When we think back to the early days of Ryu Hayabusa, we immediately align ourselves to the fact that Ninja Gaiden is the Master System’s greatest ninja foray.
Ninja Gaiden or Ninja Ryukenden in Japan & sometimes Shadow Warriors in Europe (Ninja being an offensive word, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and all that) was also an extremely good game for the PC Engine. But forget 1988, it’s 1992 that we should be celebrating.
Finally, after some excusable Shinobi attempts for the Master System, a real Ninja arrived. Ok, so Shinobi wasn’t too bad, Shinobi World was at least a bit different and The Ninja is an out & out classic. Technically, the Master System should be dead by now, especially in Europe – but Sega wasn’t quite finished.
The Mega Drive was alive and kicking, battling it out with the SNES and the Amiga. The Master System had no right and absolutely no say in any of this. However; Throwing some weight behind a pretty much defunct machine may seem ridiculous by today’s standards, but Sega had good reason.
The Master System was still an active seller across Europe. With various bundles advertised and the Master System II selling extremely well, Sega took the unusual approach of creating some irremissibly sublime titles for the system. Castle of Illusion for example, is sometimes considered to be the superior version with speed, level design and music weighing heavily against the Mega Drive game.
Ninja Gaiden adds a somewhat different taste to the Master System’s library. Releasing a game that’s already been seen on various systems (including Sega’s own portable car battery the Game Gear), is a very risky undertaking. The game is pretty much a reboot of Tecmo’s original. But, Sega elected to go with developer SIMS and very clearly it paid off.
The game opens with a story of murder and destruction, in 8bit postcards. It portrays our hero Ryu on some kind of trip. Whilst he’s away, he receives a letter explaining that the evil Shogun of Darkness has attacked his village, slaughtering everyone. Naturally, Ryu rushes home to find only one survivor as you do.
The survivor, gruesomely depicted in eight bit form, explains to Ryu that the Scroll of Bushido has been stolen and he must retrieve it. The survivor dies and Ryu leaves the village in search of revenge. Now, interestingly yet smothered in intrigue, there are ‘two’ versions of the game.
The first version, the most common apparently, tells the story at the beginning of the game through the narrative of Ryu himself. The second, least common version of the opening sequence explains the plot but in less detail. Strange circumstances indeed. From the start Ninja Gaiden flows into the action beautifully.
If ever a game was more designed to fit the palm blistering master pad, it was this. Absolute consideration has been taken into account with regards to ergonomically making the player feel right at home. As close as it’s possibly accurate to get near perfect response from the second you tilt the directional pad south-west, north-east and slamming buttons one & two, the game receives the orders straight to screen exceptionally fast.
Mechanically, the game doesn’t deter from the concept. It’s a ninja hack and slash platform game, nothing new here. However, it’s the fundamentalist approach to how the game should play that sets it apart from most other Master System titles. Instead of the basic wall climbing techniques seen in previous outings, Ryu now has the ability to carry out wall to wall jumping allowing for very in-depth level design and exploration. Special attacks are much smoother in response too. Pressing the directional button up and using the attack button allows for some deadly moves.
With the inclusion of the wall to wall jumping, the ability to attack foes in trees or high places is extremely fun. Countering or dodging the foes attack while slashing him in the head has its moments. The game credits you with timing and skill with a merit of fulfilment each time you reach another high point. Striking from above has its flaws – usually in the shape of landing on a bed of razor sharp conveniently placed bamboo sticks propelling you six feet back in the air.
Scrolls are collected for extra power ups and are usually found high up in the trees or buildings. Hidden passages and crevices are hard to spot but are a useful ally against hooded foes and contain those extra important power up’s. Power ups consist of diagonal fire balls that help you defeat tandem attacks from ninja foes popping out the ground. The game itself is set out in chapters, telling a story of politics and betrayal.
Naturally, you are not bound to the jungle and other more interesting levels appear. Ice and snow, city landscapes, flowing waterfalls and caves are to name the best. Each level has its end boss, followed by a cut scene that sets the story up impeccably. Visually the game is brilliant. It’s a testament to 8bit coding and an ode to what can be done with interactive software when designers learn to harness the true capabilities of a machine.
Our protagonist himself, Ryu is extremely detailed in every movement. From running and spinning jumps to the incredibly detailed scarf blowing around his neck, the detail is in every step of the way. The leaves on trees move, water flows and backdrop sunsets look as if they have been coded for a Mega Drive title.
Enemies are very well thought out to fit each scenario and boss design fits well into each chapter’s ending. It’s all hard to believe that this all happening on an 8bit cartridge. The music from Takashi Horiguchi is intensely addictive too, giving full dramatic effect to each situation. It can be forgiven that some of the later levels aren’t as ‘polished’ as the previous. But plenty of over the top action, if not sometimes cumbersome on the eyes, diverts attention from some minor over zealous ideas in level design.
A game like this shouldn’t exist on a then redundant machine. Whether it was a shout from SIMS indicating their intent to develop more 16bit games or simply a very late demonstration of SEGA hardware, this game outclasses some Mega Drive titles in the environment, movement and graphics department. It’s a testament not only to those who worked on the machine and its games, but to the many Master System die hard fans that still played the system.
It’s simply superb and without any doubt one of the Master System’s greatest titles.