Pocket Power: Ninja Gaiden

Handheld gaming is more than a compromise of power and portability. Whether it’s the ability to play anywhere, multitask or hold an entire console in your hands, it’s a special experience consoles have never replicated. In a world where high resolutions and teraflops reign supreme, we take a look at a portable relic every month and reflect on what makes it memorable. Be warned, spoilers may occasionally populate these articles.

From arcade to Xbox, Ninja Gaiden is a series that has entertained gamers on multiple platforms across several console generations. The 8-bit trilogy on the NES was known for its cinematic (for the time) cutscenes and mercilessly brutal difficulty, which was why when the series was revived for Xbox fans of Ryu Hayabusa’s adventures were elated that the difficulty was one of the more publicized features of the title. One of Hayabusa’s less celebrated adventures was on Sega Game Gear. Historically speaking the Game Gear never quite dominated the handheld market the way Nintendo did and the NES games were better overall, but for getting a ninja fix there’s some fun to be had with this Ninja Gaiden.

Ninja Gaiden on Game Gear is not a port of the arcade or NES games but a brand new game with its own original story. While playing the other Ninja Gaiden games is recommended just because they are good retro titles they have no bearing on this standalone entry but fans of the series will see some plot similarities. The story begins with Ryu responding to some trouble in his village, simply taking on the role of a local hero. But as things typically go in Ninja Gaiden titles, some interference of mystical swords and demons hellbent on taking over the world complicate things. A mind-controlling demon called the Shiragane is trying to steal the Dragonsword and use its power to usher in World War III and obtain world domination, and in his quest to quell the demonic force Ryu needs to deal with many dangerous opponents from the mortal realm.

Having a lot of familiarity with the NES trilogy and thinking the first two games were great and the third being alright, there were some expectations when the Game Gear title was put to the test. Despite being better hardware than Game Boy there were some concessions in bringing Ninja Gaiden to the handheld world. The graphics while colorful and generally good for the era and hardware have a rather bland and generic design. The game consisted of five levels but unlike the other titles that had them divided into multiple stages each level is a single entity and progressing through it was much more linear and simplified. The difficulty level is extremely forgiving, especially for a Ninja Gaiden title.

With the handheld limitations, the developers did attempt to add variety in other ways to make this an interesting game. The bosses don’t quite have that same larger than life quality some classic Ninja Gaiden bosses had but they found other ways to make dispatching them more interesting. Someone throwing dynamite will hide in a ship, appearing out of a random hole to throw dynamite. Another boss is only vulnerable in a certain position while some other bosses posses they annoying power of flight and fireballs. The third level is a vertical climb between two buildings, wall jumping to avoid falling objects while dispatching airborne enemies. To be honest, this level wasn’t the most well executed but it deserves some credit for adding some variety to the game.

This feature is generally unimpressive now with how cinematic games have become and in some cases too many cut scenes has become its own issue but for 1991 having the story unfold in between levels through detailed cut scenes was one of the more defining features of Ninja Gaiden that helped set it apart from countless other platformers and ninja games. The high quality detailed portions and narrative text was a rarity for action games at the time, and despite the other shortcomings this title had when compared to other Ninja Gaiden games helped make it feel like a legit entry for the franchise.

Ninja Gaiden for the Game Gear was good for handheld action at the time but almost thirty years later it serves more of a reminder to how limited things were once upon a time. Overall it’s a simplified approach to Ninja Gaiden, and like most games of the era can be completed in under half an hour, which with its toned-down difficulty shouldn’t be a challenge for most people. Checking out this title was mainly out of curiosity to see how they translated Ninja Gaiden into a handheld format, which given the hardware constraints the developers didn’t do a bad job with the task. It’s not a must-play title by any means and as stated the NES titles are better, but for Ninja Gaiden fans who missed this one it isn’t too terribly expensive on eBay or other second markets.

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