Retro Game Review: Ninja Gaiden for the NES

I have a bone to pick with Tecmo.  I stand here wondering why games like Bionic Commando, Super Mario Bros., Punch Out!!, and so many others are getting remakes but the original Ninja Gaiden is not.  Well, there are new members in the Ninja Gaiden series, including the upcoming Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 for PS3... but they're all fancy, 3D slash-n-adventure types. Booorrriiing.

What I'd love to see is an action platformer remake of the original, similar in style to Castlevania: Synphony of the Night (one of the best neo-retro games ever made, period) that would feature action mixed with some RPG elements, and a gripping story just like the original.  Dreams.  For now, all I can do is back in the glory that was the original.


You play Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja who travels to America in search of an archaeologist named Dr. Smith - after finding a letter from his late father.  Compelled to discover the killer of his father, Ryu eventually discovers the root of the evil, and so on and so forth.  I won't ruin it for you.


At its core, the original Ninja Gaiden is a relatively simple 2D platformer with a few twists.  First, the basics... Ryu can attack with his sword or a collection of various secondary weapons, ranging from a simple shuriken to a nifty aerial spinning slash move.  Ala Castlevania, you must collect Ninja points in order to be able to use these secondary weapons.

That's where the similarity ends with other platformers.  Ninja Gaiden does an excellent job of adding some extra elements into the game... namely the ninja-warrior-sticking-to-walls thing.  If you've played the game, you know exactly what I mean - hopping from wall to wall to get up narrow passageways or hard-to-reach areas.  It was fun then and is still fun now, and I can only think of one other old-skool game to incorporate this mechanism.  (Can you think of any others?)  In addition, the action in Ninja Gaiden goes from left to right and from right to left, giving you more of a feeling of "travel" than in other games of its time.

Cinematic Cutscenes

This is what really made this game special.  It was most likely the first game of its time to feature this type of storytelling mechanism (Wikipedia notes that X-Play claims it actually was the first.)

The intro sequence really sets the tone for the game and deserves its own place in video game nostalgic history - two ninjas dueling by moonlight.  Classic.

After you complete the first stage, you get your first taste of the simple genius at work here.  Creepy music paired with a neat, widescreen image and memorable lines delivered the story in a way gamers had never seen before, with 8-bit art that was very high quality for the time.  I remember being mesmorized by these cutscenes, and I found myself anticipating each new level with a new kind of interest, waiting eagerly for the next little tidbit of plot delivery.

Notoriously Difficult

Ninja Gaiden's reputation as an extremely frustrating, hair-pulling, swear-at-the-screen kind of experience precedes it, and for good reason.  This game is brutal and doesn't flinch about it.  Swarms of enemies will occasionally overcome you, auto-spawning dog-like creatures will run at you again and again, and the play control can sometimes be a little tricky.  Prepare to lose many lives and start over again repeatedly to hone your skills at this game.

Plot & Storyline: 5/5

This was about as good as plots got for 8-bit in 1989, and were delivered with a revolutionary cinematic style.

Graphics & Sound: 4/5

Once again, exceptional ratings here.  Distinctly different environments are featured in each level, with little details that you may not notice the first time around, and the artwork in the cinematic scenes is great.

Challenge: 4.5/5

Not impossible, but brutal.  Bosses are wicked hard, enemies auto-spawn at tricky moments, etc.

Play Control: 3/5

Mostly tight, with a few quirks.

Replay Value: 2/5

The game is the same every time through, so it's one of those titles that you'll likely shelf for a while after playing before picking it up again.

Retroliciousness: 4/5

Ninja Gaiden scores high marks here for its innovative, iconic method of storytelling and distinctive 2D style.

Overall Pete Rating: 4/5

Ninja Gaiden is a must-play for anyone who dares to call themselves retro.  Just try beating it, I dare you.  Its combination of excellent graphics & sound, first-of-its-kind cutscenes and storytelling, along with beastly difficulty make it a pinnacle of the retro gaming experience.


Although Ninja Gaiden hasn't gotten a great 2D side-scrolling remake akin to the original, it's pretty tough to argue that the franchise hasn't gotten any love. The newer 3D Ninja Gaiden games for the new consoles have been fantastic games, met with equal amounts of critical and gamer success.

True - I won't argue that point at all. There have been a number of 3D remakes that, you're right, have been pretty successful in their own right. I just wish it would get the "neo-retro" treatment like so many others have...

Excellent review of a true classic -- I love your thought-out use of screenshots, your apt comparison to Batman, the historical facts (so early for cutscenes yet done so well!), and the fact that you have a "Retroliciousness" category, haha. Good times.

@NintendoLegend - thanks for the kind words. I hope (someday) to get a chance to pen some more of these. Glad to hear you liked it and I hope others do too.


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