The Ninja Gaiden se­ries that sea­soned gamers know and love be­gan life on the NES in 1988, yet at the same time there was an al­ter­na­tive ar­cade game fea­tur­ing Ryu Hayabusa that’s of­ten over­looked. But not here, not now

Retro Gamer - - ULTIMATE GUIDE: NINJA GAIDEN - Words by mar­tyn Car­roll

When it comes to el­e­gance in videogame vi­o­lence, surely noth­ing can top the ar­cade beat-’em-up. Whether you’re flip­ping a guy off a pier in Rene­gade or smash­ing a bar­rel over some dude’s head in Dou­ble Dragon, it never fails to raise a smile. Tecmo was clearly aware of this when it cre­ated

Ninja Gaiden (which was ini­tially known as Shadow War­riors in Europe, due to the term ‘ninja’ be­ing frowned upon at the time, and Ninja Ryuk­enden in its na­tive Japan). Within sec­onds of start­ing the game, and find­ing your­self sur­rounded by mask-wear­ing street punks, you can grab onto a metal sign and while hang­ing there, swing up and boot a thug square in the face. Said thug then flies back­wards and smashes through a phone box, send­ing glass fly­ing ev­ery­where (and re­veal­ing a bonus pick-up, as brawler law dic­tates).

Aside from the hang trick, and the usual kick­ing and punch­ing, there’s the nifty ‘fly­ing neck throw’, where you grab an en­emy around the neck just as you jump and pro­pel them though the air. If you po­si­tion your­self cor­rectly, you can of­ten use this move to ping en­e­mies out of the play­ing area. You can also run up walls and per­form the ‘phoenix back­flip’, which is great for evad­ing en­e­mies and then hit­ting them from be­hind. The key is to chain these moves to­gether for in­creased ef­fect and max­i­mum swagger. It’s a riot, ba­si­cally, es­pe­cially in co-op mode where it quickly reaches Royal Rum­ble lev­els of ridicu­lous­ness, with a cho­rus of thuds, smashes and screams punc­tu­at­ing the driv­ing synth sound­track.

If this sounds noth­ing like the Ninja Gaiden (or in­deed Shadow War­riors) you’re fa­mil­iar with there’s a good rea­son for that. Rather than cre­ate an ar­cade game and then con­vert it to home sys­tems, as it had done pre­vi­ously with the likes of Ry­gar and Solomon’s Key, Tecmo as­signed sep­a­rate teams to the ar­cade and NES ver­sions and de­vel­oped them si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Tecmo’s Masato Kato ex­plained the sit­u­a­tion in RG is­sue 92, and also re­vealed the im­pe­tus be­hind the pro­ject: “In those days, ‘ninja’ was get­ting very pop­u­lar in North Amer­i­can and the [Tecmo] pres­i­dent or­dered us to cre­ate a ninja game for the NES while an­other team de­vel­oped Ninja

Gaiden for the ar­cade sep­a­rately. They were to­tally dif­fer­ent prod­ucts.”

So that’s why we have the bom­bas­tic ar­cade brawler, with its large sprites and over-the-top ac­tion, and the very dif­fer­ent NES ver­sion which is more of an ac­tion plat­former de­signed with the home gamer in mind. Be­sides dif­fer­ent game types there are many other changes. In the ar­cade game the ninja is un­named and we just as­sume that it’s Ryu Hayabusa. That’s fine – but who’s the or­ange-suited ninja who joins him when a se­cond player joins in? Also, Ryu mainly fights un­armed and his fa­mous sword is a time-lim­ited power-up, whereas on the NES his sword is his life.

Then there’s the plot. On the NES, Ryu trav­els to the USA to avenge the death of his fa­ther and the story es­ca­lates through a se­ries of comic-style cutscenes. Yet the coin-op pro­poses some non­sense about our hero head­ing to Amer­ica to de­feat a cult led by a de­scen­dant of Nostradamus. Rather than cutscenes that ad­vance the plot, there are a se­ries of ‘pho­tos’ dis­played be­tween stages that show Ryu en­joy­ing some va­ca­tion down­time – eat­ing, gam­bling, white wa­ter raft­ing. It’s a bit silly

The ar­cade game was not over­looked on re­lease and was well re­ceived by out­lets

and su­per­fi­cial, but then so is the game as a whole. Things take a sin­is­ter turn when you lose all your lives and a mem­o­rable con­tinue screen ap­pears, show­ing a buz­z­saw be­ing low­ered towards Ryu’s midriff. Talk about a bribe! Do you in­sert an­other credit or wait for the saw to seal his fate?

These days the NES ver­sion is bet­ter re­mem­bered as it spawned sev­eral se­quels and led to the cel­e­brated Xbox re­boot in 2004 (which was ti­tled Ninja Gaiden in all re­gions, thank­fully). But the ar­cade game was not over­looked on re­lease and was well re­ceived by a num­ber of out­lets. Crit­ics ac­knowl­edged the in­her­ent lack of orig­i­nal­ity – the brawler was hardly fer­tile ground by this point – but the pre­sen­ta­tion and game­play was praised. “It’s great fun,” wrote C&VG in its monthly Ar­cade

Ac­tion round-up. “A slick beat-’em-up con­tain­ing noth­ing star­tlingly new but with smooth graph­ics and masses of ac­tion.” Nick Kelly awarded the game 8/10 in Com­modore User, writ­ing “It re­ally is

the next gen­er­a­tion for Dou­ble Dragon fans.” News­field’s Robin Hogg played the game when it de­buted at Lon­don’s ATEI show in Jan­uary 1989 and was im­pressed. “With this prod­uct Tecmo looks set for star­dom,” he re­ported in The Games Ma­chine mag­a­zine. “If this isn’t con­verted to home com­put­ers within the year I will eat my PCB.”

Robin was saved from a cop­per and sil­i­con sup­per as Ocean Soft­ware se­cured the rights and re­leased the game for mul­ti­ple home com­put­ers the fol­low­ing year. Ocean’s ver­sions were for the Euro­pean mar­ket, so it used the Shadow War­riors ti­tle, and they were de­vel­oped out-of-house by Rother­ham-based Teque Soft­ware. Ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­view with the Teque team, pub­lished in Zzap!64, Ocean handed it the job in De­cem­ber 1989 and gave it four months to de­velop five dif­fer­ent ver­sions (Com­modore 64, ZX Spec­trum, Am­strad CPC, Amiga and Atari ST). Ver­sions were later re­leased for the PC and Atari

Lynx un­der the ti­tle Ninja Gaiden. To con­fuse mat­ters fur­ther, the ver­sions for the Master Sys­tem, Game Gear, Game Boy, PC En­gine and Mega Drive (un­re­leased, but have since been leaked) were all based on the NES game.

The ar­cade game was largely for­got­ten un­til the se­ries was re­vived on the Xbox. The orig­i­nal

2004 game fea­tured the NES tril­ogy as a hid­den un­lock­able, while the en­hanced Black up­date in­cluded the ar­cade game. Its sur­prise in­clu­sion strength­ened

the game’s ties to the se­ries, and this was ce­mented in the 2014 spin-off Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z where Ryu’s his­tory file lists the fol­low­ing claim to fame: “Sin­gle-hand­edly killed hun­dreds of mem­bers of the Cult of Nostradamus.” And so our name­less ninja from the orig­i­nal coin-op was of­fi­cially iden­ti­fied after all these years. In ad­di­tion to its in­clu­sion in Ninja Gaiden Black the ar­cade game was added to the Wii Vir­tual Con­sole in 2009.

The Ja­panese word ‘gaiden’ is gen­er­ally un­der­stood to mean ‘side story’, so Ninja Gaiden was al­ways an odd ti­tle (it was re­port­edly cho­sen as it ‘sounded cool’ to Western au­di­ences). In ret­ro­spect, how­ever, it fits the ar­cade game per­fectly as it’s a chap­ter of Ryu Hayabusa’s story that can be en­joyed as a strand of the core se­ries or en­tirely on its own mer­its.

The ar­cade game was largely for­got­ten un­til the se­ries was re­vived on the xbox

» [Ar­cade] The game is eas­ier, though more chaotic, when a se­cond player joins in.

» [Ar­cade] If only Ryu had time to en­joy the strik­ing Man­hat­tan sky­line.

» [Ar­cade] Some 2D ‘tightrope’ sec­tions add a lit­tle bit of va­ri­ety to the game­play.

» [Ar­cade] Move along, there’s noth­ing to see here. Just some mus­cu­lar mer­men block­ing the way. » [Ar­cade] The night­mar­ish con­tinue screens sees Ryu face death-by-buz­z­saw as demons look on. Fade to red…» [Ar­cade] In this case, it’s prob­a­bly a wise idea that what hap­pens in Ve­gas, stays in Ve­gas.

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