Most people who grew up with a gaming console know of the Ninja Gaiden franchise. It started life as a beat em’ up arcade game which was later ported to a number of systems, most notably the Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES port changed it from a beat em’ up to a fantastically fast-paced but damn-near impossible action platformer which was very well received. There were three Ninja Gaiden games for the NES which are commonly called the “Ninja Gaiden Trilogy”, mostly due to the fact that unlike a many other action platformers of its time, the Ninja Gaiden games told a coherent and immersive story (even if the stories of all three games aren’t exactly related). When people talk about the 8bit Ninja Gaiden games, people normally think of those three ball-bustingly difficult NES games. But there is another that often gets overlooked completely.
There was in fact another Ninja Gaiden released on another 8 bit system; the Sega Master System. The reason that not everyone knows about this game is that because of the Master System’s weak market performance, it was discontinued in Japan and North America relatively early in its life cycle. This meant that Ninja Gaiden was only released in countries where the Master System had strong sales; Europe, as well as Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. Although it bears the Tecmo name, it was produced by SIMS, which was branch of Sega enterprises that has actually managed to become independent and now spends most of it’s time producing fishing games. They recently released “Let’s Try Bass Fishing Fish-On Next!” for the PS Vita. True story.
Anyways, Ninja Gaiden for the Master System is a masterpiece of platforming action. Everything about this game works. One of most impressive aspects of the game is it’s graphics. Now I know what you’re all thinking. Graphics don’t make a game. Well, you’re right. But the graphics in Ninja Gaiden are impressive from purely technical standpoint. The game is 8 bit but at first glance it could easily be mistaken for 16 bit title. Of course once you sit down and play the game, that intangible yet unmistakeable “8-bitness” is present, but even so, it really is quite impressive and was considered a significant achievement upon its release.
But of course, graphics alone cannot make a game. No one can disagree that the controls and hit detection in Ninja Gaiden are spot-on, but some people seem to disagree on which has the better gameplay. For a lot of people, Ninja Gaiden is synonymous with difficulty. They love the games because they are ridiculously hard to beat. The Master System version is not nearly as difficult as the NES version. While the Master System version could best be described as “challenging”, the Nintendo version would better be described as “impossible”. The Master System version is quite long, but with a bit of patience and perseverance could be completed over a single weekend. The game has no saves or passwords, but it does have a few continues which help quite a bit.
Because the story differs from any of the NES versions, the levels in Master System are a lot different as well. You start the game in an ancient forest taking out bandits and jumping trough trees. The next level takes you right into the concrete jungle that is downtown Toyko, where you take out Yakuza members with guns and, I’m absolutely serious here, midget photographers that constantly jump around firing projectiles out of their cameras. Later levels include an old school Japanese village and castle, a mountain range and the frozen expanse of Antarctica to name a few. While there are a few enemies which are specific to levels, there is a little sprite recycling going on, particularly the stock-standard bandit which you encounter in the first level. There is, however, one constant annoyance in terms of enemies. The birds. Those little flying assholes are probably the only things in the game that make cheap shots. You never see them coming until you are halfway through a jump and they strike out of nowhere, sending you plummeting to your doom. If you have split second timing or know when one is about to give you an aerial sucker-punch then you can usually take them out with a simple strike of your sword, but most of the time you haven’t got a chance.
When you get down to brass tacks, movement in both the Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System are pretty much the same. I would say that the NES version seems a little more fast and the SMS version a little more fluid, but for all intents and purposes they are more or less the same. Players of one version will have no trouble picking up the other and guiding Ryu through combat and tricky platforming sections in the other. There also seems to be slightly more substance in the Master System version. By that I mean that there are more platforms to jump about on, more enemies to defeat and more scrolls to collect. Level progression is a little less linear than the Nintendo version as the levels themselves sometimes have multiple paths, although like the first game there is really only one way to go to get the end of the level and that’s by going forward.
The boss battles offer a decent challenge and are neither too easy nor too difficult. They all move in regular patters (although the patterns can change mid-fight) which need to be memorized in order to time your own attacks effectively. The only exception to this is probably the boss of the Tokyo level which is more of a free for all, but even then a little patience should see you through. After defeating each boss there is a small cut scene giving you the next piece of the ongoing story and a frame of reference for the next level. While the story might not be Shakespeare, it is at least coherent and reasonably interesting, I would have to say that the plot of the NES version of Ninja Gaiden (well, the first instalment at least) is the better of the two. This never really bothered me as I play side-scrolling platformers primarily for their action orientated gameplay, but fans of the original probably shouldn’t expect anything too amazing in terms of story telling from the Master System version.
I could ramble all day about this game but the only way to truly understand would be to try it out yourself. The original cart would be pretty difficult to track down for most gamers in North America, and they would have to play it on a PAL system. Though if you ever do get the chance to play this game, grab it with both hands because you will not be disappointed.