Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ninja Week Video Games: Shinobi & Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Week is here!

I don’t normally review video games on this site, but when it comes to ninjas I think that they are a little hard to ignore.

When in comes to video games, ninja are about as old as the games themselves. I have no clue where they first made their appearance (although Moby Games tells me it’s Ninja Warrior for the TRS-80), but it was in the late eighties that the two longest standing ninja franchises were born.

SEGA got to the arcades first with the release of Shinobi in 1987. Joe Musashi uses his shuriken throwing, sword swinging, and ninja magic-wielding as he tries to fight the criminal syndicate Neo Zeed. The game is a classic of the side-scrolling arcade genre and was regularly known for its more intelligent enemy motions. The game would quickly be ported to every system available at the time, even SEGA rivals Nintendo.
The very next year, Shinobi met its greatest competitor in the form of Ninja Gaiden. The original arcade Ninja Gaiden was a side-scrolling beat-’em-up in the tradition of Double Dragon with only a hanging kick and an occassional ninja sword to differentiate it from the rest of the genre. It was also well known for its product placement, as Coca-Cola signs appeared everywhere. But it was probably best known for its continue screen, where your character faces a descending saw blade that slices the character in half should you not continue. It would have been utterly forgettable, if not for an NES port a year later.

The NES version of Ninja Gaiden revolutionized action games in a way still being built on after two decades.
It may not quite have been the first game to do it, but Ninja Gaiden brought cut scenes to the masses as it unfolds the growing plot of Ryu Hayabusa’s quest level after level. It also borrowed very heavily from Shinobi as it moves to a 2D side-scrolling perspective and ninja magic becomes an integral part of the franchise.
Both games would spawn sequels over the next several years. Ninja Gaiden gained two more games to complete the franchise as a trilogy with Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos and Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom. Each game got increasingly hard. (While I beat the much maligned difficulty of the first Ninja Gaiden, I could only get to the second to last level in Ninja Gaiden II and not even to the halfway point of the third game.) A prequel game, Ninja Gaiden Shadow, came out for the Game Boy, but was ignored by most players. In a strange turn, several parts of the world got adaptations of the first game made for various SEGA systems as well, by SEGA themselves.

Meanwhile, Shinobi became the hallmark of the Genesis with the sequels Revenge of Shinobi and Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi. Each game brought the graphics level up another notch. Shinobi became one of the prettiest side-scrollers available in its era. Three more (mostly original) games appeared for the Game Gear. The franchise moved forward on to Sega Saturn with the release of the final original side scroller in the franchise, the absolutely gorgeous Shinobi Legions. I still have fond memories of playing this one in a store Japan months before the Saturn’s US release. It wasn’t as mind-blowing an experience as the PlayStation floor at Sony headquarters, but I digress. With this game, Joe was gone, replaced by Sho, and many of the franchises fans went with it.
Both games remained mostly dormant for two generations of video game systems until Shinobi returned much transformed for the PlayStation 2. Ninja Gaiden would follow, becoming one of the first major Japanese-developed releases for the XBox, in 2004. Call me old fashioned, but I didn’t think either franchise captured the spirit of the originals, but that didn’t stop anyone from buying either franchise. Two more Ninja Gaiden games followed with Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword for Nintendo DS and Ninja Gaiden II for XBox 360. Less fortunate was Shinobi. The female-centric follow-up proved less than satisfying for fans. 2004’s Nightshade would be the last game in the franchise.

Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden have now shaped two generations of gamers experience with ninjas. Perhaps more so than any other stories I review this week, they have had a major influence on the modern view of the ninja. While I cannot recommend the newer games to anyone other than very experienced gamers, the classic side-scrollers for both franchises come Recommended.

Both Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi are available at Amazon by clicking their names here.

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