What’s cooler than a ninja?
While many iconic, shadowy warriors have sliced their way through pop culture over the years, Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden series has certainly proven to be one of the more popular takes on the subject. Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu Hayabusa has even slowly gained a level of fame and notoriety that puts him a shuriken’s throw away from behemoths like Mario or Sonic in popularity. Tecmo’s series became a classic due to the titles’ fast-paced action gameplay, revolutionary cutscenes, and for being frustratingly difficult. The games proved to be so evergreen that they’d see a revival in 2004 by Tecmo’s Team Ninja division that once again managed to become some of the most popular, challenging games of their time, keeping the spirit of the original trilogy very much alive. Even if you’ve broken countless Nintendo controllers over the original games, taken down Jaquio countless times, or conquered that helicopter in the XBOX game and drank its oil like it’s the blood of your fallen enemy, there’s still plenty to learn about the pivotal action-adventure series. Arm those Dragon Swords because here are 16 Things You Never Knew About Ninja Gaiden.
16. The Modern Ninja Gaiden Trilogy is a Prequel to the Original Trilogy
Team Ninja’s revival of the Ninja Gaiden franchise in 2004 introduced many contemporary gamers to Ryu Hayabusa and the ways of the ninja. Many are unaware that Team Ninja happened to take a creative route with their series, with it in fact taking place before the trilogy of the games that came out for the NES in the ‘90s. Ninja Gaiden 3 even leads up to the events of the original Ninja Gaiden perfectly. This sort of narrative flair highlights the larger scope and maturity that Team Ninja was treating the series with. This wouldn’t just be a graphically updated reboot of the original, but actually be used as an opportunity to expand the cipher of Ryu Hayabusa. That being said, it’s also entirely plausible to play through these games and not pick up on any of the world building or easter eggs that are being teased, instead focusing on the hack and slash gameplay of the next gen titles. That’s sort of the perfect approach, where Ninja Gaiden can just be a dumb ninja game, or also an incredibly deep, evolving story about family, tradition, and the eternal concept of good versus evil. Ninjas are sneaky like that.
15. XBOX’s Ninja Gaiden Was Originally a Dreamcast Game
There’s a beautiful alternate Earth out there where the Dreamcast dominated and the Gamecube died and gamers are happily experiencing the release of the Dreamcast 3. Alas, that world was not meant to be experienced and a lot of projects planned for Sega’s Dreamcast eventually ended up shifting over to the XBOX, which was seen to be its successor in a number of ways.
Way back in 1999, Team Ninja was developing the “Next-Generation Ninja Gaiden Project” on Sega’s NAOMI arcade hardware system, and then eventually the Dreamcast with console plans in mind. With the Dreamcast’s death in 2001, development briefly shifted over to the PlayStation 2, with Ninja Gaiden aiming to be a release title for the system. However, once Team Ninja’s leader, Tomonobu Itagaki, got ahold of XBOX’s development kits, plans made a final change to make it a Microsoft exclusive. Funnily enough, most gamers wanted Tecmo to release it on the Gamecube, continuing the legacy at Nintendo that began decades earlier. At this point, the title has seen multiple re-releases on consoles for both Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.
14. Ryu Hayabusa is Also in Team Ninja’s Dead or Alive Series
Cross pollination has become almost mandatory in video games these days, but it’s interesting to note that even before Team Ninja had resurrected the Ninja Gaiden series, it was still honoring and “keeping the series alive” in the form of Ryu Hayabusa and Ayane being fighters in their Dead or Alive fighting games. Ever since the series’ start in 1996, Ryu and Ayane have been mainstays to the franchise. The modern Ninja Gaiden trilogy even uses Ryu and Ayane’s history and story details from Dead or Alive as its basic template. Ryu certainly makes his presence known throughout the Dead or Alive titles rather than amounting to some sort of gag character. He’s the canonical winner of the championship in Dead or Alive 2, and he also makes an appearance in the live-action DOA: Dead or Alive film too, which is kind of crazy. Even if Ninja Gaiden didn’t return and see such a boom, it’s nice to know that Ryu and Ayane at least could have a successful future as tournament fighters. It’s a whole lot simpler than getting evil spirits involved.
13. Ninja Gaiden III Was Made Harder to Fight the Growing Trend of Game Rentals
The Ninja Gaiden games are known for being notoriously difficult and having some of the most unforgiving bosses in the history of gaming. In spite of the previous titles already making you want to lose your mind over their difficultly, Tecmo intentionally went one step further with the NES game, Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom. It’s worth noting that in Japan during the ‘90s, the concept of video game rentals was outlawed, but this obviously wasn’t the case in the United States.This saw a lot of game publishers worrying that rentals would negatively impact game sales, so in turn they’d tweak the difficult of titles to remedy games from being beaten over the course of a weekend. As a result, the US version of Ninja Gaiden III gives Ryu a limited number of five continues instead of the usual infinite supply. On top of that, Ryu takes double damage and losing at a boss will send you back to the beginning of the level rather than the start of the boss fight (which is especially cruel when fighting several bosses in a row). Never has being a ninja been so damn hard.
12. The Original Arcade Title is Almost Completely Different Than the Original Console Release
The original Ninja Gaiden that hit arcades in 1988 is a mostly flavorless beat ’em up that takes you across the United States (hitting all the big landmarks like New York City, the Grand Canyon, and Les Vegas) while trying to bring down an evil cult that’s led by an ancestor of Nostradamus because of course. There’s even a big shiny prophecy dealing with the year 1999. While the Nintendo home console counterpart that came out in the following year does add much more personality and voice to the Ninja Gaiden brand, it still does feature some nods to its arcade counterpart. The game’s first level is very similar to the arcade version’s, for instance, and both games feature a shameless Jason Voorhes rip-off as a boss. Thankfully Tecmo uses the arcade Ninja Gaiden as more of a testing grounds for what it wanted to jump into for the console market. The 1988 Ninja Gaiden’s DNA is more than intact in the NES title, but Tecmo finds a way to elevate all of this so it feels more than just another Double Dragon clone. There are enough of those as it is.
11. Ryu and Ayane Appear Frequently in the Dynasty Warrior Series
Ninja Gaiden, Dead or Alive, and Dynasty Warrior? Where does this modern ninja find the time to sleep with all of these side hustles on the go? Tecmo merged with Koei back in 2009, and to celebrate this event, a number of properties between the two companies saw guest characters jumping in just to remind everyone that this merger was for real. Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu, Ayane, and Momiji all appear in Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce, with each of them (as well as Kasumi) taking an even larger role in Warriors Orochi 3 as assist characters. In addition to all of that, Ryu’s iconic Ninja Gaiden garb has been available as DLC costume content in Dynasty Warriors Online and 2012’s Dynasty Warriors 3DS marks the most recent appearance of the characters in the Koei series. Dynasty Warriors hasn’t pulled the trigger on making Ryu and company full-out part of the playable cast, but give it time. Everyone wants a piece of that sword.
10. The Hayabusa Armor in Halo 3 is a Ninja Gaiden Reference
When one of the most successful first-person shooter franchises in the world wants to honor you up in costume form, you know that you’ve got to be doing something right. Both the Halo titles and the Ninja Gaiden games made a considerable impact on Microsoft’s consoles, but in 2007 the connection was made official in Halo 3 for the XBOX 360. Halo 3 features a wealth of armors, weapons, and appealing customizations options that make just suiting up your character a lengthy process, yet if you want to stand out amongst the crowd, there’s no denying the game’s Hayabusa Armor. Ryu’s iconic armor is acquired in three pieces, all of which can be yours if you find thirteen Skulls throughout the game. Additionally, the game will also reward players with a Katana accessory, that’s largely a Dragon Sword replica, if you reach a gamerscore of 1000. Unfortunately the weapon is unusable and just for the intimidation factor. Speaking of which, Super Swing Golf: Season 2 also features a “Hayabusa Ninja” costume for its Max character if you want to be the most foreboding person on the green.
9. Ninja Gaiden’s Final Boss Rush Gauntlet is Actually a Glitch
If you’ve ever actually beaten Nintendo’s Ninja Gaiden, first of all, severe kudos for doing the impossible, but that means you’ll also be very familiar with the grueling endurance test that the game’s final level puts you through. A lot of gamers might freak out to learn that this frustration was nearly entirely avoided due to the fact that the title’s boss rush in its final level is actually just a glitch that Tecmo was well aware of, but did nothing about. Isn’t that nice of them? The sixth act of Ninja Gaiden sees Ryu going up against three back-to-back bosses at the end of the game. This would be an ordeal in itself, but if Ryu dies against any of them, he’s sent back to the beginning of the entire level. A realization so devastating it’ll make you want to stop playing entirely. Much like in the case of Tecmo’s injection of difficulty into Ninja Gaiden III, Masato Kato claims that the company decided to keep this “beginning of level” bug in the game to bolster its difficulty and give gamers more of a challenge. Instead, it broke most gamers.
8. Ninja Gaiden (NES) Was Released Episodically for Mobile Phones
Mobile ports might be pretty par for the course now—even if they do usually amount to faulty crash grabs—but all the way back in 2004 Tecmo was playing around with how to get the most mileage out of its Ninja Gaiden series. Tecmo planned to split up Ninja Gaiden into four episodic releases that would come out throughout the year. The first episode, Ninja Gaiden Episode I: Destiny came out on July 15th for AT&T and Verizon phones, making use of the Java and BREW platforms, but none of the other installments ended up seeing release. This actually wasn’t the worst idea in theory and each episode was set to not only be a faithful port of the NES classic, but also promoting new content, too. Episode I kept this promise and had two new levels in it, but clearly the pint-sized ports of the series didn’t catch on enough to see a full-fledged transformation. Interestingly, Upstart Games saw reasonable success with their episodic release of the original Castlevania for mobile phones, but it’s evidently more difficult to recapture that ninja magic.
7. There’s an Original Video Animation for the Game Series
It’s not that uncommon for video game series to receive an anime adaptation counterpart to compliment and expand upon the history built within the game titles. Ninja Gaiden receives such a treatment in the 1991 OVA (Original Video Animation), Ninja Ryūkenden (the series’ original Japanese title). The one-off film is set after the events of Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, with Ryu living in New York City and having already rescued Irene Law. The anime does a serviceable job at presenting a fluid representation of the gore and action from the video games, while still finding time to add in plenty of flair of its own. Ryu is now running a curio shop, for instance, which is certainly an aspect of the character that doesn’t get explored in the video games. Then again, maybe Team Ninja is saving all the prime curio content for an upcoming Ninja Gaiden 4.
6. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is the Only Ninja Gaiden Title to Not Star Ryu
Spin-offs are inevitable when you’re dealing with a franchise that hits peak popularity. They’re even more of a natural conclusion to things when the series in question has such a complex chronology in place. Plot details and staunch continuity caused Metal Gear Solid to put Snake in the backseat and give Raiden the center stage in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Team Ninja goes down an even more surprising path with the release of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, which not only doesn’t star Ryu Hayabusa, but its “hero”, Yaiba Kamikaze, is a random victim of Ryu’s that he doesn’t even struggle over. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z then adopts the inspired direction of Yaiba being resurrected and turned into a cyborg and suddenly the hack and slash mayhem takes a considerable turn for the awesome. After the dourness of the main Ninja Gaiden games, it’s just nice to get to play in this world, albeit with an entirely different tone and cruder sense of humor in play. The art design is also another notable difference that shows that Yaiba is a worthwhile experiment in the Ninja Gaiden universe that hints at a rich possible collection of side stories.
5. Tecmo Released an Additional Trilogy of Ninja Gaiden Games for Sega
Even though Team Ninja’s revival of Ninja Gaiden began development with Sega, that doesn’t mean that Tecmo favored the company over Nintendo. Tecmo still might have made Ninja Gaiden titles for Sega’s various systems, but when it comes down to which Ninja Gaiden from the ‘90s is better, no question Tecmo was funneling most of their energy into the Nintendo releases. Tecmo released random Ryu Hayabusa titles under the nondescript catch-all title of Ninja Gaiden for both the Master System and the Game Gear, with a third entry planned for the Genesis/Mega Drive, which ultimately was cancelled due to poor performance issues. An unreleased beta of this has actually surfaced online due to the wonders of the emulation community, giving gamers an idea of what could have been expected here. Sega’s Ninja Gaiden “trilogy” is definitely inferior to Nintendo’s, but the game’s go off in their own direction, which is interesting none the less. In spite of this rocky relationship, it’s worth noting that at one point a rumored Ninja Gaiden IV was advertised to be coming out, and for the Sega Genesis, at that.
4. The DS Sequel, Dragon Sword, Has you Hold the System Vertically
The Nintendo DS found a number of ways to be innovative when it came to gameplay and design controls. Granted, the bulk of those methods revolved around the handheld system’s stylus, but a very select amount of games would actually have you hold the system in an entirely different manner in order to evoke a different gaming experience. Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword (DS…get it?) is actually set between Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II, making it actually a worthwhile side-sequel, rather than just a DS version of Ninja Gaiden, with ports being a very popular trend for the system at the time. Itagaki was considerably impressed with what the DS made possible, with the stylus not only acting as a revolutionary way of wielding Ryu’s sword, but the vertical playing style also allowed the game to become more immersive in a way that pleased Itagaki. Unfortunately, the DS didn’t get to see the release of more Ninja Gaiden games, but maybe Nintendo’s Switch will pick up where the former fell off.
3. There’s a Ninja Gaiden Prequel Game for the Cell Phone Called Ninja Gaiden X
Once more exploring the benefits of what mobile phones could offer gaming, Tecmo seemed determined to turn out some Ninja Gaiden-based hit that could keep phone users happy. While it might have never seen a localization or left Japan, in 2004 Tecmo released Ninja Gaiden X for cell phone devices. Instead of this being yet another pared down port of the original NES titles like Tecmo attempted with their episodic releases, Ninja Gaiden X was actually a direct prequel to the events of the original Ninja Gaiden.
Ninja Gaiden X gets considerable points for charm and it shows a great deal of creativity, even if the overall experience is ultimately impacted by needing to use cellphone buttons for the control input. It might have seemed cruel for such a crucial piece of Ryu’s story to be reserved for a cellphone game of all things, which is perhaps why Team Ninja’s take on the material would actually end up becoming that prequel to the NES original. It’s still a little surprising that Ninja Gaiden X hasn’t popped up somewhere as unlockable content, like how the original arcade game is hidden away in Ninja Gaiden Black.
2. One of Ninja Gaiden II’s Boss Arenas is Hidden in Metroid: Other M’s Game Code
So a Ninja Gaiden and Metroid crossover seems like a dream come true, and even though such a thing was hypothetically possible when Team Ninja took the Metroid reins for their development of the Wii’s Metroid: Other M, Team Ninja makes the absolute most subtle of connections here. Hidden all the way away in Metroid: Other M’s code is the final boss arena from Ninja Gaiden II, complete with helicopter launchpad. This sort of fan service is exactly what puts a huge smile on gamers’ faces, it’s just shocking that Team Ninja would go so far to hide this easter egg. Surely including some Ninja Gaiden DLC or unlockable content, whether weapons or cool ninja armor, wouldn’t have enraged the hardcore Metroid crowd. If anything, it even feels like a somewhat lateral move. Or imagine if Jaquio or Ashtar ended up being sub-bosses? If Super Swing Golf can bring some Ryu into the mix, than Samus can certainly handle it.
1. It was the First Console Game to Use Cinematic Cutscenes to Tell Its Story
Cutscenes are so commonplace nowadays that it’s actually shocking to think of a time when they weren’t a part of the medium. Now the device is a major showcase in what a system’s graphical capabilities can pull off, with the results sometimes amounting to the most impressive, pristine CG that you’ll ever see. Even though the cut scenes used in Ninja Gaiden weren’t blowing anyone’s minds graphically, they did highlight the storytelling abilities of games and how they could use the presentation of graphics to forward the narrative along. The concept was even so foreign to gaming that Tecmo dubbed this cutscene presentation style as “Tecmo Theater,” equating the storytelling of their games to that of motion pictures. No longer did story need to be pulled out of the gameplay actions of the character. Now a formal message could be presented and told, easing gamers into the world. This all helped put Ninja Gaiden on the map and obviously the popularity and advent of cutscenes has only gotten more severe through the years.
These are all the secrets of the ninja that we could put together, but are there any glaring omissions here? Are there more Hayabusa tidbits that demand attention? Be as stealthy as a ninja, but let your voices be heard in the comments below!