Ninja Gaiden on the NES is fondly remembered as a classic of the era. Released in 1989 over in the US and 1991 in Europe, published by Tecmo, it set the bar for momentum-driven side scrolling action, especially on a difficult scale. However, often overlooked is the Sega Master System version released in 1992, which rather than being a port is a standalone game. Sometimes referred to as ‘Ninjya Gaiden’ due to occasional translation errors throughout, it featured some of the staples of the Ninja Gaiden franchise and, in my personal recollection, is an understated gem of the Sega collection.
Drawing comparisons between the NES titles and the Master System title is inevitable, and largely the Master System version comes off quite favourably. You play as Ryu Hayabusa, the famous Dragon Ninja. The plot is told, as is custom for Ninja Gaiden games, through mini cut scenes between stages. While the NES versions are animated, the Master System title simply displays a graphic, and either narrative from a third party or Ryu’s own words, depending on version. It is at the start of the game that we learn that Ryu’s village has been destroyed and the sacred scroll Bushido stolen, which is apparently disastrous, being a source of immeasurable power. So, naturally, Ryu sets out with his Dragon Sword in hand to retrieve the scroll from the Shogun of Darkness, and save the world.
These ‘cut scenes’ are quite enjoyable, and despite occasional translation errors (again, more or less severe depending on version), tell the story rather well, as the player guides Ryu through forests, cities, Mount Fuji and finally the Shogun’s castle. The player can manoeuvre Ryu with remarkable precision, performing some fairly well implemented moves. The Dragon Ninja can run and jump, of course, but he can also kick off walls to ascend to greater heights, or grab onto overhanging ledges to stop himself from falling to his death. Also, by pressing both the 1 and 2 buttons on the Master System controller, Ryu will clear the screen of anything which can be destroyed, depleting some of his health in the process as a sort of ‘last resort’.
You are also able to collect powerful Ninjutsu to help reach the end of the game, attained via scrolls dotted around each stage. From throwing stars to fire shields, nothing proves more effective than the enemy-seeking fireballs, which quite simply break the game to an extent. Without this ninjutsu, the game can be seen as certainly very challenging. Perhaps not to the extent of the NES titles, but still a formidable opponent. However, once you learn that collecting 999 ninjutsu gives you an unlimited supply of enemy-seeking death missiles, you are largely untouchable by anything bar pitfalls. This would be the most stark criticism of the game.
That said, the game is not without very impressive positives. The most obvious of which will be the superior graphics capability of the Master System, which means that the striking and vibrant colours of the Sega version far outstrips anything the NES was capable of in terms of bold-faced appearance. Ryu’s bandana is even animated in his idle stance, billowing in the wind, something which gives him just that little bit more personality compared to his NES counterpart.
Musically, I would consider the Master System version to be largely superior to the NES titles, but that is always going to be a matter of simple preference. Some people prefer the sound that Nintendo consoles make, but there is an almost indescribable, metallic sort of quality that you get with Sega consoles as far as soundtracks go. The first stage in particular of the Sega version, ‘Escape in a Forest’, is one of the most fantastic musical loops on an 8-Bit console in my opinion, and serves to immediately fill the player with the sense of urgency and momentum that is required to meet the challenges ahead.
The boss fights are, however, quite a let down, which is where the game differs greatly from its NES brethren. Often they amount to simple patterns which leave infinite room for failure. After all, Ryu’s health bar is so large and the enemies only ever deal 1-2 damage per hit, that even the most slow-witted player will have enough time to learn their patterns eventually and defeat them. Not to say that the final boss is easy at all, because he can certainly be quite challenging (seeking fireballs aside), but everything up until that point is barely worth mentioning. For instance, the second level boss is a man in a chair. He does not move, he just sits there, while you whale on him. Randomly, other enemies might charge at you from all directions, but again, each only ever deals one damage. Simply hack away at the immobile boss and move on.
Ultimately? Ninja Gaiden on the Master System is a game I remember with infinite joy, and even occasionally revisit. It’s overlooked, certainly, and that’s a crying shame. Despite its game-breaking ninjutsu and lackluster boss fights, each stage is a high-octane adrenaline rush backed by a soundtrack with an urgent tempo, and Ryu handles so fluidly that wall-kicking and leaping across ledges in a perfect display of momentum driven skill is a feeling which doesn’t just emulate that of the NES classics, in many ways, it is superior.