Ninja Gaiden is the franchise that never was, a famous videogame brand that has clocked up over ten titles without ever adhering to any consistent continuity. These are games that play almost identically, yet often have little in common beyond the name of the lead character and a propensity for fiendish difficulty levels. But still they endure, most recently revived and resuscitated by the mercurial talents of Tomonobu Itagaki and Team Ninja. Today gamers fidget in anticipation to see what the outspoken development wizard has come up with. Two decades ago, however, Ninja Gaiden was just getting started, launching in the arcades and on the NES in a peculiar criss-cross release pattern.
Vengeful ninja Ryu Hayabusa arrived in American arcades in 1988, the same year he launched on the NES in Japan in Ninja Ryukenden, or Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword. By 1989 the two nations had swapped over, with the arcade machine reaching Japan and the NES game hitting the US. For those of us in the rest of the world (or the PAL territories at least) the same game arrived under the name Shadow Warriors, the title under which Ocean pumped out numerous home versions for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and others.
Already, the nascent series was a bit of a muddle. Apart from having three different titles and zig-zagging release dates, the arcade machine bore little resemblance to the NES game bearing the same name. The former was a straight-forward beat-'em-up, firmly in the style of Double Dragon and Renegade. Ryu had access to a limited array of hand-to-hand attacks, and trotted from left to right mashing down a constant stream of enemies in hockey masks and colourful costumes. Despite his sprite clearly showing a sword strapped to his back, the iconic weapon of the series could only be used by picking up a time-limited power-up.
Arcade Ryu was reasonably athletic - able to swing from poles and somersault off objects - but combat was somewhat stiff and awkward compared to its genre peers of the time. It's not much of a surprise, then, that unlike most '80s arcade games, Ninja Gaiden never produced any sequel cabinets. Still, the game boasted several memorable elements - such as the outrageous 'continue' screen which, apropos of nothing, found Ryu pinned down by demons as a circular saw blade descended towards him.
It was the concurrent NES version that instead set the standard for the series, cribbing more from Shinobi with a faster pace, enemies that could be felled with one sweep of Ryu's sword (which now came as standard) and a greater emphasis on navigating the numerous platforms that made up the levels. The game also introduced the Windmill Shuriken, which could be used to kill enemies at a distance, and the special magical Ninja Arts attacks. One thing it had in common with the arcade version was being infamously and ferociously hard, with unforgiving boss fights and a cute habit of sending you back to the start of a stage should you fail.
The first NES Ninja Gaiden also introduced a number of sporadic story elements which would be teased out in future instalments. Characters such as Irene Lew and Foster, from the CIA Secret Auxiliary Unit, fleshed out the reasons behind Ryu's relentless battling with a conspiracy storyline revolving around Ryu's missing father, two magical demon statues and supervillain Jaquio. Ninja Gaiden II: Dark Sword of Chaos arrived in both the US and Japan in 1990, and continued Ryu's adventures against the forces of evil. Irene Lew returned as his love interest, now kidnapped by the villainous Ashtar. More familiar elements were added to the game for this second outing, including the ability to climb up walls and the Spirit Clones, indestructible echoes of Ryu which copied his every move.
Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom, the final instalment in the NES trilogy, launched in 1991 but as is typical with these things, Europe had been consistently short-changed in the release schedules. We finally got the first game just as America and Japan were tucking into Part 3, and we wouldn't see the second game until 1994. Unsurprisingly, this third game never even made it to Europe. The games had never been easy, but Ninja Gaiden III really turned the thumbscrews that little bit harder, especially in the US version which was made even tougher than the Japanese edition. Whereas previous games had at least offered infinite continues, players were now restricted to five, while enemies were made more powerful and the password system from the Japanese game was removed completely.
The story, never really a strong point of the series, had also pretty much gone completely off the rails by this point. Foster, the rogue CIA guy from the first game, returned along with another dodgy spy guy, Clancy. There was some guff about a trans-dimensional warship, genetically engineered BIO-NOIDS and four enormous "great beasts". It was a glorious load of old bollocks, and it was predictably this outlandish excuse for a story that was loosely pillaged for the short-lived Ninja Gaiden anime series, which debuted in the same year.
With the NES trilogy, such as it was, now complete, the Ninja Gaiden series began to move onto fresh platforms. 1991 saw the release of Ninja Gaiden Shadow for the GameBoy, a prequel game that many believe was actually based on the rival Shadow of the Ninja series. Always a fairly obvious copy of Ninja Gaiden, fans point to the numerous similarities between Ryu's GameBoy outing and Shadow of the Ninja as evidence that Tecmo struck a deal to port Natsume's copycat effort to handhelds, and simply re-skinned the graphics to fit its own franchise.
1991 also saw Ryu leap the console divide and make his first appearance on SEGA hardware, with a Game Gear release simply known as Ninja Gaiden. Predictably, the game had nothing in common with the modern-day story of the NES games, instead finding Ryu apparently back in feudal Japan and on the run from bad guys who wanted to steal his Dragon Sword. A Master System game, also called Ninja Gaiden, followed in 1992 and - you guessed it - once again rebooted Ryu's story for another fresh start. This time he was tracking the evil Dark Samurai and the Sacred Scroll of Bushido, with the help of new abilities such as the Desperation Attack, which could destroy all the enemies on-screen at a cost of a quarter of Ryu's health. Unusually, this game was exclusive to us poor saps in PAL Land, which sort of almost makes up for the shoddy treatment we suffered with the NES games. A further Megadrive instalment was under development, but was unceremoniously axed before release for reasons unknown.
Ryu's final gasp on the 16-bit platforms came in the form of Ninja Gaiden Trilogy, released for the SNES in 1995. A self-explanatory compilation of the three NES games, it included some revamped graphics, more impressive cut-scenes and even restored the infinite continues and password elements excised from Ninja Gaiden III for US players. Even so, it was a pretty shonky port, with sluggish responses and frame-rate. They even monkeyed around with the music, omitting several tracks from Ninja Gaiden III, which is precisely the sort of thing that makes die-hard videogame fans apoplectic with rage.
Now, you may think that it all went quiet on the Ninja Gaiden front for another nine years, until the series was once again rebooted and revived for the Xbox. And you'd be right. Sort of. However, Ryu's rebirth actually began just one year after his ill-fated SNES outing, and found him back in the arcade for the first time since 1988. That's because 1996 was the year that aspiring developer and outspoken breast fetishist Tomonobu Itagaki unleashed his Dead or Alive fighting series on an unsuspecting public. Produced by Tecmo, it numbered our old pal Ryu among its character roster, where he'd remain slugging it out against Bayman and Lei Fang until it was time for Ninja Gaiden to be brought back from the dead.
Almost a decade later, and Itagaki finally got the chance to recreate the series for the Xbox. Never one for humility or tact (this is, after all, a man who declared that certain inferior fighting games "will give your fingers cancer") Itagaki's stated goal was simply to create the greatest action game of all time. No pressure then. In revamping the series, Itagaki first of all cemented Ryu's place in his established Dead or Alive universe, drawing from the back-story developed through the fighting series to come up with a new take on a character that had always been rather vaguely defined. Ayane, the pink-haired jailbait from Dead or Alive, also crossed over to the new Ninja Gaiden, providing a tangible bridge between the series and also offering a way to at least feature some of Itagaki's beloved jiggling boobs without turning Ryu into a she-male. With no convoluted nonsense about evil CIA agents or trans-dimensional warships to worry about, the game was free to serve up an army of monstrous foes for Ryu to decimate as he battled to retrieve his Dragon Sword.
As far as gameplay went, the flamboyant creator was quick to essentially throw everything out and start from scratch. "The previous three games had gameplay that suited that age," Itagaki said in an interview with IGN. "Rather than reflexes, they focused more on remembering the patterns of enemy attacks...It was not about how to kill a group of enemies that fell from the sky all of the sudden; it was about memorising when the group of enemies would fall in order to proceed in the game."
That clearly wouldn't do for Itagaki, whose obsession (apart from realistic videogame breasts) has always been creating effortlessly fluid interactions between player and game. So it was that he set about designing a combat system that transplanted the instant feedback, speed and grace of a one-on-one fighting game into a 3D action experience. "Swift decision-making in every situation is much more important than memorisation," he continued. "For this reason, the response to control input on our game is much quicker. I'm sure everyone knows how Team Ninja games have feather-touch control, and Ninja Gaiden will be no exception."
Introducing a whole arsenal of weaponry, including various swords with different powers, and a simple yet flexible control system that harked back to the golden arcade era with its "three buttons and a joystick" mantra, Itagaki had good reason to be confident. Of course, as the 21st century Ninja Gaiden geared up for launch, he also had much to prove. His previous Xbox effort had been the widely-derided Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, a lightweight souffl of digitised tit-wank that was routinely slaughtered by the critics and his reputation as a master of gameplay was in danger of being overshadowed by his reputation as a masturbator. "Anybody who tries to argue the merits of DOAX as a sort of virtual feminist retreat either has a loose grip on reality, or a firm grip on his penis," scoffed Tom at the time. Clearly, Team Ninja had to do something to reassure the hardcore fans that their mad genius leader hadn't been completely distracted by the lure of gently bouncing pillowy bosoms.
While he'd been quick to strip away almost every element from the previous games, Itagaki therefore shrewdly retained at least one established theme from the NES Ninja Gaiden - the fearsome difficulty. It was a decision that would provoke as much criticism as praise, with Edge even declaring the savage difficulty a design flaw. "It was done intentionally of course," Itagaki would later tell Kikizo. "The testers who tested this game went nuts. At first it was easier, but when the testers said 'this is too difficult', I made it even more difficult."
This difficulty certainly didn't phase Tom, because he's dead hard and better than you. "While Ninja Gaiden is hard," he hissed from the shadows in his epic import review, "it generally manages to avoid slaughtering you unless it's expressly your own fault... those in search of a challenge will appreciate the need to practice and learn how to play it in lieu of easy success." Indeed, the 9/10 score barely seemed adequate, given the amount of passionate gushing going on. "You've never played a game that's simultaneously as gorgeous, entertaining, inviting and downright hardcore as Ninja Gaiden...one of the finest action games ever made," he finally gasped before signing off, all spent and sweaty. So, job well done, Itagaki-san.
Ninja Gaiden Black followed in 2005 and was designed as a definitive version of the game. "One of the things that motivated us to work on Ninja Gaiden Black is the idea of leaving the best and the ultimate action game on the current console before we move on to the 360," Itagaki explained to the official Xbox website. As well as tweaking the original game, Black also included the two downloadable Hurricane packs. Originally offered for free, these packs not only introduced new enemies and attacks, but also completely new game modes, stages and boss fights.
Two additional difficulty levels were also added for Black. Ninja Master was designed for those who had completed the game, and desired a truly punishing experience to put them to the test. Conversely, Ninja Dog demonstrated just how Itagaki felt about gamers who struggled with the game. While playing Ninja Dog made the game much easier, it left players in no doubt as to how much shame they should feel at opting for the path of least resistance. Between unlockable pink ribbons and the very girly Ayane cruelly mocking Ryu throughout, it's the closest games have ever come to actually flushing the player's head down the school toilet and forcing them to say "I like big hairy bums".
Amazingly, it wasn't until 2007 and Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PS3 that the series appeared on a Sony platform, having completely skipped both the original PlayStation and PS2. Another remake of the 2004 version, Itagaki had no direct input on Sigma, instead handing the creative reins over to Team Ninja member Yosuke Hayashi. "The only thing I can commit to saying right now about Sigma," he told 1UP, "is that Hayashi is someone I hand-picked to lead the project, and I have faith in him."Of course, Itagaki had never sounded particularly enthused about the PS3, claiming that none of the launch titles had inspired him to track them down, sparing particular scorn for potential Gaiden rival, Heavenly Sword, which he memorably described as "half-assed". Fast-forward to now, and it doesn't sound like he's changed his mind about Sony hardware, writing off any future PS3 instalments of Ninja Gaiden and expressing his disappointment with Sigma. "It was a weird chimera of a game," he told TotalVideoGames this month, "From a game design standpoint, I don't think it was done well at all." So much for having faith in Hayashi.
Itagaki seemed more inspired by Nintendo's recent hardware innovations, producing the solid, polished and innovative Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword specifically for the DS - at his daughter's request - and ruminating on the possibility of developing something for the Wii. Whatever that may - or may not - turn out to be, it definitely won't be another adventure for Ryu Hayabusa. Itagaki has declared that the imminent Ninja Gaiden II will be his last, having taken the series as far as it can go. In fact, he claims, in typically humble style, that it's "the world's premier action game". Is the boob-fixated maniac right? With Ninja Gaiden II due out on Xbox 360 on 6th June, we'll find out soon enough.