Revisiting Ninja Gaiden for the NES: Is it worth playing again?

Revisiting Ninja Gaiden for the NES: Is it worth playing again?

Sometimes arcade games lie to you. Case in point: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

If you visited an arcade sometime in 1989 with three of your friends, you probably easily blew $10 worth of quarters EACH on the TMNT arcade game. It was thrilling, fast-paced beat ‘em up alongside impressive cartoon-like animations.

So naturally, when you told your mom how great it was, she tucked that away as an idea for your birthday present. And when that fateful birthday rolled around … hey, you got a Ninja Turtles game!

Except it’s not what you played in the arcade. Not even a port with lesser graphics. Oh no, it’s a lesson in suffering. It’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES.

Both released in 1989, with the same name. How was your mom to know?

This also happened to me with that Michael Jackson game (Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker on arcade and on Sega Genesis), and, of course, with Ninja Gaiden.

To be clear, this article is about the NES version of Ninja Gaiden. Not the much more fun to play, cool animations, arcade version of the exact same name released at roughly the same time, of which I played at the arcade and loved and thought I was spending some hard-earned allowance on.

But oh no, Ninja Gaiden, released in North America in 1989 for the NES, is a lesson in suffering.

The story

So what is the NES version all about? Does it have an engrossing story? Well, something like that.

In Ninja Gaiden — btw, “gaiden” can be crudely translated as “side story” — you play as Ryu, a ninja who hears that his father has died mysteriously, and decides to dress up as a ninja and go investigate.

Over the course of six “acts”, the story unfolds. One of the things I really like about this game are the manga-like interludes, complete with the occasional clear mistranslation or typo (you couldn’t hire a proofreader?) and a storyline that is both intriguing and totally nonsensical.

Here’s a little tip that I didn’t discover until I’m pretty sure just a few weeks ago when I replayed Ninja Gaiden as an adult: if you don’t hit start right away on the load screen and wait a few seconds, a cutscene that basically explains the entire plot will autoplay. Without that key info, none of the story really makes any sense.

ANYways, turns out Ninja Dad is alive, there are some demons trying to inhabit people, and Ryu has a thing for chicks with the same haircut as Rachel from Blade Runner. Also, the government is involved somehow.

Too bad unless you do what I did (more on that later), you will never see more than one or two of those cutscenes, because this game is ridiculously hard.


To reiterate — Ninja Gaiden is irritatingly challenging. For me, it’s one of the original rage games.

For starters, it follows the old-school mantra of enemies regenerating if you retrace your steps. The hell is that? You work your butt off to get through a difficult section, and if you accidentally take too many steps back you have to fight them all again. Boo!

Ultimately, this is just side-scrolling action, slashing through enemies and trying to make jumps. You can also collect powerups that require a separate energy stockpile to use. These range from throwing stars to stopping time to getting a ring of fire to protect you for about 5 seconds.

It’s not unlike many other action-platformers of the late ‘80s in terms of pure gameplay. As you progress you essentially run into the same enemies over and over, just dressed up differently. There’s guy with a sword/bat walking back and forth just swinging it indiscriminately, guy that throws some kind of object at you, etc. — but worst of all, there is the bird/bat/flying thing.

Pictured: The wrath of hell.

I sincerely hate this enemy with every atom inside my body, as well as every atom outside my body.

Birds hound you until you either kill them or they fly off-screen on their own (a trick you can sometimes utilize on other enemies, too), but many times you get into a spot where you’re on the edge of whatever triggers its regeneration, and it just comes keeps regenerating and coming at you until you die.

Each act also has a boss fight, and again as is common among old-school action games, each has some kind of weakness or pattern you can exploit.

Where things become especially brutal is toward the end of the game — the classic “just kidding, that’s not the final boss, this is the FINAL FINAL boss” trick is used to perfection here. And if you make it all the way to the final, final, final boss and die? You start allllll the way back at the beginning of that stage.

The only saving grace in terms of difficulty is that you have unlimited continues.

Is it worth playing again or what?

Revisiting this game gave me a lot of nostalgia — and that lasted about 10 minutes. After that, you get into the more difficult stages and it becomes a war of attrition. But I did eventually beat the game after many, many tries.

But there’s one big caveat — I was playing it on the Switch NES virtual console, and thus essentially had four save slots where I could save my progress. That’s a big change from when I originally played this game and would leave my Nintendo on for hours to essentially save my progress. I’m sure it was totally fine to just leave that giant power adapter plugged in for that long…

I’m glad I went back and played it. It was mostly fun, a lot of the time frustrating, sometimes impossible, but also rewarding to finally conquer. If you’re going to play it again, I think the only way to do it without losing your mind is to do so on Switch and ensure you can save and retry.

Otherwise, this game will simply be too hard for most, even for pretty serious gamers. As for me, next time I’ll probably just find a way to play the arcade game. That’s the one I always wanted for my birthday, anyways.