A look back at the dormant, legendary action franchise’s history.
It’s been the better half of a decade since we’ve seen the fabled Ryu Hayabusa briskly jaunt across our television screens and computer monitors in anything new. Gaming has been forced to go without any new appearances of the unforgettable ninja that first eloquently jumped and slashed his way through arcades and living rooms in the late ’80s. The NES version was of course the one that primarily caught on in the west, and it introduced millions of gamers, young and old, to a truly tough-as-nails experience that kept players addicted and coming back despite that fact that some of the harder sections weren’t really hard for the right reasons. Even though it didn’t have too much in common with its arcade-bound older brother, the version of Ninja Gaiden that was brought to the Nintendo Entertainment System quickly became one of the system’s biggest hits and still maintains a fair amount of notoriety even today.
Unsurprisingly, a trilogy was forged from the infamy of the first game, and a slightly-tweaked collection of all three was eventually made for the NES’s 16-bit successor, with less damage taken from enemies and infinite continues in the third game, and this was a welcome collection that reached millions more gamers as the medium gained popularity in the 1990’s. Today, the series is looked back on fondly by those who have taken the time to play the original games or the modern reboots and those games will surely continue to live on for future generations of gamers to enjoy due to their timeless challenge and excellent presentation. With such a fantastic start to the franchise, and so many more profitable and affectionately revered sequels and reboots that followed, why has the series seemingly stopped in its tracks? What the hell happened to Ninja Gaiden?
As I mentioned, Ninja Gaiden had a great run in the 1990’s on Nintendo’s consoles but the series was just too popular to stay one one platform. It wasn’t long before the franchise made a jump over to Sega consoles including a Master System game and a Game Gear game which were both their own special versions, with only certain sprites and levels from the originals being re-purposed. A Mega Drive game was planned, but somewhere along the line it was mysteriously cancelled, possibly to keep all ninja fans with Sega consoles focused on the Shinobi series, which was seeing a healthy steady stream of excellent games at the time, but it’s hard to say for sure. It would be good while until a revival of the franchise finally landed on the Xbox, which inspired its own series of games with Ninja Gaiden Black and Ninja Gaiden Sigma. These were all received quite well and brought back that perfect balance of fun and challenge that the originals were known for and translated it perfectly into a new generation of consoles, meeting the new expectations of gamers at the time.
Sequels to and re-releases of these modern games would continue well into the next decade before finally hitting a bump in the road with Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge that saw a Wii U, Xbox 360 and PS3 release. This would be the first game that would receive multiple rounds of criticism for its combat being too streamlined and watered down. Sure, that might have made the game more accessible to newer and more casual players, but it also was a disappointment to those who had been keeping up with the series for a long time and were expecting a certain amount of challenge that simply wasn’t there. This was the first Ninja Gaiden title to come out of Team Ninja after their restructuring, where several developers that had been working on the series for a long time had left and were no longer involved. It isn’t uncommon for franchises to see major changes when key figures among the developers are changed, but along with that also comes larger risk for those new teams to misfire.
You’d think with all of the good will and fandom that had been built up and preserved over the last twenty years, people would have gone a little easier on Ninja Gaiden 3, but nevertheless, fives and sixes out of tens were rampant and the game was largely chalked up as a disappointment by some and around average by most. In a vacuum, average isn’t a terrible thing, but for this series, it definitely hurt a little more. Although most would stop short of calling that game bad. That was a word that would be used soon though, as the spin off Ninja Gaiden Z would soon lower the bar even more upon its release in 2014. Ninja Gaiden Z had about a ridiculous of a set up as it could have had with an un-dead ninja Yiaba slaughtering zombies and traveling between dimensions and basically just creating a mess out of the franchise with his existence.
Z ended up disappointing what fans were left after 3 with its ultra-repetitive game play and outright amateur level design and graphics that had more in common with a mid-range PS2 or Xbox game from ten years ago than it did most decent games from its own era. The slow decline that was started by Ninja Gaiden 3 was dramatically sharpened with this game and, in a nutshell, this is more than likely why we haven’t seen a new iteration since. It even ended up on GamesRadar’s 100 worst games of 2014 list, which is an insane thing to say about a Ninja Gaiden game considering its roots in excellence.
If there has ever been a franchise that needed turned around, its this one. Ninja Gaiden has already proven itself to be very timeless and rebootable in the right hands, so, I think it’s safe to say we haven’t seen the last of it. Ryu has made appearances in other games in recent years as well so it’s clear that Team Ninja doesn’t want to give up on him just yet. Given all of this, I think Ninja Gaiden as a series is pretty safe. It’s well-known and generally well-respected despite the last couple of missteps, and I think Team Ninja is probably doing the right thing by keeping it on ice for a little while. Patience is key here, and I’m sure that once Team Ninja has the team and direction that they need for another solid game in the series, they’ll put one out.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.