ULTIMATE GUIDE: NINJA
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
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.