That’s a term commonly used to describe the often brutal difficulty of games found on the NES. From Mega Man to Castlevania to Battletoads, the NES was riddled with games so punishing, that arguably no system has since repeated such consistently high difficulty. Among the most famous of these “Nintendo hard” games was Techmo’s Ninja Gaiden.
Ninja Gaiden is a side-scrolling action game, where players take control of Ryu Hayabusa through six different worlds, each more difficult than the last. Ryu can jump, slash enemies with his katana, and use special items Castlevania-style by pressing up on the D-pad along with the attack button.
Perhaps Ninja Gaiden’s most notable aspect that set it apart from other 8-bit action titles, however, was Ryu’s ability to wall jump (these were simpler times, when a simple new game mechanic could be used as a selling point for a title).
For the most part, Ryu Hayabusa is a fun character to control. His jumping feels smooth and responsive, and the simple combat mechanics are quick and fun. On the downside of things, the wall jump – despite being one of the game’s biggest draws back in the day – isn’t nearly as consistent. Ryu sticks to any wall you jump towards, which is fine, but once he’s on there, it can get tough to get him down. You can’t simply drop down, and instead have to use the wall jump (which can get troublesome in enemy-packed areas). Problems arise though, when the wall jumping doesn’t always coincide with your button presses. It’s a strange phenomenon, because while Ryu’s controls otherwise feel completely responsive, you may have to press the jump button several times before Ryu decides to jump off a wall. Playing as a wall-jumping ninja certainly is a cool idea, but I’m afraid time has exposed how unpolished the mechanic was in Ninja Gaiden.
With that said, Ninja Gaiden is still a really fun game overall. The levels are short but challenging, and for the most part that challenge – while it can be steep – is generally fair. And thankfully, the levels feature a decent amount of checkpoints, and even game overs simply take you back to said checkpoints, so this helps keep the frustration down (though it also may make you wonder why game overs were even included to begin with). You even have unlimited continues, which means you have ample tries to learn from past mistakes.
There are two major caveats with the levels, however: the first is that dying during boss fights will take you back to the start of that level, which is a dumbfounding decision, seeing as any other death takes you back to the nearest checkpoint. I’m not even saying you need to start back at the boss door or anything, but why not the closest checkpoint? It’s just a weird inconsistency.
The other problem with the stages are how easy it is for enemies to respawn. Sure, many games feature respawning enemies if you go a certain distance and come back, but it seems like if Ryu moves even an inch backwards, previous enemies will respawn. This can make things kind of annoying when trying to make the game’s trickier jumps, and you need to keep readjusting your position, only for the enemies to respawn and stand in the path of your jump.
So Ninja Gaiden has a few aged elements to it. I suppose that should be expected, considering the NES era will still something of a pioneering time for the medium. But even if it can’t compete with more timeless NES titles like Mega Man 2 or Super Mario Bros. 3, Ninja Gaiden still displays a strong sense of fun and challenge. And hey, it’s still not as tough as Battletoads.