Friday, March 27, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Emotional Scars - Memory Log #30

Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos

I must have been a glutton for punishment. There's really no other explanation for why I thought to own Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, which was sequel to a sadistic action game best remembered for how it broke me emotionally with its infuriating level design and rage-inducing enemy placement. I'd label it as a misguided impulse purchase if not for the fact that the early 90s was a period when I started becoming a sequel hound and had generally developed an insatiable need for new games. 

Also, reflecting upon this decision 25 years after the fact, I can't dismiss the lingering impact of the August, 1990, issue of Nintendo Power, which was dedicated solely to Ninja Gaiden II. I didn't read more than two or three pages of it because I had no interest in a Ninja Gaiden sequel--mainly due to those residual feelings of fear and anger--and otherwise hated the idea of dedicated issues, which I felt were cheating me out of content (this opinion coming from a guy who routinely ignored half of the magazine's normal content, anyway, and only read a few articles of interest). However, as Nintendo of America's marketing might have calculated, the implication that a single game was worthy of that level of attention, trumping the cumulative coverage of several other recent releases, firmly planted in my mind the idea that whatever was being featured this way had to be a pretty big deal.

While I can't say with certainty that the subconscious imagery of Nintendo Power Volume 15 was the decision's main driver, it's obvious to me now that it played a much larger role than I originally realized. And when you put it all together, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that my purchase of Ninja Gaiden II might have seemed spontaneous when it was in fact as inevitable as the Benihana chef targeting the quiet guy with the flying shrimp.

Wow--that's deep. Thinking about it, I'm almost inclined to believe that these video-game companies were trying to manipulate us somehow.

Oh, that's just silly talk.

Well, to set the record straight, it was actually my mother who laid out the cash for Ninja Gaiden II after I talked her into it. See--I was out with my mother and her friend Audrey that day, crankily following them around as they shopped the usual local establishments, when I spotted Ninja Gaiden II in one of the store's glass display cases. I suddenly had interest in owning it, but I didn't have any money to spend, and I balked at the idea of adding it to my birthday list, since I was rightfully concerned about potentially wasting a slot on a game that might have been too difficult to enjoy for more than ten minutes. The only solution, then, was to ask my poor, uninformed mother to buy it for me, posturing that this "Ninja Gaiden II" was some highly coveted release--agonizingly anticipated by kids everywhere--and that missing the chance to snag it here would be absolutely heartbreaking for me. She grilled me as to the sincerity of my plea but eventually gave in when she realized that I wasn't going shut up about it.

I had weaseled my way into ownership of Ninja Gaiden II, which I should have been happy about, but I couldn't help but feel somehow regretful about the purchase, my sense being that real money was just spent on a game I might have wound up hating. I didn't know how to term it back then, but this was likely one of my first bouts of buyer's remorse. Still, getting a new game was always cause for excitement, even if just initially, and I was looking forward to seeing what it was. In the meantime, I had fun reading over its box cover and manual as we waited for our lunch to be served at the New Parkway Restaurant, located over on Bay Ridge Parkway and 13th Avenue.

It was obvious from the start that Ninja Gaiden II's gameplay was more of the same, which was deeply alarming to me, but my fears were temporarily allayed by the game's strong presentation. It looked superficially similar to its predecessor, but it was somehow much prettier and had a polished sheen to it--the graphics popping out more and the advanced layering conveying a greater sense of depth. Everything from the backgrounds to the HUD elements featured a distinct glow--a persitent animation that worked to lend the action a sense of vibrancy that was missing from the original. I enjoyed gauging its visuals just as much as I did playing it, where originally I expected the frustration to boil over before I could even settle in.

That the game's difficulty started to quickly ramp up was worrisome, yeah, but I was compelled to keep playing. I had to see more because Ninja Gaiden II was intent on impressing me with its nifty graphical effects and inventive stage gimmicks, which entailed a moving-train sequence set against a breathtaking symphony of scrolling backgrounds, a rain storm with its shifting winds, a darkened forest periodically illuminated by lightning blasts, flaming infernos, flowering waterways, leaning ruins, and so much more. The music, much like the original's, was amazing and featured spirited composition, rockin' and invigorating when it needed to be and ever-more-ominous when the setting started skewing toward bleak. I often confuse the two game's soundtracks, which speaks of Ninja Gaiden II's consistent quality.

I was still too impatient to watch the cut-scenes, so I skipped over them every time. Really, I didn't learn much about what was going on in the game's story until the mid-2000s, when it became apparent that fully appreciating the Ninja Gaiden series hinged on experiencing the cinematics that are so vital to their composition even if their content is nothing special ("Evil CIA agent blackmails ninja!" Whatever). Until then, I focused on more important issues like arguing with my friends about the title's correct pronunciation; they said it was "Ninja Guy-Den," and I said it was "Ninja Gay-Den." The creators said we were wasting our time.

The only thing I recalled reading in that Nintendo Power issue was a bit about "Phantom Doubles," which if procured would trail Ryu and mimic his every movement. It was as cool as it sounded and turned out to be my favorite aspect of the game; I considered this doubles mechanic to be a great equalizer to the game's escalating difficulty. Though I was unlikely to retain the services of my orange pals for too long, I had fun putting them to use in boss battles, where I would try to find ways to position them in the air so that I could stay grounded, out of attack range, and let them do all of the work. While this successful stratagem didn't guarantee that I would actually be able to beat the game, I appreciated that the designers recognized how brutally challenging these games were and thought to provide helpful assistance.

But at the end of the day, it was still a Ninja Gaiden game. It still required pixel-perfect precision for jumps and attacks. Enemies still ceaselessly spawned from all directions at once. And, of course, there were still birds, reprising their role as the airborne horrors that hounded me to hell and knocked me into gaps after appearing out of nowhere. I didn't finish Ninja Gaiden II that day or that week or even that year. No--I struggled with it just as I did the original, except this time I knew when to call it quits; after all, I enjoyed playing through its first half and savoring its general aesthetics too much to want to push the envelope, since I wasn't yet emotionally mature enough to handle that type of adversity and didn't want to wind up hating it.

In fact, I didn't beat Ninja Gaiden II until sometime around 1995, after I'd learned to control my anger and decided that I would no longer let difficult games get the best of me. It was a total repeat of my experience with the original: I set aside a boring Sunday and marathoned my way through the entire game, never allowing its patented shenanigans to evoke anything more than mild annoyance. Oh, don't get me wrong--slogging through Ninja Gaiden II was just as stressful and scarring as you'd imagine, but I handled it rather well. Granted, I robbed myself of the ability to fully understand and appreciate the specifics of the game's apparently touching ending sequence, since I skipped all of the cut-scenes, but simply finishing Ninja Gaiden II was reward enough on its own.

I'm just so glad I never had to put myself through anything like it ever again!

I'm sorry--what?

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