|"Hard to beat!!" You ain't kiddin' pal...|
One day, a year after the deadly Jaquio's defeat; Ryu Hyabusa found himself strolling on rooftop (as ninjas are want to do) when he was ambushed by a gang of thugs and a monster. What was going on? Why was a mysterious man in the shadows telling Ryu his girl had been kidnapped? Why are the forces of darkness on the rise once more? Well, whatever the case, this looks like a job for a ninja!
As a kid, if there was one thing for certain, if something had anything to do with ninjas, likely it was cool. At least, that was the reasoning I had when I rented the first Ninja Gaiden. After all, TMNT was popular, they were ninjas, and ninjas were awesome, "ninja" was in the title of Ninja Gaiden--naturally I had to rent it and beat it over a weekend. Well...
I never beat the first Ninja Gaiden, but I came a heckuva lot closer with The Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos. Forgive me, but I likely owe at least partial gratitude to a walkthrough via one of the game magazines of the day. Now, in all fairness, it's not like I only got anywhere in the game thanks to a strategy guide. A map can only show you where to go and the enemies you'll face, but it can't make those jumps for you, nor does it automatically stop you from rocketing five feet backwards off a ledge when you're lightly bumped by an eagle swooping in on you or a guy randomly respawning because you backed up too far. Yes, Ninja Gaiden II was a brutal game, and the "Hard to beat" text on the box wasn't just an idle boast, the game was brutally hard in places back in the day, but it was still loads of fun. So, does the game still stack up as a fun challenge?
I like that things explode when you slice them with your blade. Not just because "explosions are cool" though that is true, but because you have that satisfying audio cue that you've beaten the enemy. Sure, the in game graphic shows the mini-boom, but there's something truly cathartic about hearing that little explosion. It's even more satisfying when you defeat an act's end level boss and hear many explosions. Each little chime when an item is picked up has a unique charm as well. They work well for the game and don't distract, but rather enhance the gameplay.
To this day I remember the intro and it's music for Ninja Gaiden II. It feels cinematic and it needs to be. After all, if you go so far as to name each level an "Act" you need to deliver on every aspect available to you in order to create a full movie experience. Each level fully delivers. However, that first track you get to hear as the game introduces you to the main antagonist, Ashtar, lets you know in no uncertain terms that you are in for an adventure. A Ninja adventure. Did I mention how cool ninjas are?
One of the reasons we use "Nintendo Hard" is because you get games where the controls work flawlessly, you never once feel like you were cheated by buggy movement or slippery controls--but dang does the game get difficult fast! Everything in The Ninja Gaiden II has a tightness and fluidity that makes every sword strike and shuriken toss satisfying. That said, the game has a brutal streak and you will face punishment thanks to your enemy. No, I'm not talking about the villainous Ashtar, I'm talking about those stupid eagles! One of the main complaints that you have even to this day about the Ninja Gaiden series is how your hero, Ryu, goes flying back into open pits with the greatest of ease. Most times it's thanks in part to randomly respawning enemies in the form of a giant eagle. It makes the game ridiculously difficult. Not unfair mind you, just that the game earns a deserved "Nintendo Hard," badge.
You run along, jumping and slashing easily, and it's all great fun. Thanks to the game's story, you get varied backgrounds and unique challenges on each level. One of the more notable levels is a mountain top where you get have to watch what direction the snow blows in order to time your jumps just right so as not to get blown off the edge. This particular stage can get aggravating quickly as a sudden wind change can cause your character to stop dead and even go backwards during a jump resulting in an impromptu cliff-diving experience.
As I mentioned before, each level in The Ninja Gaiden II has a flavor all its own. From city rooftops, to high, wind swept cliffs, to ancient temples; the locations make you feel like you really are in a globe trotting quest to stop evil. Though you might encounter the same enemies in different levels, it doesn't feel like character recycling as it works within the story's narrative that you are fighting a certain band of evil-doers. The game has the same basic character sprites as the original, with a few touches here and there to keep the look fresh while feeling familiar. You can especially appreciate how the color varies from the more powerful orange power-ups to the more basic blue-gray shuriken. Whether you are looking at the power-ups or the enemies though, just a quick glance is all you need to tell that you are playing a Ninja Gaiden game, and it's nice that the game has a unique "thumbprint."
Whether I have residual memories of the walk-through, or just have a bit more skill (and patience) not that I'm an adult, the first few levels are easier to deal with now. Note: not easy mind you, just easier to deal with. I can't tell you how many times I sent Ryu to his death on that cliff top, and that was only the second level, I mean, act. I didn't want to wait for the wind to blow the right way, I had a game to beat and the weekend was wasting away! Endless continues also didn't mean quite as much to me back in the day as I knew the moment I had to power off the game for the night I would have to start over again. I rented this game several times and I honestly think the only reason I didn't just buy it back in the day was because I probably was thinking that I wouldn't want to play a game a second time through once I'd beaten it. Well, show just how silly I was as a kid. I still haven't managed to beat this game. Guess I'm all the more grateful that I own it now, because even when the weekend runs out, I won't have to return the game.