Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos
Just take a moment look at the title. The sheer sense of "epic ninja action game" exudes from it like a samurai's intestines after an act of seppuku. Ninjas. And a "dark sword." And "chaos." Oh man, the chaos.
That title screams "prepare yourself...this game is amazing. It as the 1980s (actually 1990 by the time this game was released) and everybody loved ninjas as much as they loved robots, but while there were plenty of games with robots, including one awfully memorable one, there were only a handful of videogames that let you play as ninjas. The only one I can remember early on was Shiniobi in the arcades, to which I spent many quarters on. The other, is the Ninja Gaiden series, but I didn't play that until I saw this box on a store shelf. It was one of the first games for the Nintendo Entertainment System I bought, and a game that everybody who's ever played it certainly has a love/hate relationship with.
Now, look closer at that box. There's one part that's hard to miss.
Ninjas and dragons! What else do you need!?
No not that part, despite it being completely awesome and more than enough to make anyone with an NES want to buy it thanks to dragon/ninja awesomeness.
No, this one:
This isn't an attribute...it's a warning.
It's kind of funny, looking back at it now. As kids and in to our teens, we really had no gauge of what was really difficult and what wasn't. It all kind of just rolled together into a big lump in either being fun or not being fun.
Ninja Gaiden II was fun, which trumped any issues we might have had. It was difficult, good God was it difficult, but so were a lot of games. As kids, I don't think we could realize just how difficult it was, it was just another challenge to overcome and then we'll make it to the next boss, figure out the next area and move on. We knew games weren't easy. We had no respawns and hand-holding. It was simply the way they were. Only until much later, when we had more games to base a comparison on and have a degree of perspective of what was and wasn't difficult, did any of us start to realize just how damn hard games like Ninja Gaiden II were. Once the 16-bit era hit, things got a lot easier because we could relate those games, to the games before and see how much harder those older games were.
Sure, there were a handful of tough games and still are today, but it wasn't and isn't as consistent as the days on the NES when you occasionally had to rely on glitches to even proceed past a hard part. Now, decades later, the consensus has defined games like this one and the internet gaming community is pretty good at saying what was and wasn't difficult just by a simple show of hands. Like any form of entertainment, the quality isn't really determined until it can be reflected upon. In the case of games, that goes for difficulty as well.
Yet, it was fun. Damn fun. Being a ninja is always fun no matter the era and no matter the game and no matter how many times you're stabbed with shuriken. Those "cheap deaths" and literal "unfairness" of the game aside, Ninja Gaiden was the first game that really made you feel like you were a ninja with part two perfecting it. I think the term "fluid" really fits, because the controls were so perfect and responsive, set up simply and effectively to immerse you, that the games that rivaled it control-wise, and to an extent difficulty-wise, were the Megaman Titles (Which I wrote about here). And like those, the difficult didn't matter, because the game was so damn fun. If you screwed up, it wasn't the game's fault, no matter how many rage-quits and controller-throws you probably had to claim otherwise. You were pissed at yourself, not the game.
I came in to the franchise with the second outing, and my memories are more vivid and nostalgic with the sequel than the original, which I didn't play until much later. The first game, arguably the most difficult and unforgiving of the three classic Ninja Gaiden titles on the NES, was a solid game, it just wasn't my first. Besides, the sequel improved on it and was also the first game I ever played that had these:
Imagine powering on the NES and seeing this for the first time. I saw nothing like it at the time. Ninja Gaiden II was that game for me.
Cinematics were pretty new to the NES, but other than a Mega Man intro or the occasional one-shot dialogue screen and art, there was little to talk about in terms of story presentation. The Ninja Gaiden games looked to emulate the style of anime, and considering the limitations of the Nintendo, I'd be damned if they didn't nail it. We take it for granted now, then again it seems we also took for granted the idea of a challenge and risk in the games of yesteryear as well. Now we only look for cheap "achievements" and micro-successes when the completion of something should, in and of itself, be the achievement.
It was always about timing and jumping and being smart. In a way, platformers back then weren't about precision, it was about puzzle-solving. Patterns, predictions, figuring it out until you remember. Games are still like that today, only they're much more kinder with their infinite lives and checkpoints. It's not a knock on games today, it's just natural evolution, but games today simply don't have the risk involved. They're more about immersing you in the experience than have you feel like you could have an end game at any moment. I suppose during this era, we had to use our imagination a little bit more, but Ninja Gaiden did a damn good job bringing us closer to what we now take for granted as far as presentation in games go.
Oh, and the first time seeing videogame blood for me. A few years later, blood in games were going to be making headlines.
I went in to Ninja Gaiden II completely blind. I had no idea what I was in store for. I was just excited to be a ninja and was expecting something along the lines of a Castevania. Nope. It was faster, moved smoother, was just fucking harder and I had the broken controllers to prove it. It was all intentional. All in the design of the game. Memorize those patterns all you want - it doesn't change the fact that they're set up to make you fail if you're a split-second or a pixel off. There was no give in a game like this, and I figured that out by the second stage.
Ninja Gaiden II, really all the Ninja Gaiden games, was one of those games everyone played yet few beat. Sometimes, if I knew someone else at school had the game, we'd swap stories about levels and how to get by them. "Oh, yeah to get by that jump you have to time it with the flying bird then jump at the right time so the guy doesn't shoot you." Or "You want to stay on the ceiling for that boss, then jump down, shoot your flame (and if you don't have the flame you're screwed), then jump back up before he charges you."
Well, I never did beat it. It's all a bit of a blur at this point, I just know I died a lot and in various spots and in various ways. Usually a bottomless pit after getting hit by something, come to think of it. Sometimes it just being an idiot. Mostly just being an idiot. Watching speed runs of this game all but confirm that.
I say I was an idiot because there's a way you have to play Ninja Gaiden that is hard to explain. The trick is to not think. Just do. You know...like a Ninja. You know the patterns, you know the enemies, you practice your ass off, but you don't want to think or ever second guess yourself. Sometimes the best ninja actions come from just doing, and the best feelings occurred when you just did something without thinking then found yourself standing in victory - kind of like when you're driving a car and you just-creep-by getting in to an accident. You take that deep breath, and drive on, but feel so gratified you survived.
That's really Ninja Gaiden II and the entire series, in retrospect: it's more like avoiding the wrecks rather than driving smoothly. There was one wreck that occurred before I even powered the game on - and it turns out so did a lot of people.
"Ninja Gay-den?" "Ninja Guy-den?" Either one sounds a bit like a video you'd probably rent in one of those curtained-off back rooms of some slummy video store. Nobody knew how to pronounce it, even when The Wizard, starring the national-treasure that is/was Fred Savage, had a scene where it was quite clear it is pronounced "Guy-den" but that didn't really change anything. I and everyone I knew still called it "Gay-den" and even as I write this article. It's still "Gay" to me...and still one of the most difficult games I ever played.
You know...I'm just going to leave this image for you. Consider it a present. Thank me later. (you can watch the music video here)
Today, games like Ninja Gay-den are a litmus test. If some little snot-nosed teen tells you that a God of War or some first person shooter (and Lord knows there's enough of those) is really hard and "unfair," give them one of these, or a Battletoads, or a Contra, or an early Mega Man title or, hell, even a Ghosts N Goblin. You know: when great games were great because of the challenge, not despite it. It goes hand-in-hand, great games can, and should, be challenging because that makes overcoming the challenge that much more meaningful.
Seriously, could you imagine their reaction when they see a Game Over screen that literally means what it says? Just fantasize about explaining that to them and what "difficult" really means. Don't turn off that system, masterchief, there's no unlimited lives and continues in this world.
That's not to say today's games are meaningless, but you aren't cheering for that moment of self-realization that you've achieved something like you would when finally overcoming a task in a Ninja Gaiden title. No, it's diminished to just about nothing now; the receding hairline of game-difficulty is left as a small patch of stringy hair waiting to be stylized by some gay ninja somewhere in his den.