The Best and Worst of ’80s Ninja Video Games
Saboteur? BMX Ninja? Ninja Golf? Shadow Warriors? The Last Ninja? We dissect the ninja videogames of the 1980s...
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
When I was a kid, I picked what I wanted to be when I grew up based on computer games rather than actual life experience. First, thanks to Lunar Jetman, I wanted to be an astronaut. Then Elevator Action and Impossible Mission convinced me a spy would be an even cooler job. Winter Games and, uh, Horace Goes Skiing made me think I had a shot at the Olympic Slalom. By the time I got to playing Tapper, running a redneck bar that only served Budweiser to furious cowboys looked like a solid option too.
I didn’t end up doing any of those things in real life, but one thing I did pick up from gaming that’s never gone away was an obsession with ninjas. At the height of the ’80s ninja boom, I was too young to watch most of the films, but the games were always there for me and I thought nothing could be cooler than throwing on some black pyjamas and flinging shuriken in people’s faces.
As with the movies, not every game with ‘Ninja’ in the title could guarantee actual quality ninja content but I was willing to take the risks. I saved my pocket money and slavishly bought everything I could. It was tough at times but, if enduring the highs and the lows of ninja gaming served any practical purpose at all, it at least laid the groundwork for me to write this article. So let’s take a look, starting from the bottom, at the best and worst of ’80s ninja games…
BMX Ninja (1988)
This game is part of the subgenre I like to call Ninja Leisure Time. Here we find that when they’re not busy ninjing people to death, they’re BMXing and pulling gnarly tricks. It’s one of those games that was released at the tail end of both the ninja boom and the budget gaming boom and I get the impression that no one really put much effort in. The plot involves a BMX ninja called Pookie (strong ninja name right there) who is set upon by a rival bike gang called the Diamondbacks. They’re led by a guy who looks like a 1940s Chicago gangster (for Reasons) and Pookie is told that he must “survive as long as possible” while being set upon by skateboarders, “ninja skooters” and rocks that are thrown at him from offscreen. This isn’t a huge challenge. If Pookie touches anyone with his back wheel while spinning his bike, they instantly dissolve into the pavement… maybe that counts as a special ninja skill?
To make it super-cringe, the instruction booklet tells you “If you fail in your task, you will not only lose your title, you will lose your girlfriend – who wants to be seen with a loser anyway?” which is harsh. That said, it does promise that she “will give you the ultimate reward” if you complete “a certain number” of levels, adding coyly “we’re not telling you what it is, so find out for yourself if you can”. Sadly, BMX Ninja’s interminable, repetitious gameplay, eye-searing backgrounds and strong possibility that the “certain number” is well over a million means that I’ve never found out what her ultimate reward is. Have you? Let us know in the comments below if you have.
She spends the game in the sidebar and occasionally takes off an item of clothing so I’m going to take a guess here that the “ultimate reward” is a crudely-rendered naked woman. Which just makes this game all kinds of oh dear.
Ninja Scooter Simulator (1988)
Perhaps the most random of all the Ninja Leisure Time cash-ins, Ninja Scooter Simulator allows us to truly experience ninja scooting in a way that no game before or since has done. I wonder why that is, eh? The instructions say you can “Whizz through the night on your dream scooter and pull some rad Ninja stunts!” adding “you’ve got to beat the clock to beat the rest so don’t hang around!” and the assertion that “Ninja Scooter’s the best!”
In reality, this budget game was clearly programmed as something different and renamed before release. If you take the word ‘ninja’ out of those sentences, you lose nothing relevant. The game is nothing more than an affable Metro-Cross clone in which a Fred Durst lookalike on a scooter races against time to reach the end of a side-scrolling obstacle course. I think Metro-Cross is one of the greatest games ever so Ninja Scooter Simulator is still quite a fun thing to play, but shame on them for both ripping off another game and cheating eager ninja fans out of £1.99.
However, this does gain some points for weirdness. You start out being chased by the police (which sort of makes sense) but by the later levels they’re replaced by giant floating skulls. I guess the programmers got bored and assumed no one would care if they just started throwing in whatever they fancied? And they were right. Kind of a terrible game but also a guilty pleasure. And that cover artwork? Iconic tbh.
Ninja Hamster (1987)
Ninjas were at the peak of their popularity throughout the ’80s but, as the trend expanded the quality eventually dropped off. When boom turned to bust, it was largely down to the fact that the cash-ins had got so bizarre, they’d long lost track of what the appeal was in the first place. The best thing about ninjas was that they were dark, violent and edgy. Ninja Hamster, while arguably quite a cute little game, just doesn’t deliver on that. It also couldn’t justify its (for the time) whopping price tag of £7.99…
There were several anthropomorphic animal ninja games aimed at kids (presumably inspired by the rising success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) but I think Ninja Hamster was the first one out of his cage, so I’ll give it credit for invention if even if there’s no real ninjing and almost as little plot. The instruction booklet is – shall we say? – minimalist and you’re given little background on the Hamster’s world, instead just encouraged to suspend disbelief and go with it. The titular Hamster (who doesn’t even have a name) must head out to the “plains of the Orient” to battle The Lizards of Death who are terrorizing the land.
This all frames a simple fighting game where button-bashing leads the Hamster to thrash a series of quirky animal opponents. The fights are not much fun but if the game succeeds anywhere, it’s through sheer investment in its own silliness. Loony Lobster, Barmy Bee, Crazy Cat and Perilous Parrot may have naff all to do with ninjas but it’s hard not to smile at their daft names and character design.
Bad Dudes Vs Dragon Ninja (1988)
This side-scrolling Japanese beat-em-up is made in the style of Double Dragon and Renegade but has the added bonus of ninjas. It’s pretty funny because in trying to make it as appealing as possible to American audiences, Konami created a game so ludicrously OTT that it almost plays like a wild pastiche of patriotism.
The introductory screen explains everything : “Rampant ninja related crimes these days… Whitehouse is not the exception…”
It turns out “President Ronnie” has been kidnapped by ninjas so the Secret Service ask a pair of martial artists known as Blade and Striker, the Bad Dudes, to go rescue him. “Are you a bad enough dude?” asks the Secret Service Agent at the start, with appropriately professional parlance. At the end of each level, Blade and Striker turn to you and yell “I’m bad!” in a Jacksonesque falsetto until the very end, at which point they rescue President Ronnie and he says, American flag waving behind him, “Hey dudes, thanks for rescuing me! Let’s go for a BURGER! HA HA HA HA!”
The game loses points with me because you have to play as the Bad Dudes who are, obviously, nowhere near as cool as the Dragon Ninjas but still, if you want a lot of bokken for your buck, there’s probably more ninjas in this than any other game, in sheer numbers terms. At times, you can barely see the backgrounds, there are so many ninjas swarming our heroes. It’s quite a challenging game and probably only playable for any time if you’re a deep lover of side-scrolling beat-em-ups, but the high ninjing quotient and the cock-eyed portrayal of all-American heroism makes it worth a look.
Ninja Master (1986)
This one is a cool little £1.99 game from Firebird that takes a different approach to most, creating not just an impressively addictive game but also a reasonable approximation of a ‘ninja training’ experience and the pain it can cause you. It’s split into four training levels that are probably closer to Daley Thompson’s Decathlon than they are to Kung Fu Master.
Each level finds your ninja character taking a “test” (spoiler : none of them involve having to fight Conan, contrary to the cover art’s implication!). In the first one, he must stand still while flying arrows are shot at him, moving only to either kick or punch them out the way. The second deploys the classic RSI-inducing ‘bashing the z and x keys as quickly as possible’ technique to gather up enough strength for your ninja to smash a block of wood in half. The third test involves chopping up flying shuriken using a katana and – for reasons I can only ascribe to ‘it is the coolest looking thing we could possibly think of’, this happens in front of the Sphinx. The final test finds our ninja standing on a mountain with a blow gun, shooting darts at flying targets. This is a little bit Duck Hunt, a little bit Missile Command and, anti-climactically, probably the easiest level.
At the end of the tests, you do them all over again with the idea being to keep beating your score until you are undeniably a Ninja Master. If I’m honest, it is a little too scrappily made to fully succeed. The animation is horrendous and, even as a kid, there was a limit to how many times I could bash two keys repeatedly before realizing I was doing permanent damage to my wrist. But what works is the fresh approach to ninjing, the very cool backdrops and the exotic vibe of the game. When you switch off your critical thinking and plug in the imagination, it really is like being at ninja school. Which lets face it, beats the crap out of real school.
Kai Temple (1988)
Kai Temple was a plucky little budget game that, while nowhere near as sophisticated as something like Bad Dudes, proved to be the one I wanted to play more often. The plot is really basic – you’re a ninja who gets trapped (for reasons both unknown and unfathomable) INSIDE the famous Kai Temple, high in the Tibetan mountains. Usually these kind of platform games have the ninja character trying to break into somewhere that’s heavily guarded but nope, here he needs to break out.
His path is blocked by endless ninja guards and “divas” (sadly just martial arts dudes, not Beyoncé or Mariah), as well as flying swords that come out of nowhere when you last need them. If you’ve played the Bruce Lee game then this will be a pretty familiar format, but it has a couple of nifty twists, like the “strange effect of the mountain air” meaning that the game flips itself upside down at random moments… which is enormously frustrating.
However, this frustration and those ‘ARGH, I NEARLY DID IT!’ moments – along with the groovy east Asian exoticism – kept me going back to this as a kid. The gameplay is genuinely addictive, even if it is so rough around the edges that programmer Ian Wright coded in a hidden ‘apology’ message for its flaws, saying it was his first game and at least he gave it a good go. Awww. Well, *I* like you, Kai Temple. I like you a lot.
Ninja Golf (1990)
I’m cheating slightly by including 1990 as part of the ’80s, but I’m not sure there’s a more quintessentially ’80s game in existence than Ninja Golf for the Atari 7800. While I’ve slated some of the other Ninja Leisure Time games, I have to take my hood off in respect here. The cover art gives you an idea of how crazy it could get but, for a change, the game not only delivers what it promises but exceeds it. “After many long years of ninja training,” it tells you at the start, “you are finally ready for the most difficult test of all… the nine holes of Ninja Golf!” then smash cuts to a ninja running onto a golf course, club in hand…
Unlike the other sports games that have nothing really to do with ninjas, this actually takes the audacious step of blending a traditional golf simulator with… actual ninja fighting. In between hitting balls across the courses for points, you’re chased around by other ninjas trying to kill you. When you reach the green, you have to fight a giant dragon before you can get the balls in the hole.
Beyond the incredible premise, Ninja Golf just keeps offering up surprises. For example, if you hit the ball into the water and have to go in to get it, you’ll then must ninj your way through swathes of sharks! Elsewhere, birds poop on you, giant frogs run after you and gophers pop out of holes to throw balls at you. It really is endlessly inventive and for that I have to rate Ninja Golf as one of the best of its kind.
Shadow Warriors (1990)
Shadow Warriors from Ocean Software was the European retitling of the first Ninja Gaiden game and it’s a beautiful thing. Its intricately rendered graphics bring to life what the booklet describes as the “concrete jungle of the American metropolis” where “chaos has broken loose” thanks to “an Oriental demon” (oh dear) who’s “summoned forth a squad of ghoulish assassins.” It’s up to you, “the last in a line of legendary combatants,” to save the city.
Dodgy premise aside, Shadow Warriors is a very well-rendered beat-em-up game. There are some excellent special moves – who, as a kid, wouldn’t want to have a crack at The Flying Neck Throw or The Phoenix Backflip? – and a pervading atmosphere of violence and of that gritty, urban feeling that evokes early 80s New York. I have to admit, I don’t think there’s an image in the world that brings me to ninjasm as quickly as a ninja in front of a skyline, and Shadow Warriors takes this motif and makes a whole game out of it.
So yeah, aesthetically, this is probably the best game of its era. It’s colourful and gorgeous and it’s hard not to be wowed by scenes of about ten ninjas all duffing each other up, while other ninjas on motorbikes zoom past. But where it falls down is that it’s almost unplayable. The inhumane difficulty levels make it so that you’ll have to play for hours to even beat the first level and while persistence is key to any good game, this one’s just a bit too intense for all but the most dedicated ninja warriors.
Shinobi is arguably the most ‘important’ and influential ninja game, as well as kicking off the genre’s longest running franchise. Its protagonist Joe Musashi (named after the legendary Samurai) was one of Sega’s flagship characters along with Alex Kidd and Sonic the Hedgehog, guesting in many other games, from the myriad Shinobi sequels to lighter crossover fare like Alex Kidd In Shinobi World. The original game, however, stays truest to the spirit of the ’80s ninja boom and remains a fierce side-scroller with exceptional enemy AI.
The plot’s easy to grasp – a gang called Zeed are kidnapping children, so Joe has to free the hostages and duff up everyone who gets in his way – but the cool maps and deadly fights are enough to keep you going back over and over. It’s really not an easy ride though. The pace is so relentless that it’s almost impossible to come away from a Shinobi session without sweat marks.
But, of course, what made me love this as a kid was the unprecedented violence levels. In addition to unlimited shuriken (which never stop being fun to throw), Joe gets hold of katanas, guns with explosive bullets, and some super-rad special ninja moves – Thunderstorm, Tornado, and Doppelganger Attack. The enemies are nice and surprising too, a wide range of multi-coloured ninjas, sneaky samurai, green-skinned monsters and even a room full of angry Buddhas.
The Last Ninja 1 & 2 (1987/1989)
Ninja games came of age with The Last Ninja series, which blended a puzzle-solving adventure game format with combat scenes to excellent effect. The games used isometric 3D graphics to create a world that, at the time, was completely immersive and even now stands up as being a great-looking, highly playable experience.
The story follows Armakuni who is the last of a long line of ninjas. What happened to the rest of his clan? Destroyed, I’m afraid, by the dread shogun Kunitoki. It’s a classic duel to the death story between two ninjas that takes its cues from both Eric Van Lustbader’s Ninja and Enter The Ninja, and feels very true to the spirit of the boom.
In the first game, Armakuni is trapped on an island called Lin Fei, which has a cool mystical vibe to it but the series only gets better in the second one where he’s ninjing around modern day New York. There’s a breathtaking thrill to walking through isometric Central Park in ninja garb, flicking shuriken at street punks, and the gameplay has enough depth to sustain the feeling. You even get nunchaku to swing about which, as perhaps the most forbidden, controversial weapon of all, is a buzz and a half. The combat is a challenge, demanding so many arcane combinations of button pushes, you’d think you were actually learning all eighteen ninja Jūhakkei , but it’s the puzzles that really punish the weak and keep the strong coming back for more. The maps, while small compared with modern games, felt like never-ending labyrinths at the time and are still phenomenally difficult to memorise.
Since the proposed sequels were never completed, this does lack the satisfaction of a real conclusion, leaving Armakuni and Kunitoki locked forever in mortal combat, but, if you want something to really aim for, you can beat the high score and receive perhaps the greatest gift The Last Ninja has to give: the accolade of being a “tip top ninja.”
Killer soundtrack too.
I nearly put this one in the top slot just because I loved it so damn much as a kid. I know it was quite negatively reviewed at the time and hasn’t remained as popular – even in nostalgia pieces – as many of the other games here. Playing as an adult, its limitations are evident and I have to admit it’s not exactly groundbreaking but it will always hold a special place in my heart and formed a crucial part of my ‘ideal’ way to represent ninjas.
Plotwise, you’re a Japanese ninja (with Sho Kosugi’s eyes if the cover art is anything to go by) who has to penetrate an evil ninja fortress to rescue Princess Di-Di, “the Pearl of the Orient”. As wonderfully ’80s as it would be if Princess Di-Di turned out to actually be Diana, Princess of Wales – in the same way “President Ronnie” in Bad Dudes Vs Dragon Ninja was Ronald Reagan – we’ll never know, since she doesn’t actually appear in the game. You have to collect a bunch of idols that are discarded in various rooms (in a randomly generated pattern each time) and when you’ve got all of them, return to the start, at which point the screen will flash the word “WINNER!” at you and your ninja suit starts rapidly changing colors. So, uh, I guess with all the guards dead on the floor, Di-Di just finds her own way out while you’re busy tripping balls? What were those idols coated with anyway?
Your journey to the end involves much duffing up of the guards with a combination of simple kicks, punches, shuriken throws and sword swipes. It’s a workaday side-scrolling brawler but has a larger map than most on account of putting a brief loading-style screen between each room, telling you where you are (“Approaching Torii In The Sea!”). While the expanded map is a nice touch, these title screens also prove surprisingly effective in setting up a world. With the exotic Japanese locations, it created a mood that appealed a lot to me (to this day, if I ever get lucky enough to visit Japan, I’d absolutely HAVE to get a selfie by the real Torii In The Sea!) and, thanks to an amiable difficulty level, it’s oddly zen to play. Detractors argue it’s too easy but that’s not always a bad thing as long as you’re still enjoying yourself.
And I spent many, many happy hours with this one.
It also has a wicked tagline: “NINJA: It blasts the black belt off all other martial arts games!!”
Saboteur! 1 & 2 (1985/1987)
Of course, the black belt, for me, will never quite be blasted off Clive Townsend’s Saboteur! It’s probably the most ‘realistic’ ninja simulator of its day and combines a dark, believable tone with superb gameplay. The game starts out with our hero, whose name is just Ninja, arriving via dinghy at a top secret warehouse, armed only with a throwing star. His mission is to steal a floppy disk, set up a timebomb and get out by helicopter before the whole place explodes. There’s only one mission so there’s only one level and one map, but Ninja is working against a monstrous clock that gives him just a matter of minutes to take care of business. The short time you’re given to complete your mission means Saboteur! is never a long game but it is however, a nerve-shreddingly tense game and one that’s still tough to beat. Every move you make has to be perfect.
The design of the warehouse is gorgeous, feeling like it was built by a brutalist Cold War M.C. Escher. Corridors are lined with tiles, bricks and concrete; decorated with packing crates, stacked trays, reel-to-reel tape machines and computer terminals. There are security cameras that shoot at you and guards with tasers to drain your health as you fumble your way around in the dark. Many rooms have no point to them. There’s a chamber of water at the bottom of a very long ladder that serves no purpose beyond somewhere to sit down and drown yourself if it all gets a bit much.
But it has just the right level of difficulty to keep you going until you master it (something I never managed as a kid, but finally got to as an adult playing the whizzy new version on Clive Townsend’s website and it was the closest I ever came to feeling like I was on a real ninja mission. It also did something radical with its sequel in which the Ninja is replaced by his sister Nina (ha!), the Avenging Angel, who has the honor of being the first ever female ninja game protagonist. It’s also every bit as playable and exciting as the original.
If you’re looking for an ’80s nostalgia hit (as so many ninjologists are), this is a strong dose of the good stuff. I mean, the whole plot revolves around a floppy disk. You can’t get more ’80s than that.
If you want more ninjing, follow Craig’s blog Ninjas All The Way Down.