Top 100 NES Review: #16 – Ninja Gaiden (1989)

Campy Just Like An 80s Movie.

But I’d rather watch “16 Candles” than actually beat this game. 

Sydlexia’s Ranking: #16/100
My Rating: StarStarStar

I came down with an unconfirmed fever last Tuesday. I was sweating up a storm, feeling febrile and achey, but every temperature recorded was below <100 degrees Fahrenheit. Regardless, I was sent home to self-isolate and await the results of my COVID test. Since then, I’ve fully recovered but still no test results. Waiting this out has been a monastic experience and makes me appreciate those who truly self-isolated for all these many weeks as I have continued to work.

Prior, I was pounding away on 5th generation games (PS1 and N64). Even more specifically, it’s been a lot of Final Fantasy, which also means it’s been a lot of time. SO. MUCH. TIME. Playing a backlog of RPGs is a Sisyphean task, and every time I got that boulder to the top of the hill, it would roll right back down with the next entry.

I decided to take this new found idleness to blast through some NES games. I didn’t want to allot the same amount of copious time spent on FF7 or FF8.  The original Nintendo should be perfect for quick in-and-out games… until Ninja Gaiden hit me with a shuriken to the forehead.

This game is something else. Every ledge is perfectly placed near an avian threat more than willing to hit you into the abyss. Making things harder, trying to share these tiny footholds with sword throwing ruffians makes it almost impossible.

While excruciatingly hard, it does come with a caveat. Dying only means you restart at your current level. This means you only have to complete three stages of impossible tasks and defeat a boss before your starting point resets. And just like the lottery, this is where Ninja Gaiden gets you: you always think “I just need ONE more try”. Instead of being hopelessly out of reach, Ninja Gaiden is forever crushing your soul in a tantalizing, different way than most NES games.

Let’s just say, I gave up.

Ninja Gaiden NES Ummm
Her codename makes me uncomfortable.


Ninja Gaiden’s claim to fame is that it actually has cut scenes and some semblance of a story. Due to NES memory limitations, narration was regulated to game manuals. Within those slick-paged booklets is where you would find the reason for your adventure and the motivation behind your animated sprite’s actions.

Having played several NES games in my lifetime, Ninja Gaiden feels like a freakin’ movie epic akin to Ben-Hur. There is a certain level of sophistication here. Sure, I understand that Lolo is trying to save his girl and all in Adventures of Lolo, but this game has adults in life or death situations that involve ancient statues that release demons from the orient, not a round ball that solves puzzles involving caterpillars.

Speaking of Campy Movies.


I don’t want to build up the “movie” thing too much, now. I bet you only get about 10 minutes worth in six different segments which pales in comparison to the 250 cutscenes found in Kingdom Hearts 3. No matter how relieving it is to have some sort of narrative framework, it doesn’t take up the majority of your time. This begs the question: what does then?


While Ninja Gaiden might be forward looking enough to have been an early adopter of story-telling in video games, it couldn’t break free from the chains of infuriating NES bullshit. Take for instance this little ditty:

NES Ninja Gaiden Unfair
Stairs of death.

It might seem innocuous enough — going down the stairs at the end of a level to go to the next stage. However, mistiming your jump in anyway, such as landing too near the bottom even though you are CLEARLY STILL CAPABLE OF GRABBING THE LADDER, might lead to a death undeserved.

While this is the worst offender and lowest rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of gaming deaths, there are still a few other ones that are still pretty blood-boiling. This game requires lots of platform jumping with aerial assaults from birds, bats, and swords. You will soon learn that justice and fairness are not values this game holds. My favorite mode of death was the errant bat, always willing to come out when least expected.

Ruffian NES Ninja Gaiden
Do not assume anything will be easy or will not involve a bat.

The gameplay is about all you can expect from a side-scrolling platformer. It’s fun in it’s own retro way, smashing two buttons with the cheap thrills of close encounters and what-could-have-beens. However, it can start to wear thin after being sent to game over purgatory for the umpteenth time.

Ninja Gaiden NES Cinematic
This scene took over 2 years of man power to develop (probably).


Take it for a spin.

Other People’s Takes:

  • Reless1985“When you know the game and you can run through it it’s fun but if you are new or hesitate the game will absolutely just stomp you into the ground.”
  • Hoz’s 8-bit NES Quest: “The difficulty in Ninja Gaiden is through the roof. This game is always one of the first mentioned when someone refers to “Nintendo hard.”
  • Twentieth Century Gamer: In an era when many games didn’t include proper openings at all and “Congratulations!” over a black screen was still an acceptable ending, Ninja Gaiden had lavish, dynamic story sequences both before and after every one of its six acts.”

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