Sunday, September 6, 2015

8 Bit Encyclopaedia - Ninja Gaiden 3

What's behind your back?
Sometimes, you beat a video game and watch the credits with a silent swell of satisfaction. Sometimes, you beat a video game and shout obscenities as the boss disintegrates into pixels and then run around the room blasting the double-bird at the dead bastard. Ninja Gaiden III: The Ainceint Ship of Doom1 falls into the latter category.

Tecmo released Ninja Gaiden III to Japan in late June of 1991 and in America a few months later. Anyone familiar with the game's more popular forebears knows the routine: Ninja Ryu Hayabusa runs and jumps through screen after screen of perilously-placed baddies, slashing everything with his dragon sword. Along the way he collects magical power-ups such as spiraling fireballs and ninja stars. The game reveals plot through cinematic cut-scenes2.

Ninja Gaiden III makes small tweaks to this formula. First, Ninja Gaiden III gives Ryu the ability to hang down from and crawl under certain platforms. It's a nice change and allows for more variety in level design. The game's powerup pods also kindly show the prizes within. Opaque pods in previous Gaiden titles often saw Ryu slashing a pod and receiving an unwanted sub-weapon3. Ninja Gaiden III also makes minor adjustments to game physics. Compared to Ninja Gaidens I and II, Ryu jumps smoother and farther.
Ninja Gaiden (1989)
Ryu jumps 4 body lengths
Ninja Gaiden III (1991)
Ryu jumps and floats 4+ body lengths
There's a plot in Ninja Gaiden III but it's terribly contrived and not really worth much mention. The opening cinematic shows Ryu's girlfriend falling from a cliff to her doom, pushed by...[gasp] Ryu! Accused of murder, Ryu quests to clear his name, stumbling onto a vast government conspiracy of clones, genetic experiments and inter-dimensional evil. It's a pity the game falls into such vanilla Anime tropes, as the first two Gaiden games had decent plotting and character development. Here? Not so much--just shut up about plot and go slash some stuff!


Act I plunks Ryu into some sort of genetic testing lab. Right away, Ninja Gaiden III establishes a graphical style far exceeding previous Gaidens. Tecmo's mastery of the NES Picture Processing Unit (PPU) and use of an advanced chipset allowed Ninja Gaiden III programmers more complex, animated backgrounds and greater palette variation. Compared to Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Gaiden III looks like a Super Nintendo title. 
Act 1-1 of Ninja Gaiden III (1991)
Act 1-1 of Ninja Gaiden (1989)
Act 1 of Ninja Gaiden III walks the player through the gameplay mechanics4 which later levels will pervert and twist. Unlike the original Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Gaiden III's level 1-1 isn't particularly difficult. This is mostly owed to a powerup unique to Ninja Gaiden III: the Dragon Sword upgrade (you can see it flashing just to Ryu's right in the .gif above). Dragon Sword pods increase the breadth and power of Ryu's sword attack and greatly simplify navigating the baddie horde swarming Ryu. Unfortunately, these upgrades are few and far between (SadFace.jpg).

In fact, few powerups in Ninja Gaiden III are worth fighting for: the Dragon Sword, 1-Ups (though largely useless in past Gaidens, they're vital here), Magic Scrolls (which increase Ryu's maximum ninja magic), Health Vases, and, to a lesser degree, the Orange Orbs which max out Ryu's ninja magic. If the powerup orb shows anything else, don't break your back.
"I'm on Fire...DON'T

After learning the gameplay ropes, Ryu faces his first boss--a Gundam-looking robot. The robot moves slowly and alternates between shielding himself and shooting easily-dodged fire. The lesson here is to take it slow. Conserving health trumps slashing baddies. Caution is paramount to winning later stages. 


After a cinematic plotty-break, Ryu is dropped into Act II's desert. Here the game gets more Ninja Gaiden-y. Quicksand floors swallow Ryu. The increased variety and number of enemies require quick reflexes. Take it slow and don't hesitate to use any Ninja Magic you may have. 
Ninja Gaiden III's parallax scrolling
Act II also furthers Tecmo's mastery of NES graphics. Act II-1 features parallax scrolling, where different areas of the background scroll at different speeds to create greater depth. It's a technical trick where graphical tiles animate relative to the screen's refresh rate. In the above .gif, the clouds, mountains and rocks all move at speeds variable to each other and the player. While it's not integral to gameplay, these graphical flourishes help create a deeper, more satisfying experience.

After surviving the desert, Ryu drops into a subterranean lava cave. Here's where the game really hits its stride. The backgrounds pulse with light. Lava flows down in glowing waterfalls. The game introduces the platforms and pitfalls which become the basis of it's difficulty. There's also a vertically-scrolling screen with lava rising below Ryu's feet. Though not terribly difficult, it adds refreshing variety level design.

Act II also showcases another element which elevates Ninja Gaiden above most NES titles: it's music. Act II-2's  driving action-film theme makes excellent use of tempo and pre-recorded orchestral samples. It not only sounds pleasing, but also pushes the action forward. The aggressive speed instrumentation creates a sense of urgency. Even though slow and steady is key in this game, Act II's music urges Ryu forward. If level design is the main ingredient, music is the seasoning: good music can make a level soar. Bad music can doom a game to Babbages' bargain bin.

The Act Boss is another Gundam-robot-thing, except this one flies, swoops down, and shoots a spread of fireballs. Luckily, it usually fires its projectiles straight into the floor. Much like the Act I Boss, it's a pushover.


The first screen of Act III features an ingenious, jarring gameplay quirk: instead of scrolling left-to-right, Act III-1's jungle scrolls right-to-left. Precious few NES titles scroll right-to-left. The addition of moving platforms makes Act III-1 devilish. In fact, Act III is where most players will burn through their first continue.

Which brings us to the key factor which makes Ninja Gaiden III the hardest title in the series. the game only allows 5 continues5. Previous Ninja Gaidens handed out continues like candy. In Ninja Gaidens I and II it's often beneficial to exhaust Ryu's remaining lives, Continue, and push forward with a full compliment of 1-Ups. Ninja Gaiden III does not offer this luxury.
This is why 1-Ups have value greater than gold in Ninja Gaiden III. 1-Ups refresh every time Ryu a) leaves a room and returns, or b) dies. Some stages, either by felicity or design, allow Ryu to farm extra lives. Even where 1-Up farming isn't possible, a 1-Up equals no-fault trial and error. If Ryu falls down a pit, just collect the 1-Up and try again.  

Ninja Gaiden III compliments this scarcity of lives by spawning Ryu at the start of the Level on which he dies. Falling down a pit in Act III-2D puts you all the way back to Act III-2A, Previous Ninja Gaiden titles--excepting when Ryu dies during boss battles--simply spawns Ryu on the screen he died. The deadly combination of limited continues and punishing respawn points makes Ninja Gaiden III not only the hardest Gaiden game, but among the hardest NES titles, period.

Those who pass the swamp reach a set of water-filled intestine-looking screens. The water sweeps Ryu across the floor. The refrain may be getting old at this point, but go slowly. A buildup of enemies will quickly sap Ryu's health or push him down a pitfall. Be sure to grab the health refill vase halfway through Act III.

The Boss here is instantly recognizable to Ninja Gaiden players: two beasts hopping between two platforms. Only one can be damaged. A canine variation on this boss appears in previous Gaidens. Here it's a bit trickier, as the platforms are uneven and the projectiles hone with greater speed and accuracy. With the sword upgrade this battle is bearable. Avoiding the projectiles is paramount.


Act IV-1 is meant to be a fortress exterior. However, it looks more like upside-down mountains to me. It seems Tecmo programmers thought they could get away with simply inverting background tiles from previous levels. Nope. Be sure to get the 1-Up and Magic Scroll items before continuing.

Once in the fortress, shiz gets real. The game introduces retracting spikes. Two hits from spikes send Ryu to his maker. From here on out, move with extreme caution. Be CERTAIN the spikes won't rise up and hit Ryu before advancing. Increasing difficulty makes it so players simply can't afford to waste half of Ryu's health.

Successful navigation of the death spikes pits Ryu against yet another anime-styled robot. This one slowly lopes across the ground, occasionally burrowing into the earth. Once submerged, it shoots five blasts of Ryu's fire magic into the air. The trick is to stay on the platforms when it's shooting fire, then quickly move before it can jump up and damage Ryu. It's a shallow learning curve, making Act IV another punishing level guarded by an easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy boss.


After standing on a mountaintop for a bit6, Ryu quickly discovers Act V is brought to us by the letters F and U.

I certainly hope you've purchased a 22-liter jug of Preperation H, because Act V is a pain in the ass. Even moving at a relative crawl, flying baddies swarm the screen. The first stretch of Act V is less platformer and more Guitar Hero: learning to press buttons in sequence through trial-and-error. Baddie placement is slightly more forgiving as Ryu progresses, but still insane.

A long hallway near the end of Act V introduces Ninja Gaiden III's final environmental obstacle: dissolving platforms. Ignore the flying baddies (get the 1-Up) and keep running and slashing. The platforms dissolve slow enough for Ryu to reach safety unscathed.

Act V's boss is--dun, dun, dun!--Ryu Hayabusa! Remember the evil, girlfriend-murdering Ryu from he opening cinematic? He's back--and he's a mutant! By the way, did I mention the dead girlfriend didn't actually die7? She revivified in Act III, I think. I'd look it up, but honestly, who cares? Ninja Gaiden III crafts its plot with all the care of a low-budget porno: mere set dressing for the real nitty-gritty. Evil Mutant Ryu jumps and throws stars, then flips and chucks fireballs. His aim is laughable. Give him a Snootchie Bootchies and then zip on to Act VI.


Who's ready for some low-friction fun8?! Because it's everyone's favorite level--Obligatory Ice World!
"Ryu scores a 7 from the Russian Judge!"

The strategy here is the same for every other platforming ice stage: keep jumping. Instead sliding on ice, advance Ryu by jumping right. Be warned, no platform is truly empty; the moment Ryu jumps toward freedom, a billion baddies will swarm in.

The second portion of Act VI has Ryu running through the squishy intestines of some giant beast. Stand still too long and Ryu sinks into the floors. Screens 6-2A and 6-2B allow for 1-Up farming: collect the extra life in 6-2B, backtrack to 6-2A and repeat until Ryu is fat like a cat with his 9 lives9. 6-2B also includes an Orange Orb and a Dragon Sword, which will come in mighty handy for the coming boss fight.

The Act VI Boss is a scorpion thing. It alternately shoots fireballs and slams the room wall, precipitating a rain of baddies. The squishy, sinking floor make monster avoidance difficult. Safely navigating the rain of baddies is near impossible. Your best hope is to make it through 6-2 a lot of health and pray the raining baddies miss Ryu. If you do manage to best the Boss, be careful not to sink into the floor! Ryu will die if he sinks before the Boss completely explodes.


By the time you've finished this final Act of Ninja Gaiden III, the maps will be permanently branded onto your brain. The game combines all it's gameplay quirks into a sour cocktail of tears and broken remotes.You'll try to recall your first kiss but only see the two flying baddies near the end of 7-1A. You'll wake in cold sweats. 

After a wind-whipped ship exterior, Act VII advances to technological platforms from hell. Screens 7-2C and 7-2D again allow 1-Up farming. By this point, your continues are probably nil, so maxing Ryu's 1-Ups is a must. With 9 lives, advance to 7-3, a spike-filled ascent toward the game's final boss(es). 


Ninja Gaiden III is among the most brutal, difficult and unforgiving titles in the NES catalog. Though not quite Battletoads, it's certainly the hardest of the NES Ninja Gaiden trilogy. The real kick in the jewels is that Tecmo intended Ninja Gaiden III to substantially easier than I and II. The Japanese release includes a password system and gives players infinite continues. Worried that American fans would reject an easy Ninja Gaiden title, Tecmo re-tooled the game for it's US release, scrubbing away passwords, continues, and health-restoring cheat codes.

Ninja Gaiden is often cited as a prime example of the punishing difficulty of NES games. Ninja Gaiden III is twice as hard. It earns 4 Controllers of Impossibility out of 5.
And just for the doubters who would argue the verity of my NGIII mastery, I present the 21st century equivalent of Molly Ringwald's panties. Check the open NES deck in the screenshot, homes. No Game Genie here. You even NES, bro?

1 "Ancient Ship of Doom?" Laaaaaaame. The game's Japanese Title, "Ninja RyĆ«kenden III: Yomi no Hakobune," roughly translates to "Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword III: the Ark from Hell." Nintendo of America's puritanical censorship rules robbed us of a much cooler (and more apt) title.
2 Hideo Yoshizawa, Mastermind behind the NES Ninja Gaiden titles, viewed them not as a mere video games, but more like interactive film. Ninja Gaiden was rather revolutionary in how it revealed plot through non-playable cutscenes--a common industry practice today. Calling the game "Episode III" and using "Act" in place of "Level" also plays into this cinematic ideal. For the lucky few who see the game's closing credits, Ninja Gaiden III even lists its programmers as "Directors."
3 I'm lookin' at you, tiny throwing stars. 
4 There's a wonderful YouTube video explaining how the intuitive design of Super Mario Brothers' Level 1-1 teaches the player how to play the game.
5 Tecmo of America devs left a debug code in Ninja Gaiden III. If a player waits for the opening cinematic, presses start to bring up the title screen, repeat this six times then presses Up+Left+A+B+Select+Start, Ryu gets 99 continues (which STILL may not be enough!).
6 This cinematic is a staple in the series; Ninja Gaidens I and II include an almost exact copy of the scene.
7 Because of course that's a thing in this game.
8 That's what she said.
9 In another cruel twist, the programmers cap Ryu's extra lives at 9. The game would be much more forgiving--like Konami's Contra--if we could only stockpile oodles of 1-Ups.

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