In his classic book on kenjutsu, The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi wrote, “…in a fight to the death, one wants to employ all one’s weapons to the utmost. I must say that to die with one’s sword still sheathed is most regrettable.” Growing up, I had many an opportunity to live out Musashi’s maxim while playing the nigh on impossible Ninja Gaiden. I employed every weapon at my disposal, and I died. A lot. Fortunately, I was not alone.
One of the criticisms most leveled at the game was that it was too difficult. In fact, in an interview for the game’s 25th anniversary, artist and writer Masato Kato stated that team members were essentially reduced to tears while trying to play through the game during the development process. So, it’s good to know that I’m not the only one.
Ninja Gaiden featured you as Ryu Hayabasa, a ninja seeking revenge for the death of his father. From that simple premise, there developed a rather Byzantine plot about world domination which included an ancient demon, the CIA, an archeologist, and even a love interest. This complex storyline was complemented by the game’s cinematic cutscenes.
The game was a side scrolling platformer, and your primary weapon was Ryu’s “Dragon Sword,” along with secondary weapons like throwing stars. There were 20 total levels, broken up between six acts. Each act contained a boss fight. In addition to your standard health, you also had “spiritual strength” which was consumed using your secondary attacks.
Tecmo, later responsible for games like Dynasty Warriors, developed and published Ninja Gaiden. The game came about because then Tecmo president Yoshihito Kakihara wanted the company to capitalize on the Western fascination with ninjas. The concept presented a curious challenge to the development team. Kato noted that the western perception of ninjas was something akin to superheros, while in Japan they were regarded as a historical reality. The game attempted to merge these two sensibilities.
I can say without shame that I never came anywhere near beating the game. As mentioned, it was an insanely difficult game. If it could reduce the development team to tears, you can imagine how it reduced a prepubescent gaming geek into a quivering pile of jelly. The kicker? At least some of the game’s difficulty wasn’t intended. Take the game’s final boss. There’s a rush the boss performs was actually a glitch. A glitch that the developers decided to leave in the game. Why? Because game developers are cruel and sadistic people who enjoy your pain.
This brings us back to Miyamoto Musashi who wrote in The Book of Five Rings, ““Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.” Why do I bring this up? Because (based on personal experience) no god or man can possibly help you with this maddening, brilliant, classic of a game. You just have to play until your fingers hurt and figure it out yourself.