The Completist Presents: Ninja Gaiden – A Lesson In Insanity
It was June, 1989. I had just finished 4th grade and as Alice Cooper so eloquently put it, school was out for the summer! Those long, hot days in my youth were frequently spent outdoors, climbing trees, building forts in the thorny palmetto’s, exploring the dung filled cow pasture near my neighborhood or doing what most Floridians do in the summer; going to the beach. However, on the days where I wasn’t getting that “Call of the Wild” I found myself craving some downtime with my Nintendo Entertainment System, or in this case, five of them. Now, I know what you are thinking. I must have been one spoiled brat to own five Nintendo’s! Well, that wasn’t exactly the case.
In my neighborhood, I had four friends who all owned Nintendo’s (if you include mine that makes the fifth). And of course, we all owned different games. This abundant Nintendo population gave me quite a selection when it came to which games I wanted to play and as much as I hate to admit it now, my choice of whose house I was going to visit would generally depend on what game I was most in the mood to play. I could go to Brad’s house and play Metroid, or Nick’s house and play Mega Man 2, and then there was Bryan’s house with Batman. Last but not least was Scott. Scott had a shiny new game called Ninja Gaiden, and since ninja’s were everywhere in the summer of 1989 (TMNT the movie, and the game!) I decided to head over to his place on that fine summer day to see what all the rage was about.
This Map Should Sum It Up:
Getting to Scott’s house was a fairly easy trek through what the neighborhood kids aptly called “The Smith Pass Through.” For whatever reason, the east side of my parents two acre lot made for the perfect commute for kids that needed to get from one part of the neighborhood to the other. This was before the days that trespassers were shot on sight, I guess. At any rate, the pass through also lead me straight through Brad’s yard and since earlier in the day I wasn’t in the mood to play Metroid and had denied him my presence, I had to take a detour through the bushes so I would not be seen. Terrible, I know.
Once I reached the street in front of Scott’s house I was greeted by a familiar sight. Hanging in a tree across from his house was a rusty bike dangling from a branch. Why this bike was there or whose bike it was always remained an interesting neighborhood mystery. What’s remarkable about this bike though is that 24 years later it remains in the tree, untouched, unmoved and still hanging in all its rusted immortality. That bike has been through 10 hurricanes, yes, 10. How is it still there? How did it endure all of those blustery years of solitude without being disturbed? I would discover the symbolism this bike held for me and for Ninja Gaiden later in life. But for now, my quest awaited me across the street.
Upon reaching Scott’s house I immediately entered the garage where his Nintendo was located, only to find Scott, grilled cheese sandwich in one hand, controller in the other, already playing Ninja Gaiden.
“Dude, you were supposed to wait for me! Why did you start already?” I asked.
Now, Scott was an interesting character. He had a sort of irreverent, lackadaisical attitude about pretty much everything in life. He loved breaking the rules. And the number one rule for me while gaming, was no greasy food while using a controller! I could clearly see the glossy sheen of the grease from his sandwich shimmering off the pad which made my stomach churn. No doubt this slippery mess was going to cause major platforming problems for me later on.
As I sat down next to Scott, I began to pester him to let me have my turn. Scott, being the joker that he was would pretend to hand me the controller, only to instantly yank it back, inadvertently causing Ryu Hayabusa to plunge haplessly to his ultimate fate as a result. When I finally convinced him to let me have my turn, Scott sighed, took a bite of his grilled cheese, chewed a few times and then casually spat his wad of saliva infused mush onto the floor. His two German Shepherds who were sitting nearby immediately came rushing over, lapping up the disgusting pile of goo.
“Fine, here you go.” Scott said.
Victory was mine! And boy was I naive back then. Little did I know that my 20+ year journey through HELL, er, I mean, Ninja Gaiden, had FINALLY begun.
This game really needs no introduction. If you know that NES means “Nintendo Entertainment System” and not “National Event Security”, then you know what Ninja Gaiden is. It was the spawn point for a litany of sequels and rip offs that have spanned more than two decades. You might also know that it was the first NES game to feature cut scenes that conveyed a story. It was revolutionary in that regard. It was also revolutionary in another way: Its difficulty, which is what I am going to mostly focus on for the duration of this escapade (although I may get sidetracked). There are other things in the game like lots of special ninja weapons, crazy bosses, pits galore and those mother %@$!*#!% BIRDS!!! Oh yeah, and there is of course the story, which everyone knows. But wait, you don’t know the story? Ok, fine, here it is, but quickly, VAMOS!
The protagonist’s name is Ryu Hayabusa, who is pissed off because his father was murdered:
But before his father died he left a note telling Ryu to find the archeologist “Walter Smith” in America, so Ryu goes to find him but gets kidnapped by a hot chick:
Who gives Ryu a “demonic” statue:
But then releases him to find Walter who tells him that “SHINOBI” (you know, Joe Musashi) killed an evil demon who transferred his power into “light and shadow” statues for safe keeping:
But someone busts in, and steals it:
Then whacks Walter:
Before the CIA shows up and arrests Ryu:
But then they release him and disclose that he must head to the ancient Brazilian ruins:
To stop the antagonist named “Jaquio” from combining both statues:
Killing the girl:
And, yes, you guessed it, DESTROYING THE WORLD!!!!!
Oh yeah, and Ryu’s father isn’t dead:
But he ends up dead, after he was already dead:
What a story! Epic narrative! Good vs. Evil! Light vs. Dark! Evil Demon vs. Angry Ninja! The cut scenes were great. Whenever I saw one I got a break from the lurid insanity of this game. I knew I was one spectacle closer to finishing this butt whipping, fool’s paradise of a game. And what a nightmare of cramped hands blistered finger madness it is. Let’s begin shall we:
If you are like me and Ninja Gaiden has been a life-long slog, then you’ll know the first three acts extremely well. They will be beaten into your brain because they are the only levels you were actually able to beat in this game. Granted, they are fairly easy and in no need of being discussed thoroughly here. So I’ll let some screen shots do the talking:
Suffice it to say that the game really begins after act three. Ah, wonderful act three. Or more specifically, act 3-2. Which I fondly refer to as the F^(K!N@ snow level. You know, the one you spend hours trying to beat and then get to the final jump only to have that damn bird appear and knock you straight into a pit and back to the beginning. In 1989, that was it for me. I tried again in the mid 90’s and failed. I tried again in the early 2000’s and yes, failed yet again. The F^(K!N@ snow level was the first of many points in this game that were insanely and frustratingly difficult.
Let’s fast forward to the present day. My new found determination with the completion of old school games, enabled me to finally beat the F^(K!N@ snow level. It became the first of many quandaries that this game spewed my way. But I conquered it, army guys, wraiths, birds and all. Take that childhood nightmare! Eat it! I finally entered the cave at the end of the level, saw the jumping boss, got confused and ten seconds later, I was dead and had to play the entire thing over. Joy!
After I beat him though, it’s off to the Amazonian ruins via parachute of course!
Stage 4-1 isn’t so bad. Just a raging river with leopards, bats, spiders, the ever present army guys (in a ruin that no one is supposed to be in, right?) and F^(K!N@ birds, no big deal. Having never seen this level as a child I was pretty pumped when I finally made it here.
But in the next stage, things get more menacing. Let the tower climb from hell begin! And yes, this is worse than the “Cultists’ Tower.”
Enter the mine. Or at least it looks like a mine. Careful guys, mine too much under that tower and it will come-a-tumblin down. This mine sucks anyway. It’s filled with undead knights, jack-o-lantern heads and angry green ninja’s that apparently have the ability to leap through solid rock. There is also a bridge full of F^(K!N@ birds that love trapping you in what I like to call the “see-saw, your dead, start level over” ambush. I believe one of 1 More Castle’s Alumni talked about this effect and claimed that it was simply “bad programming.” No Johnny, it isn’t bad programming. It’s called insanity. You know, keep repeating the same action expecting a different outcome. Smart really, even if it is insane.
Next we’re in what looks like a warehouse, which is apparently above the mine on our way up the temple of doom. It isn’t exciting or memorable except for the first appearance of my favorite enemy in the game. The “frog tank”, at least that’s what they look like to me (I think it’s actually the boss on a pedestal with skulls). There are also guys in Jason masks like every 80’s video game has, as well as guys (or girls?) that like to do the “Tatsumaki Senpukyaku.” The bosses are buffalo looking statues that come to life or as the game calls them, the “Kelbeross.” These guys are a major pain in your tail bone and no fun to fight. Hop a doodle doo, dodge their pink mucus balls, throw some fire and they’re dead.
Onward to stage 5-1, or downward if you want to be literal. If you follow the cut scenes this is where Jaquio dumps you down a hole into a dungeon. It’s white, purple, blue and a challenging romp through a horrible color palette. This level reminds me of those times where I walk out of the bedroom dressed in plaid shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, thinking I dressed myself to kill. Then my wife sees me and says that I have committed some sort of fashion suicide. My perplexed look doesn’t help so putting on a new set of clothes is the only option. But at least this guarantees me sex later. Worth it right? Anyway, this level is kind of like that, only no reward at the end except an even harder level.
It’s mountain climb time! Just a word of warning, stage 5-2 is a stinker, a big time greasy fart. The kind where you have to run to the bathroom just to check your pants. I have to admit that I hate it. Not only does it start you going from right to left, but there are nearly impossible jumps galore and the annoying music from the very first level is back with a vengeance. I didn’t think it was annoying until I had to hear it FIVE HUNDRED TIMES!!! This is the part of Ninja Gaiden that goes from merely hard to freaking hair ripping, controller throwing, window breaking hard. And the jump at the end with the respawning bird? Stop…. Just stop….
So level 5-3, not quite as hard as 5-2. But still gut wrenching and insanely long. You are in a proper tower now and fighting mostly the same guys as before. Except they added some cupids that fire ninja stars at you. Wait. What? Those are pink guys with jetpacks? Sure, why not.
You know what, this level sucks let’s move on. To the boss that is. “Malth” as he calls himself is pretty much a pushover. Stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab dead.
On to 6-1 which is short and sweet, although another right to left mess with your head trip. Just watch out for the damned flock of F^(K!N@ birds at the end. One just wasn’t enough. They had to give you three. No, don’t try to fight them… Run Ryu, I’m telling you, RUN!
Alright, we escaped the birds, but what comes next is the living legend of Ninja Gaiden which is level 6-2. The nightmare of gamers of all generations (except those inhuman guys that do the speed runs, they are apparently aliens). There is no other level in any other game like this. No mountain this high, no river this long, no cavern this dark, if you’ve made it this far, just give up now and go home. No really, I’m serious. This level is ridiculous, to the point of lunacy. You are a mere 2 levels from the end yet this area took me longer than the entire rest of the game combined to finish. That’s how hard it is. How did I do it? I got “inspired.”
Remember that rusty bike way back at the beginning of this story? The same one that clung to that tree for 24 years, despite being bombarded by 10 hurricanes? Well I thought of that bike while I was playing this level and I realized that if that bike could endure 10 hurricanes hanging unprotected from a tree, I could finish this insane torture chamber of a game. But in all seriousness, if our government was smart and really wanted to get answers out of terrorists, they’d just sit them down and make them complete Ninja Gaiden from start to finish. That would get them talking faster than choking on H2O.
So what makes this level so hard? The torturous spawning mechanics of course! Remember when I talked about insanity and performing the same action over and over again? Well this level will do that to you. It will literally make you feel like you are going insane. Move to the right, guy spawns, turn around, move to the left, guy spawns, back and forth, back and forth, smack, smack, dead. Start over. Again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. At least that many times. Probably a lot more. Oh yeah, and there are at least three practically impossible jumps. Not one, not two, but three! You’d think that one impossible jump per level would be enough, but this game gives you three! This level is beatable, but barely.
Level 6-3 is hardly worth mentioning because it’s fairly short and straight forward. The trick is getting through it with all your lives for the boss, or shall we say bosses. The first being the “Masked Devil” aka, your father! What a surprise! He’s also not too difficult but his whirly little balls are no joke. Finish him and Jaquio himself, who is apparently Jewish, is your next target (he’s wearing the Star of David!). Jaquio is a test of endurance and easily the longest fight in the game. Finish Judea, I mean, Jaquio and the demon himself coalesces and looks surprisingly like something you’d see in a Konami game… in other words, an alien.
If you made it this far like I did without prior knowledge as to what to expect, this is where you can officially throw the Nintendo out the window. If you lose on any of these bosses, guess what? You get sent all the way back to level 6-1. You want torture? Imagine spending 3 hours trying to get from level 6-1 through 6-3, fighting all three of the bosses, then losing on the final one and getting hurled back to do it all over again. You know, like it was normal. Yeah, this game is that cruel. Look what it did to me:
I beat this horror, but not without some major liberties. If you honestly want to attempt this game on an actual Nintendo Entertainment System and not on an emulator, good luck. I know there are some people with magical gifts that can beat it that way and even beat it without dying. And you know what I have to say to those people? FUCK YOU!
Really though, did I achieve something redeeming in all of this? Was torturing myself really worth it? I would have to say, yes. I have my memories of playing this game with my old friend in his parents blazing hot garage. I have that awesome 4th grade summer in 1989 full of ninjas, Nintendo and just plain fun! And of course, I have the rusty bike. I visit it from time to time when I go to see my parents. It never fails to be there, still hanging, still rusting, but still holding firm. I like to think that Ninja Gaiden made me a stronger person for forcing me to hold firm and finish it. I may have quit football when I was a teenager because I got my ass kicked, but Ninja Gaiden kicked my ass and I didn’t quit. What better lesson can you get out of life than that?