One of the more memorable criticisms of modern video games is that they've become little more than "interactive movies." That in attempting to tell complicated, cinematic narratives the majority of recent games have become over-burdened with cutscenes that detract from the actual gameplay. Personally, I feel these arguments are inherently flawed since they imply there's any one right way to make a game. But more importantly, these statements demonstrate a profound ignorance for gaming history. Games emulating film is nothing new. And the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy for the NES is a perfect example.
Most reviewers focus so much on th Ninja Gaiden trilogy's legendary difficulty, that they completely overlook these games' incredible cutscenes. Which is surprising, considering that they were such a major selling point for the series. No, really. It was flaunted on every game's box:
However, this is far from unwarranted praise. Ninja Gaiden (1988, NES) opens with what may be the single greatest cinematic moment not only on the NES, but in all gaming history. Just read how the original manual describes it:
Yeah, Tarantino doesn't have anything on Ninja Gaiden. Right off the bat, this game lets you know you are in for one hell of a thrill-ride. And man-oh-man does it not disappoint. The cutscenes of each game take up about half an hour of any play-through, Which is just mind boggling, when you think about the fact they were squeezed onto an 8-bit cartridge that also included a killer soundtrack, and some of the best platforming games ever designed. But what really makes the Ninja Gaiden cutscenes a marvel is that they're genuinely good, even by today's standards.
In fact, if you just look at the Ninja Gaiden series not as games but as movies, they form what could very well be the most perfect trilogy of action flicks ever conceived. Had TV Guide ever attempted to summarize them it would probably read something like this:
Now try and tell me that you wouldn't check those out. Ninja Gaiden is the trifecta of everything awesome, majestic, and straight-up bug-nuts insane about 80s action flicks. It's almost impossible to think of one cliche they don't cover.
Ninja Gaiden is a standalone narrative, and the origin story of our hero: Ryu Hayabusa. Armed with a katana, allegedly carved from the fang of an actual dragon, and trained in all manner of ninja magic, he is a one man army. And he is on a quest to avenge the recent murder of his father. However, before he can get too far into his vigilante stabbing spree, the CIA hires orders him to infiltrate the enormous, evil, mountain fortress of Jacquio, the insane billionaire/occultist, and stop him from resurrecting a Demon capable of destroying the world.
As Ryu single-handedly storms his way through an entire army of mercenaries, demons, and other ninjas he learns that his father's killer is none other than Jacquio's right-hand man. Which means this all just got personal. I won't spoil the amazing twist ending. However after all the madcap carnage that lead to it, Ninja Gaiden's finale is a surprisingly somber moment that is not easily forgotten. Had the series ended here, it would have been a flawless masterpiece. But, popular demand was too strong, so a followup was quickly put together.
Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos is a perfect sequel, in that it's the same as the original but everything has been made bigger, louder, and even more over the top.
It opens with a scene that introduces our new villain: Ashtar. It turns out that he's the current lord of hell, and was Jacquio's boss. He's also less than thrilled that his lackey's entire army was beaten by a single ninja. Fortunately, Ashtar has a backup plan for bringing about the apocalypse: The Dark Sword of Chaos. It's a magical katana, carved from a bone of that world-destroying demon from the last game. It's a blade as bad as Ryu's Dragon tooth sword is good, and it's so chock-full of evil that it can open the gates of hell and jump-start the demon invasion.
However, like all good antagonists, Ashtar also has to get even with Ryu along the way. So, he orders his minions to kidnap Irene, the ninja's girlfriend, and have her escorted to his a mountain fortress that is even bigger, and more evil than the last one. This proves more than adequate motivation for Ryu to once again take up his sword and carve his way through a small nation's worth of baddies. But this time, he's not going in alone. Having mastered the Ninja art of magically duplicating himself, Ryu teams up with the only man worthy of being his side-kick: himself.
Together Ryu and Magical-Clone-Ryu, fight their way to the very heart of Ashtar's evil, mountain lair where they find yet another, smaller, but significantly eviller tower lair inside. It's like a fiendish nesting doll.
There Ryu quite literally stands against the gates of hell and holds his ground, in a showdown for the ages. Will true love conquer the demonic army? Can the dragon sword triumph against it's evil twin? Who is the true lord of darkness that has masterminded everything? All these questions and more are answered in The Sword of Chaos' pulse-pounding finale.
Having already carved his way through the forces of hell two times over, Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom took a different route, and brought the entire series full circle, while pitting Ryu against a brand new foe.
This third entry opens with the murder of Irene at the hands of none other than (GASP) Ryu! However, all is not as it seems. Our hero is seeking vengeance against this imposter who has framed him for the death of his beloved. During his quest to prove his innocence, Ryu discovers that the same agents that originally hired him to murder Jacquio, all the way back in the first game have since taken over the ruins of the first evil, mountain lair and used its arcane magics to create an army of superhuman, cyborg clones. Also, it turns out that Jacquio's fortress was actually built on top of an inter-dimensional, demonic warship that a rogue CIA group now plans to use to, you guessed it: destroy the world.
This game deviates from the more fantastical settings of its predecessors, instead placing Ryu in a series of more Science-Fiction inspired settings. Underground robot labs, volcano cyborg facilities, and of course an ancient spacecraft all give the series a major face-lift. However, there's also a very strong sense of finality to this third title. For all of its new aesthetics, Ninja Gaiden III is about returning to the franchise's roots. Characters, locations, and even cutscenes from the first game are all referenced frequently, making much of this game feel like a loving homage to everything that made the series great.
Ninja Gaiden III may not be as good as its predecessors. But then the third flick rarely is, nor does it have to be. All it needs to do is tie-up any loose ends from the previous stories, pay tribute to the series most iconic moments, and give our heroes one last big send-off. And The Ancient Ship of Doom does that with remarkable aplomb, giving the series an enormously satisfying conclusion.
Ninja Gaiden is ultimately always a story of one brave warrior storming a tower of demons in his endless quest for justice. It is basically "Die Hard" meets "Army of Darkness," with a little splash of "Commando" inspired revenge. It's non-stop action from start to mountain-levelling finish. And if that doesn't sound like a winning combination, then I don't know what will win you over. Because these games are as fun as they are difficult. And trust me, that means they are plenty fun.
But maybe, I'm just a sucker for retro action tropes. I'm willing to accept that. What do you, our discerning readers, make of the Ninja Gaiden series? Do you remember it as being every bit as awesome as I do? Or have my glasses become overly rose-tinted by 8-bit gore? Let me know in the comments.