Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ninja Gaiden - Dealing with Emotions
How Ryu Hayabusa's reconfigured adventure caused my angst to respawn over and over again.

I didn't yet have any knowledge of a defining label for the genre it helped popularize, so I could only say that Double Dragon made me a fan of this relatively new "big brawl" type of game. It would be a few years before the genre would be properly termed "the beat-'em-up," neatly slotted as a sub-category of "action," so until then I could only rely on old-fashioned pattern recognition to identify one from its class; as I'd browse an arcade, wading through a crowd of action games, I could confirm a game's status as a brawler merely by gauging how its characters interacted. If it featured those familiar Double Dragon-style fighting mechanics, then the game's action likely entailed attributes I suddenly found highly desirable: Flashy combo-based attacks and a wealth of supplementary offensive maneuvers as the means for dealing with those trademarked gang onslaughts.

That was the reason I was drawn to brawlers more so than to standard action games, which were either still beholden to unforgiving points- and endurance-based challenges or had a general cruelness to their design to where they wanted you dead before you could even get a feel for their worlds. Even games like Rolling Thunder, for as much as I liked them, were just too limited in terms of their heroes' repertoires, which made for increasingly ineffective responses to waves of enemy hordes. I just wanted a fair chance, and beat-'em-ups did a better job of creating the illusion of such.

That might be why one of the first beat-'em-ups I was drawn to in following was Ninja Gaiden. I mean, what hero was more capable than a ninja?!

While Double Dragon with ninjas would indeed have been a selling point on its own, Ninja Gaiden aroused my interest mainly because it was one of the most visually attractive games I'd seen. If I had an odd fetish for glorious backdrops and lived-in worlds, Ninja Gaiden tickled my fancy with its starting view of a silver-tinted cityscape that served to flank the more-immediate scene of dilapidated buildings (including the always-appreciated specially named stores), destructible vending machines, and those silly, intrusive signs seen plastered all over walls and protruding from every surface.

As was often the case with these newly released, amazing-looking arcade games, I was initially overpowered by the sights and sounds being projected from Ninja Gaiden's machine--a feeling of awe that carried over to my first sampling of the game, which lasted maybe five minutes and made such an idelible impression on me that for days I couldn't wait to get back to the arcade to play it a second time. I took away from that first experience a series of mental images that stuck in my mind forever and would always define Ninja Gaiden for me. 

For one, I would always remember the game's most recurrent enemy--those hockey-mask-wearing goons whose very existence conjured up (perhaps intentionally) a Friday the 13th vibe that signaled the level of danger present in Ninja Gaiden's world. I couldn't think of a scenario more dire than a city being attacked by an army of Jason Voorhees clones, and a sword-wielding ninja was convincingly the best hope of thwarting such an invasion.

I loved how the protagonist, Ryu Hayabusa, could hang from the jutting signs--particularly those whose logos were designed to recall images of Pepsi and Coca-Cola--and swing about before executing Jackie Chan-style swinging kicks. In addition, Ryu possessed one of my favorite beat-'em-up moves of all time: The flip-throw, using which he could grab onto enemies' heads while in midair and fling them across the entirety of the screen, often sending them crashing through signs, vending machines, phone booths, fruit carts, and any other objects littering the playing field; it didn't make much of a difference in terms of the damage dealt, but the resulting explosions of wood and metal made for some spectacular visuals. It was just about the only move I'd use, since it worked on even the largest of enemies and was more reliable than the basic fisticuffs, which gave foes an equal chance of landing the first blow.

The cast beyond the hockey-mask goons wasn't as memorable as Double Dragon's, but it shared its values on diversity with both black and white versions of all minor enemies, whose crop included rotund log-swinging brutes wearing Darth Vader-like breathing masks; bearded, heardband-wearing thugs wielding fighting sticks; rotocraft pilots whose mini-helicopters' string-ladders carried along feather-blade-armed maniacs; and all manner of vicious, bulky ruffians. Whoever designed the bosses must have been a big fan of wrestling, because the selection of high-ranking foes was represented most strongly by sumo wrestlers and Road Warrior clones.

While it eventually did reveal itself to espouse values typical of unfair beat-'em-ups, I liked the satisfyingly impactful nature of its fighting mechanics too much to dock it points. More so, I liked its stage environments so much that it was worth playing just to take in those bits of scenery with which I was enamored, whether it was the ninja-packed rail sequence where giant likenesses of unnamed Tecmo representatives could be seen spraypainted on the wall, the highway scene where I had to dodge the oncoming traffic moving between Brooklyn and Staten Island (complete with those green highway roadsigns that were so familiar to me), or the "Strong Team" coming alive after deceptively posing in what only looked like a large poster of them. 

Ninja Gaiden quickly became one of my favorites, and you can bet that I'd always seek it out during any arcade visit.

When I found out that there was an NES version of the game, I was quite surprised. It was still a fairly new release, true, but it was too big a name to have gone unnoticed; none of my friends had ever mentioned it--not even Dominick, who was usually on top of these things. Instead, I saw it for the first time on the shelf at whichever store my mother and I were currently shopping (more likely, I was poutingly following her around while hoping we were almost done) and was kind of stunned by its appearance. "How was I not aware that one of my arcade favorites was coming to my shiny new console?" I wondered. "When, exactly, did it happen?" 

There was only one thing I did know: I was very much interested in owning it.

That day, somehow, I came into possession of the NES version of Ninja Gaiden. While I was well aware of the possibility that I was buying an inferior version of a game whose most impressive aspects were its strong visual presentation and a large degree of onscreen activity, it seemed worth taking the chance. I enjoyed the arcade game more as a single-player experience, anyway, so a Double Dragoning of Ninja Gaiden wasn't really a concern. "What could go wrong?" I thought.

I'd gone in blind, thinking I was about to experience a straight port of one of my favorite arcade games. At first, things checked out: The opening stage was cosmetically similar to the arcade game's, with its run-down urban setting and all those protruding signposts, and there was no reason to believe that this NES version longed to be its own creature. Though, it didn't take long for me to realize that something had gone awry--that is, the farther I'd advance into Stage 1-1, the more the game's mechanical differentia and boxed-in, obstacle-based stage design would reveal its true face. Nay--this was a straight action title, neither a beat-'em-up nor a faithful rendition of that arcade game I liked so much, and I was frankly mad about what they had changed my Ninja Gaiden into. I mean, the wall-clinging move was cool and all, but where was my flip-throw? I could clearly see the Coke-inspired protruding signs, but why couldn't I hang from them? Where were the hockey-mask guys, the log-swinging dudes, and the rest of those crazy cats?

I felt swindled, but I played on, curious to grasp the full scope of what it was I just bought.

What held things together during that early investigation was the soundtrack, which I could only describe as increasingly amazing. In only the early-going, it was genuinely some of the best use of musical augmentation I'd heard. Ninja Gaiden wasn't a game that stood still for too long; it jumped around from one disparate location to the next--usually several times per stage--each fantastical setting imbued by its own unique theme. The stage themes for 1-1 and 2-1 were great, but it didn't hit me just how beyond the composer's efforts were until my mad dash carried me out into stage 2-2, the ruinous castle exterior as gated by the surrounding mountains; filling my room was one of the most unusually harmonious, nerve-tingling stage themes I'd ever know. It was evocative in the same way as some of those select Metroid pieces in that I didn't know how to react to or feel about it; it had a lot of positive energy for a tune so creepy in tone, its composition a strange blend of both lively and menacing.

I just knew that it was pleasing to the ears and captured the atmosphere of the drab, desperate setting, whose most appropriate occupant was the cross-tossing demon with its obscured face, tattered robe, and unsightly green skin. Every theme in following had an intriguingly dissimilar composition, the only common thread being their powerful arrangements of drum beats, which made every tune rockin' and adrenline-pumping no matter if its tone was urgent, sinister, uneasy or inspiring.

If only I'd paid so much attention to its cinematics, which I happily skipped over and didn't witness in full until years later. As such, I never had any sense that Ninja Gaiden was a pioneer in cinematic cut-scenes as a means of video-game storytelling, nor did I even know the full scope of the story beyond "Blue ninja Ryu Hayabusa attempts to destroy the great evil!" I had outright dismissed this entire element of the package because storytelling in action games was a concept that didn't interest me, and I didn't believe I was missing anything important. Also, the game's fast-paced nature seemed to discourage any form of downtime, so I was always eager to resume the action. You could say that Tecmo's narrative efforts were completely lost on me. At the time, though, I didn't really care--I was a slightly hyperactive kid with a short attention span, and I hadn't yet learned to slow down and derive maximum value from my games. Thankfully, those days are long, long over. 

Oh, look--big orange moon!

What ultimately pissed me off more than the fact that this wasn't the arcade game I knew so well was the game's main bugaboo: Its incredibly high level of difficulty! The first stage and half successfully sucked me in, if not putting me in a forgiving mood than at least giving the impression that Ninja Gaiden was a manageable, thoughtfully designed game. Then it started. Suddenly I had to make pixel-perfect jumps onto two-block-long platforms and tower tops as occupied by thick, stout enemies that marched along their surfaces. I'd jump down to apparent safe ground only to be overwhelmed by a flood of enemies that seemed to pour in from every direction and without much in the way of warning. I didn't know that such a thing was possible until I'd tested it, but yes--that enemy that continuously knocked me into the pit from behind was absolutely in a constant state of respawn even though I wasn't moving. "It has to be a glitch," I thought. I couldn't imagine a game designer to be so sadistic that he or she would have enemies continuously respawn from a screen's edge when the action was at a standstill.
What was with these enemies, anyway? There was no cohesive, uniting theme to their assortment, and they struck me as a cast of foes whose subjects were plucked from a series of different games. You had your largely unthreatening boxers, pigskin-holding football players who liked rushing in from behind, machine-gun-firing army men, hopping-mad mutants, propeller-backed ninjas, all kinds of projectile-tossing demons, and an array of sword-wielding guys that came in flavors of Japanese, Arabian, and even those with piranha-plant heads. Sure--why not? Their groupings and configurations didn't even seem to matter, since they were stuffed into stages with the intent on filling as much space as possible and making the platforming aspects pure hell. I was at least happy to see an eventual appearance by the hockey-mask guys, even though they were recast as simple ground-patrolling axe-swingers.

And then there was the most fiendish, horrifying, fear-inducing enemy that I'd ever encountered in a video game:


Birds that would spawn from the upper portion of the screen and hover for a bit before swooping down at lightning speed and slowly chip away at my health. Birds that would suddenly dart across the screen and ram into me before I could even react. Birds that would fly in from out of nowhere in the middle of my jumps and knock me into an abyss below. Imagine suffering more than a dozen deaths in a row because a bird's spawning position was set at the midpoint of do-or-die jump over to a narrow platform already occupied by a considerably large, moving enemy; then imagine that happening twice per area in the game's latter half. The sound of failure became so ingrained in my being that I could hear Ryu being obnoxiously bounced around in my sleep.

These birds were the bane of my existence and the cause of so much anger and frustration that they alone were my main object of consideration when I thought about never going anywhere near the game again.

I can't come up with any explanation as to why I continued playing it, but I'll tell you one thing, without exaggeration: I had gotten angry before. I'd thrown tantrums. I would overreact to an unfavorable situation by throwing things or causing a scene. But what Ninja Gaiden did to me was beyond the range of agitation. No--Ninja Gaiden extracted from me an emotion I'd never before experienced in my life: Rage. It happened during my last experience with the game before I swore it off for about a year: I'd made it to 6-2 convinced that I could rush my way through whatever game remained; it was then I came to a section of the stage that had a series of platforms with wide expanses between them. The last of the challenging jumps required that I jump over to a pentagram-branded platform as patrolled by a cross-tossing robed demon while a football guy charged in from behind and a bird flew up from below. 

So I cleared as much space as I could and started my leap only to be walloped and killed by a second bird I never saw coming. Now without a sub-weapon, my next attempt instead became a task of timing my jump so I could take out the suddenly-appearing bird and land on the platform's edge just in time to slash at the demon that had hopefully shifted to its right side. Since I didn't have a full grasp on how the sword's hit-detection worked (and still don't), I could never draw the blade in time and would be repeatedly knocked back. Even if in subsequent attempts I could manage to retain a throwing weapon and remove the demon from the equation, the bird would always find a way to nick me. No matter what I did or how I approached it, the scene would always end the same way: Me plunging into the gap below for what felt like the hundredth time.

I got angrier and angrier with each successive failure until I finally cracked. I remember pausing the game, tightly gripping the sides of my yellow sofa rocking chair, and screaming at the game through clenched teeth, trying to mute myself as much as I could and not give my lurking family members the impression that I'd gone insane. I stomped about and even threatened the game, itself, turning completely red and becoming so consumed with rage that I literally could have ripped someone's face off. I could feel a heaviness in my chest as I tried repressing the continuously emergent feelings of exasperation. I finally settled back into the chair, trying to get a hold of myself. 

This is what I had allowed a video game to reduce me to. 

Even when I was in the process of violently ripping the game from the NES, damning its existence, and slamming it back into the rack, I knew that I had to calm down before I really hurt myself. I don't know how long it took me to chill out, but I remember knowing for sure that I never again wanted to know that emotion. I haven't allowed anything in life to push me that far since.

There was a hesitancy to entertain the notion of returning to Ninja Gaiden even long after the incident; I'd find any excuse not to play it. Still, I was a person who didn't like leaving things unfinished, and I hated the idea of a video game getting the best of me. Though I was repulsed by the very thought of the game, I had an inclination to want to beat it--a feeling that lingered so long and echoed so loud that I reached a point where I could no longer ignore it. In fact, I became determined to finish Ninja Gaiden, a game that had tormented me so.

To properly set the stage: This was a time before I had access to the Internet or even cable TV, when a boring summer day didn't leave me a lot in the way of options. If my parents were out for the day and my brother was too busy with his friends, then I had nothing but hours of alone time to devote to any trivial activity I could think up. I decided that if I was going to do this, I'd need to block off an entire day, so I chose a quiet Saturday when I had the house all to myself and a sense of calm permeated the air; I had nothing better to do, so it seemed the perfect time to load up Ninja Gaiden and finish it once and for all!

And that's how I wasted an entire day of my life: I endured stress, pain, and mental fatigue en route to clearing what was the most difficult game I'd ever played. It must have taken me six or more hours and a hundred plus deaths to reach the end and figure out how to effectively evade Jaquio's fireball attack and successfully land blows, but I never wilted. I don't know how I didn't flip out the first time I died at the final boss and it sent me all the way back to 6-1 (which I'm sure was an ever-recurrent event), but I was able to keep my emotions in check and largely avoid letting my anger bubble over.

Inflicting the killing blow on the final boss--that hideous skeletal chimera demon whose name or identity I couldn't care to guess--wasn't cathartic, satisfying or joyous in any way; it was a testy, heart-pounding affair whose climax and resolution left me more with a feeling of "Thank God this is over and I never have to see it again." It was a much-desired victory but more a case of me needing to check an item off the list, getting it done as if it were just another errand. Surely I realized that engaging in video games with feelings of abhorrence and detestation was terrible and surely missed the point, but that was the nature of my relationship with Ninja Gaiden and how I'll always remember it.

Of course, I did return to Ninja Gaiden more than a few times over the years, initially for the sake of wanting to experience the full package. Truth be told, I was always a fan of its aesthetic qualities--I thought its soundtrack was outstanding, as mentioned, and I was impressed with the amount of graphical detail that was packed into each of its many tonally distinct stage settings--so I felt I owed it to the game's artists to see how the cut-scenes were presented and gauge the quality of their content. My verdict: The story, itself, is cliched and lightweight (vengeful ninja gets caught up in the CIA's dubious monitoring efforts before saving the world), and I find it only mildly interesting--worth a viewing every five years or so for a quick refresh but something I'm likely to disregard. Still, I can at least appreciate how its manga-styled cinematics influenced the course of narrative in video games and specifically the likes of Double Dragon II: The Revenge and Vice: Project Doom.

I also learned to better appreciate its take on Castlevania-like gameplay, which as described is more manageable if you apply a certain rhythm to your movement. I still find its hit-detection to be inconsistent and unfavorable, and its "creative" use of spawn points will never be anything but infuriating, but I find that I'm able to enjoy the game more after putting in some practice. I admit that the thought of playing Ninja Gaiden still incites feelings of fear and dread (more so when I focus my thoughts on the later stages), but this era's conveniences--mainly save-states and restore points--are a nice fallback for those times when the game does its best to raise my ire. But I can handle it, man. I mean, it's only one game, right? It's not like they made more of these.

Well, of course they did. And who do you think bought both of them and put himself through more of those same trials and tribulations? Oh, you guessed it: Nick from Family Ties.

No, silly--it was me! And, really, I don't know what I was thinkin'.

So that was the story of how Tecmo took one of my most beloved arcade games--a fun, addictive beat-'em-up--and transformed it into a brutal, unforgiving twitch-action game that destroyed my spirit and nearly reduced me to a lifeless shell. Ninja Gaiden, which I originally associated with feelings of happiness and amusement, had become more popularly known as the paragon for NES-hard games, and for that reason I long resented it. 

Today it's another point of fascination for me--like Rygar and Bionic Commando another example of a developer establishing a property and creating two unique, realized variations of the same idea. I'll never be able to reconcile their stark differences and view them as true siblings, but I'll continue to find enjoyment in two games whose philosophies on game design are as wonderfully divergent as the platforms that host them.


  1. Wow! I actually never knew about the original arcade version. Must try it out at some point.
    I actually first played Ninja Gaiden II, and as a kid I was never even able to pass the second stage (specifically the windy area), but I supposed I'll comment more to that when you write about it.

    The whole series was subject to a pronunciation debate with other kids I knew - was it GAY-den or GUY-den? If you know anything at all about Japanese you'll know it's the latter, but it's amazing how obstinate some people were about the matter. Of course in its native country the series is known as "Ninja Ryukenden," which translates to something like "Ninja Dragon Sword Legend," which makes a bit more sense than "Ninja Side Story." But I guess us 'mericans can't be bothered to pronounce "Ryukenden."

    Then again, given how many people (me included) referred to the hero from Street Fighter as "RYE-ooh," I guess it was for the better...

    Oh, and I've still never beaten any of the Ninja Gaiden games.

    1. The only thing that might be a turnoff about the arcade game is how the screen scrolls. You have to physically make an effort to stop it or it'll just keep traipsing along on its own. It made capturing screenshots hell.

      Otherwise, your feedback has once again reminded me of something that should have been included: Our similar questioning of whether or not it was guy-den or gay-den. Though, since I can't find a place where it fits into the flow of the text (and the piece is already insanely long as it is), I think it's better saved for a future "Ninja Gaiden" piece.