Why Ninja Gaiden’s Surreal Arcade Version Is Worth Revisiting

Most people know Ninja Gaiden as the NES platform game or the hyper-violent modern series of brawlers. But what about the 1988 coin-op...?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

In the first half of the 1980s, Japanese developer Tecmo was perhaps best known for the breezy arcade platformer Bomb Jack, or the exceedingly strange Rygar, a fantasy action game in which its main character wielded what looked like a killer yo-yo.

Towards the end of the decade, designers at Tecmo noticed something notable happening in American culture: films, comics, and TV shows with ninjas in them were extraordinarily popular. Keen to capitalize on this trend, Tecmo created a game called Ninja Ryukenden for the Nintendo Entertainment System – a fast-paced, ferociously difficult action platformer. Released as Ninja Gaiden in the US and Shadow Warriors in Europe, the game was acclaimed for the fluidity of its action and the cinematic quality of its cutscenes.

Ninja Gaiden‘s success was such that it spawned two sequels, ports to other machines (including the PC Engine and Sega Genesis), and later, a new and exceedingly violent action series beginning in 2004.

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If you’re familiar with the Ninja Gaiden series at all, you’ll almost certainly remember one of these games – whether it’s the athletic wall-jumping of the 1988 NES title or the blood-and-guts frenzy of Tomonobu Itagaki’s 21st-century revival. But there, lurking at the back of the pack, less commonly remembered than the rest, is the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden, also released in 1988.

Like the NES game, Ninja Gaiden was originally called Ninja Ryukenden (which translates to Legend of the Dragon Sword) and changed to its slightly confusing alternative title for its North American release (“gaiden” means “side-story” – a word reportedly chosen because it sounded cool). Again, like the NES title, the arcade machine was also called Shadow Warriors in Europe.

Although it shares the same name and a similar central character clad in a blue-hued ninja outfit, the arcade Ninja Gaiden is entirely different from its NES counterpart. Where the console game was a pixel-precise platform game, the coin-op is a thudding, button-mashing beat-em-up that offers the kind of challenge that can easily be overcome by simply throwing more money into the machine.

If anything, the arcade Ninja Gaiden looks and feels more like the endearingly trashy, straight-to-video martial arts and action films that were so popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It sees its high-kicking protagonist (named Ryu Hayabusa in the other games, but seemingly unnamed here) head from Japan to the mean streets of America. This is illustrated in a simple but atmospheric opening cutscene, in which our hero squats commandingly at the helm of a boat as the Golden Gate Bridge looms up in the background.

The cities of the US, in Ninja Gaiden‘s alternative history, are paved with madmen. The ninja’s target is a mysterious death cult run by a descendant of Nostradamus who plans to bring about the end of the world – though exactly how he plans to do this isn’t made entirely clear. If that sounds like something Cannon Films might have produced at the height of its ’80s powers, the B-movie tone is further underlined in the game itself.

The central villain – brilliantly named Bladedamus – has employed an army of pumped-up goons. The rank-and-file bad guys wear tight-fitting vests and hockey masks, just like Jason Voorhees. There are also bearded men wielding clubs, even larger men carrying tree trunks (as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix did in 1985’s Commando), and a small assortment of sumo wrestlers, sword fighters as well as other bad guys of varying size and bulk.

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To defeat them, the ninja employs his somewhat small range of martial arts moves. He has a standard attack – a cycling whirlwind of spinning kicks and punches – a jump, and a special attack, where the ninja can fling his opponents through the air. Hidden in destructible crates and phone booths, the ninja will also find a sword, which he can wield for a limited time. Although his move set is limited, the ninja’s fast and agile. He can hang from bits of scenery and kick his opponents in the face, walk along drain pipes and do backward somersaults from walls. 

The arcade Ninja Gaiden is clearly modeled on Technos’ beat-em-up Double Dragon, which was a sizeable arcade hit the year before. Like that game, Ninja Gaiden provides a colorful conveyor belt of gratuitous violence, though the combat in Tecmo’s brawler feels less involved, somehow, than Double Dragon. Although Double Dragon‘s combat wasn’t as fast-paced as Ninja Gaidens, it felt grittier and more bruising; the constant scramble for nearby weapons – whether it happened to be a knife, crate or club – also added drama to the repetitive action.

Ninja Gaiden is a slicker, smoother game than Double Dragon – notably so, given that it only came out a year later – but the grind of beating up the same handful of bad guys over and over again palls far more quickly than it did in Technos’ trend-setting arcade machine. What Ninja Gaiden does have in its favor, though, is a varied array of level designs.

The first stage sees the ninja fling his enemies through a string of phone boxes and run across some drainpipes before taking part in a climactic fight outside a bar that has a huge mural of a Viking on its frontage. We can only imagine what a San Francisco bar owner would think if a fight between a half-naked sumo wrestler and a ninja took place outside his establishment. Imagine the YouTube videos…

Stage two sees the ninja pull off the tricky task of crossing a New York highway before engaging in a pitched battle with a pair of masked motorcycle riders in front of a billboard poster depicting a boxer called Lucky Rabbit.  

The further into the game you go, the more surreal it gets. Stage three is a nightmarish reimagining of Las Vegas. The screen’s saturated with so many flashing neon lights, images of clowns, and giant cowboys that it’s difficult to even concentrate on who you’re supposed to be beating to death. Then a man rides in on a tiny helicopter and things get even more strange.

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Things appear to settle down a bit by the time you get to level four – a tour through a muddy-looking Grand Canyon – until you notice that bits of it are flooded, and that muscle-bound, snake-like men with blonde hair live in the floodwaters. By the time you get to the end of the stage and you’re confronted by a giant carving of Nostradamus’ head, you realize you’re playing one of the more eccentric brawlers of the 1980s. 

After a fight through a train yard, things reach their crazy zenith in the sixth and final level. It’s a bone-crunching trudge through Bladedamus’ lair, which is populated by yet more masked goons. In fact, Bladedamus seems to have a thing for masks and slightly kinky occult imagery, because his enclave is packed full of it. As the game makes you fight a load of old area bosses again (a common staple in coin-hungry arcade machines of the era), you notice that it’s all taking place in front of a stained glass window featuring a burning Joan of Arc. Another rematch unfolds in front of a second portrait of Nostradamus.

Finally, Bladedamus himself makes his grand entrance. He descends from the sky on what looks like Emperor Palpatine’s throne from Return of the Jedi – a further sign of his eclectic taste in interior design. Bladedamus, true to form, hides behind a silver mask with horns, wears little other than thin strips of studded leather and little zip-up booties. Just in case you’re tempted to make a wry comment about his taste in clothing – or his mural of a bathing man in a leather thong – he’s wielding two gigantic swords. 

Oddly, Bladedamus offers relatively little resistance, which leaves us wondering whether he was ever a credible threat or simply a Judas Priest fan with a lot of violent friends. Then again, there are signs everywhere that Ninja Gaiden‘s creators don’t expect us to take the story too seriously in any case.

The game’s levels are punctuated by an increasingly odd selection of graphic interludes. The first sees the ninja sitting in a sushi restaurant, the proprietor clearly turning a blind eye to the hero’s blue mask. Another sees the ninja on a train, reading a newspaper and oblivious to the horse-riding Native American waving a gun outside his window. A third has the ninja at a gambling table, wearing a pink suit but, hilariously, still wearing his mask. 

As you’ve probably gathered, Ninja Gaiden: the coin-op has little in common with its NES partner. In a 1988 interview, artist Masato Kato (who worked on the NES version) revealed that both games were developed simultaneously by separate teams, and that “each team developed their game as they pleased.”

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This certainly explains why the two games ended up so vastly different, though it’s also arguable that each version plays to its own specific market. Platform games as taxing and intricate as Ninja Gaiden were better suited to home systems, whereas the quick-fix, easy-to-grasp mechanics of the coin-op version were tailored to the noisy environs of the amusement arcade. Konami took a similar approach with its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles licensed games in 1989. It released a four-player arcade beat-em-up and a rock-hard NES platformer at almost the same time.

Tecmo’s arcade version of Ninja Gaiden was ported to a range of computers by Ocean Software in 1990, and there was also a surprisingly accurate version for the ill-fated Atari Lynx handheld – it even retains the leather-clad murals from the original. Ultimately, though, the Ninja Gaiden coin-op is far less celebrated than the console platform game series, with its string of sequels and spin-offs.

But the Ninja Gaiden coin-op is, for all its repetition, still an entertaining brawler – particularly with two players. It evokes the spirit of an age of trashy action films, and also contains what is surely among the best continue screens in any arcade game of its time. Run out of lives and you’re confronted with a startling graphic of the ninja, strapped to a table and staring in horror as a spinning saw blade descends towards his chest. Do you throw another coin in the machine to save the ninja’s life or leave him to his grisly fate? We’d wager that quite a few players simply stood, arms folded, to see just how gory the outcome would be…