Itagaki indicated he does not plan to create any more Ninja Gaiden titles for any platform following the release of Ninja Gaiden II on Xbox 360 next month - he believes his team has created the definitive 3D game in the series. When players get a taste of it next month, they'll likely agree. However, will Itagaki have a change of heart or will someone else pick up the ninja torch in the future? Only time will tell. Until then…gamers will have plenty of time to bow down at the bloody alter of this latest brutal masterpiece.
Source: Nathan Meunier, From Pixels to Puncture Wounds: The Bloody Rise of Ninja Gaiden, CheatCC, 15 May 2008