I’ve been on a serious retro gaming kick the past few months. Whether it’s playing Super Mario with Jordan, reliving classics on my 3DS, or going on “retro-trips” with Brendan, 2015 has been a year of classics. A few weeks ago I came across Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection on my PS3. I’ve owned this title for quite some time, but have only really used it to play the classic Sonic games. Luckily this collection has over 40 amazing Genesis games, so I decided to try a bunch of them out. After a while I got stopped by Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. It grabbed my attention mostly because this game is really quite good. Its nonstop Ninja action and awesome music stood out as some of the most fun I’ve had with a video game in quite some time. It made me go on the biggest Ninja spree since my band, Bad Mary, released our single “Ninja” early in 2014. Suddenly my living room was covered in ninjas! Old ninja games, new ninja games, weird ninja games, HD remakes of old ninja games, I got a bit obsessed. I make these sacrifices for this blog, I surround myself with Ninjas. Here are some of the best video game ninjas and how they stack up today.
Ninja Gaiden – Ryu Hayabusa
You can pretty much call Ryu Hayabusa the greatest video game ninja of all time. Just whispering the name “Ninja Gaiden” stirs a certain nervous energy in the hearts of gamers all over the world. Some of us immediately get excited at the challenge ahead, as other cower in fear of some of the most difficult games to be released. Try playing these games on the hardest difficulty setting, you’ll break your own face.
In the Old Days: Master Ryu’s classic NES adventures are amazing. I remember playing Ninja Gaiden as a kid and feeling so powerful and cool, though its world was incredibly deadly. It’s a very unique experience to feel incredibly powerful while still feeling quite vulnerable. Just a relentless game. Ninja Gaiden 2 and 3 continued the perfect ninja action as the series continued to utilize great 2D elements that made the series fun, impossible, and different for the 8-bit days. I’ve never rage quit a game quite like I’ve rage quite Ninja Gaiden. What’s most impressive is that Ninja Gaiden was one of the first games to utilize some kind of “cut-scenes” for storytelling purposes. Great anime narrative connects the story and gives a bit more depth to the 8-bit games.
Modern Ninja: In 2004 we were treated to a “reboot” of the Ninja Gaiden series. Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox was too cool NOT to play. It was hard-as-nails, unique, and captured the essence of its generation. I’m not sure if the series would do as well if it was rebooted now, but 2004 was a different time. To this day Ninja Gaiden (and its remakes), are some of the best action games around. They’re still super difficult as well. Sadly, Team Ninja head, Tomonobu Itagaki has since left the company he founded, so Ninja Gaiden II and 3 (yes they switch from roman numerals to arabic) have diminished in quality. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Ninja Gaiden (2004) is still one of the greatest action games of all time. Just try beating Alma…she’s the worst.
Weird?: I always found it strange that Ryu Hayabusa was all over the Dead or Alive games. As the leader of a Ninja clan and a game hero in his own right, he takes a backseat to a colorful cast of beautiful women who like to punch each other in the mouth. I mean…I guess anyone would take a backseat to that. I do love me some Dead or Alive, even if the series peaked at 3. It’s just a little weird to see him there.
Shinobi – Joe Musashi
Second fiddle to only Ryu Hayabusa, Joe Musashi and his Shinobi series are a highly qualified runner up to Ninja Gaiden. Sega’s take on Ninjas is a bit more “ninja” than Tecmo’s. While Ninja Gaiden is very much about getting in close and chopping heads off, Shinobi is all about hitting your enemies from further away. They also feel really nice, and still have held up after almost a thirty-year span. Joe Musashi is a good ninja, but he’s got nothing on the Hayabusa clan. Shinobi has always been more streamlined, straight-forward, and simple. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s ultimately what makes it a lesser series.
In the Old Days: 1987’s Shinobi is a fantastic arcade classic. It’s definitely one of my favorite arcade games. It’s simple in design, but offers some great Sega gameplay and tons of fun ninja action. It bothers me that Joe doesn’t wear a mask…but whatever he gets a sub-machine gun, so it’s all good. Shinobi, as a series, really found its home on the Genesis. Between Shadow Dancer, Shinobi II, and Shinobi III (the greatest of the Shinobis), Sega really knew how to handle its ninja in the 1990s. It also helped to fill the ninja-less void we suffered from after Tecmo stopped making Ninja Gaiden games.
Modern Ninja: Despite being fairly quiet, Shinobi has actually had two games (three if you count Nightshade) in the past twelve years. Shinobi on PS2 (famous for SHINOBI’S BACK!), was a nice way to bring the series into the modern era, even if it suffers from many of the PS2-era issues. The game lacks the depth of something like Ninja Gaiden and the controls are wonky at best. It does still feel very cool to engage in some sweet ninja action in a strange-yet-modern setting. Nightshade on PS2 continued that trend, but more recently Shinobi was released on 3DS. A ninja game that actually takes place in ancient Japan!? Woah! I’ll take 8! It’s very difficult, and still not as good as Ninja Gaiden, but it’s a great way to pull off some Ninja moves on the go.
Weird?: Joe Musashi is playable in Sonic & All-Stars Racing: Transformed. Ninjas in cars, hanging out with blue hedgehogs is just strange. It’s not a bad thing, just weird.
Strider – Hiryu
Now here comes the weird stuff. Strider is a classic arcade series from Capcom. You play as Hiryu, a super ninja in a strange futuristic setting. You fight against a government that is meant to resemble Soviet-Era Russia and you do so by doing backflips and cartwheels everywhere. Strider is a lot of fun, though the games are very, very difficult. Playing Strider in the arcade will give you an aneurysm and quite possibly make you fight an inanimate arcade cabinet. Always a bit of a niche series, Strider has its faithful fans, and recently had a nice HD update.
In the Old Days: Back before Capcom was all Street Fighter and Resident Evil, Strider was one of the most popular arcade games the Japanese company put out. Strider was always tough and was a right of passage. If you could hang in there with Strider for a while, then you were respected. This was the law of the arcade and the law is to be respected. Eventually the game was ported to Genesis, because that’s where ninjas lived in the 1990s. We got a Strider 2 for PSX in 1999, but by then the character was known less for his 2D platformers and more for his army of robot animals in Marvel vs. Capcom.
Modern Ninja: Strider has continued to live in Capcom’s fighting games since Marvel vs. Capcom. Hiryu brings real ninja tricks to the crossover fighting series and is a nice variable character to mix up the tons of dudes who throw fireballs or are Magneto. He also came back in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, which is also pretty cool. Double Helix also produced a very cool HD Strider game for modern consoles in 2014. It’s a cool Metroid-Vania style game that’s fun, difficult, and very good looking. I play it when I need to try to make sense of a ninja fighting future communist robots.
Weird?: My last sentence sums it up…Evil Communist Robots, in the future (not from…in). Futuristic ninja seem to be the norm these days. It’s cool, I dig it.
Final Fantasy – Ninjas Everywhere
Final Fantasy happens to LOVE ninjas. They’ve been in almost every game since the beginning. Ninja is a character class in the original Final Fantasy as well as FF III, V, Tactics, and Bravely Default. Ninjas in these RPGs are often less about stealth and more about variety. They can typically equip any weapon on earth, like to throw stuff, and are your gateway to fighting with two weapons (two hands, two swords…as god intended, no?). I have loved Final Fantasy ninjas since I was a young Mike Staub. Whether it’s the awesome job-class in Final Fantasy Tactics or ninja characters like: Edge, Shadow, and Yuffie. They mix up combat and are awesome at scoring some critical hits.
In The Old Days: Red ninjas. Like Marvel’s “The Hand” the original Ninjas in Final Fantasy like to wear red. Either that or their ninja gear is soaked in the blood of their enemies. Eventually, we got some great PC Ninjas like Shadow and Edge. Final Fantasy IV and VI made us love the ninja character as it was quite fun to throw stuff in our enemy’s face, attack a lot, and be very difficult to hit. The ninja job class is typically a staple for any team in any FF game especially the Tactics series. You need to learn that dual-wield ability because equipping two Excaliburs or two Chaos Blades is where it’s at. Everyone has a ninja at some point, it’s how it’s meant to be played. Then we were graced with Yuffie, the annoying-yet-lovable ninja in Final Fantasy VII. She throws a giant shuriken and loves stealing. She also has a Limit Break called “Greased Lighting” what’s not to love. In Final Fantasy IX we don’t really get a Ninja, but Amarant is a strange dreadlocked creature who punches people and throws stuff…so he’s almost a ninja.
Modern Ninja: Final Fantasy got weird. It lost it’s track of job classes and character building. It’s nice to see that Bravely Default is carrying the old flame. The Ninja made its return and boy is it awesome. The Bravely Default ninja is quick, hard to hit, and has auto-death weapons. It’s so cool. I hope that we get Bravely Second here in the US, because I need to get my hands on some more ninja action!
Weird?: There is nothing stranger than most of the Final Fantasy series. It doesn’t always have to deal with ninjas, but sometimes it does…and it’s always weird. Shadow rules.
So that’s my take on video game ninjas. Feel free to share some thoughts! Also stay tuned for Part 2 where I talk about Mortal Kombat and the TMNT!