When one thinks of Ninja Gaiden, the mind will almost definitely fixate on the famed trilogy for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Developed as monuments to frustration and cheap enemy placement, Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Gaiden 2: The Dark Sword of Chaos, and Ninja Gaiden 3: The Ancient Ship of Doom where designed, I suspect, in congress with Nintendo in order to boost 1st party Nintendo controller sales. It would not be over-ambitious to say that over a three to four year period in early nineties more Nintendo controllers were stomped, smashed, bitten, and crushed on account of Tecmo’s influential ninja trilogy than any other in video game history.
Those who were not there may not know this, but ninja’s where the shit in the late 80’s. Ralph Machio, Michalanglio, Michael Dudikoff… Ninjas were big business. It goes without saying that every kid (certainly every kid I knew) wanted to be a ninja. However, having the inability to complete a competent roundhouse kick or concept just how nunchuks worked proved disheartening to my generation. On top of that, most of us bailed on Karate classes after we learned that it was mostly just breathing and strecthing. We wanted to kick ass damn it! And we wanted to do it now!
These reasons can more then explain just why ninja video games were such a huge success. We could assume the roll of our favorite ninja and experience all the carnage and bo-staff beat downs while living vicariously through the 8-bit sprite of our favorite hero in a half shell.
The original Ninja Gaiden trilogy was the standard for ninja games in my neighborhood, however. Every kid knew some other kid who’s older brother beat the third game- which was, of course a goddamn bold-faced lie. It would take months of training to even make it to the last stage, which I still contend is as unbeatable as any level in video game history.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered the black sheep of the Ninja Gaiden family, the game simply titled Ninja Gaiden for the Sega MasterSystem. Not considered canon to the series, it is however a fast paced, completely original game that Sega developed using Tecmo’s license.
The game follows the same cut scene driven narrative of the NES titles, except for the fact that it looks, sounds and plays better. The wall climbing from the original has been replaced with a flawless wall jump mechanic similar to the one introduced in the third NES Ninja Gaiden title. The bosses are big, varied and fun and the game is actually beatable with very little cheapness built in to the game play.
The main reason that this game is superior to it’s predessors, however, is the use of the birds. If you have ever played the NES Ninja Gaiden games then you no doubt are overly farmiliar with the cheapest enemy in the history of video gaming to date; the Ninja Gaiden birds. The bastards that knock you off of ledges and come out of no-where to halt you mid-jump and cause you to plummet to your doom. Sure, there are birds in the MasterSystem Ninja Gaiden, but they are at least a manageable menace. Playing through the game all the way to the end a bird only caused me to die once, and it was my own damn fault for rushing- and rush you will. The game play is so fast you actually feel like a ninja running through entire stages artfully dodging pitfalls and henchmen alike.
The only real downside to Sega’s Ninja Gaiden is that you have to import a copy to play it. The game was created late in the MasterSystem’s life cycle (it’s North American life cycle, anyway), a time when it had become painfully obvious the Nintendo’s 8 bit machine had won the war and there were barely even scraps left for Sega. The MasterSystem was, however, enormously popular in Europe and Brazil, so those are the only regions that saw a commercial release of many late MasterSystem titles, Ninja Gaiden included.
Which is really a shame. This game would’ve been amazing when I was 10 years old. Thankfully, it’s even better now.