Dojo of hard knocks.

It is said that in a forgotten time, before the days of the walkthrough and the conceded ease of three dimensions, that video games… were hard as sh*t. Boy, were they ever. In the late 1980’s, Ninja Gaiden on the NES personified the word challenge, which isn’t to say that Tecmo’s action-adventure legend was the forefather of difficulty. No, especially in earlier generations, you didn’t have to look far to find a find a game to test your patience, but most of those games were also short on quality. Ninja Gaiden, on the other hand, aside from the occasional cheap deaths, was not impossible to play through – it was damn tough, but not impossible – and its quick, reflex-driven gameplay was rewarding. Sequels followed, and then Tecmo focused their talents on the fighting franchise, Dead or Alive, which would combine two genres as never before: fighting and breasts. Then, in 2004, in a bid to reinvent the franchise, and on the heels of their success with DOA, developer Team Ninja resurrected Ryu Hayabusa, abandoning his venerable series’ decade-long silence for success.

Return Of Ryu

Ninja Gaiden exclusively slashed its way onto the Xbox to the resounding acclaim of critics and commoners. Atypical of the Japanese company, Tecmo wanted to specifically target North American and European audiences at the time. As a result, due to the fact that Gaiden was only available on the American machine, the game didn’t sell as well in Japan. But if you were in the U.S. or Canada, you knew what was up. Ninjas were back in blood-bathing fashion.

Gaiden’s tale is a feudal story steeped in modern style.

Gaiden’s tale is a feudal story steeped in modern style. Just to set the standard for how bad-ass the game is, Ninja Gaiden begins with one of the most awesome intros ever. Basically, an evil weapon known as the Dark Dragon Blade is coveted by many for its immeasurable power, while the legendary Dragon Sword is its noble foil. Upon another training day of slicing some heads off, Ryu’s homestead, the Hayabusa village, gets attacked by a Greater Fiend known as Doku, who steals the Dark Dragon Blade and kills not only a good friend of his, but Ryu himself. The game doesn’t really make it clear, but Ryu is then brought back to life by the grace of a falcon spirit, and the Hayabusa sets out to kill Doku, reclaim the Blade, and return it to its resting place in honor of his fallen brethren. In the middle of all this, Rachel, a fiend-hunter with a rack as dangerous as her will, is constantly pursuing her busty blood sister Alma (ugh) to kill her and free her spirit.

*drool* “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

The tightness of the game’s script is where it fuses all this storytelling with other cultural devices and settings. You’ll board high-tech blimps armed with military spec ops, scour the ruins of an ancient Gothic monastery, and navigate the European-inspired streets of Tairon in the fifteen to twenty hours it takes to finish the storyline. For the most part, none of these cultural collaborations make any part of the game feel anachronistic, though there are the occasional ridiculous moments.

Ninja Slice

Ninja Gaiden defined action-adventure and, to date, is one of the greatest and, again, most challenging to ever gratify the genre. Armed to the teeth with all the ninja-appropriate gear, your main weapon is the Dragon Sword, which slices and dices with a surplus sum of brutal moves that carve enemies apart. Gaiden earned it’s M rating, sufficed to say. You could upgrade the sword, or take up other means of death and destruction like the Nunchaku. The combat system was unbelievable, a trademark taken from Tecmo’s Dead or Alive. Tapping buttons was responsive and the variety of moves available never let Gaiden descend into mundane button-mashing. Rather, strategy and reflexes dictated your many battles, with emphasis on reflexes because, man, this was a hard game back in 2004.

Honouring its prime precursor, the difficulty was a far cry in the sky from mostly anything out at the time. There were two difficulties: normal and hard. Now, we’ve become so accustomed to associating the difficulty ‘normal’ with moderate. In this case, normal just means the standard, and Gaiden’s standard was enough to wear down your teeth via excessive grinding. The numerous set of enemies were mercilessly quick and aggressive and could drain your health bar in a dozen seconds. Black ninjas would be assholes and chuck incendiary shurikens at you, while zombie archers would stand from afar and send arrows bigger than battering rams hurtling at your head. But, because the game was fun, you wanted to continue and beat that son of a boss you were swearing tirelessly over. Every completed hurdle was deeply rewarding and felt like you had beaten the game, much less simply beaten the first stage. There were very few cheap deaths, at least when it came to fighting enemies, and practice ultimately did make perfect; you’d be good enough, to dare I say it, even try tackling the harder difficulties.

Wooden pole versus swords. You’ll be surprised who wins.

Yes, challenging combat defined Ninja Gaiden, but this wasn’t just a fighting game; it was an adventure game which provided the perfect counter-weight to balance the action.

Yes, challenging combat defined Ninja Gaiden, but this wasn’t just a fighting game; it was an adventure game which provided the perfect counter-weight to balance the action. Using the Legend of Zelda as a template, the city of Tairon served as your hub for the game, which branched out to different areas and underground dungeons. Each area had its own assortment of puzzles, which were simple enough to figure out but sorely appreciated to slow down the pace of the intermittent swordplay. Ironically, the adventuring portions of the game resulted in some of the most frustrating moments. The somewhat sticky control didn’t fare well in navigation, especially when you had to make precision jumps and acrobatic maneuvers with little margin to screw up.  It also didn’t help that you couldn’t move the camera around but instead could only re-center it behind Ryu by pulling on the right trigger. In sum, Gaiden succeeded as an action-adventure, but some of the level design implied platformer; the game was assuredly not.

Just to ice the near-perfect cake, Ninja Gaiden was one of the greatest-looking games to ever be released. Opting for power over popularity, Tecmo chose to release the game on the Xbox for its hardware capabilities. Beautiful, stunning… there are a list of words, but none that can amount to the picture’s thousand. Sharp textures, excellent animation – particularly on Ryu – and, overall, a clean appearance earned Gaiden its reputation as one of the most polished and presentably produced titles in a long time. The sound effects kicked ass from sword attacks to the sound of blocking enemies’ bullets. Even the English voice-over wasn’t too shabby.

An argument broke out over which fancy dress costume was best.

A number of unlockables fleshed out the value. You could unlock the original arcade Ninja Gaiden by collecting 50 scarabs, and after completing the story, you could replay the game with a mind-blowingly killer futuristic suit, complete with lightsaber.

A Shuriken Star

Remakes and sequels have followed in light of Ryu’s ’04 success, but none have come close to its perfect balance. The game was challenging, but it wasn’t impossible. It was action-fueled, but it was also story-driven. It was rooted in Japanese, North American, and European culture. And it was bloody, but it was also busty. What we got from those formula of factors was a crimson slash of seductive power… and we succumbed.

Prefer moving pictures and sound? Then watch our video retro reflection here.

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