Notes on Beating Ninja Gaiden

For video game enthusiasts of a certain age, the very name Ninja Gaiden conjures a swarm of dread, frustration, and anxiety. Released for NES in 1989, Ninja Gaiden took the basic formula of Castlevania – which, it should be noted, is also legendary in its brutality – and made it faster and less forgiving. In all likelihood, Ninja Gaiden is responsible for the most rage quits and broken controllers of any NES title.

And yet, even living in an age such as this, when we expect our video games to help us along toward the end at least a little bit, Ninja Gaiden is still upheld as an all-time classic. Its genius is self-evident. It may be insanely difficult, but it’s fast and the control is tight and it’s relentless and when you advance even a little bit, the endorphin rush spills out of your nervous system and infests the entirety of your insides in a microsecond, leaving you about three seconds to feel good about yourself before your stomach and asshole tie themselves back into knots.

Therefore, for anyone who enjoys adrenaline even a tiny bit, playing Ninja Gaiden is a mandatory component of a life lived wisely. Yet to know this is a form of psychological damnation, for it means resigning oneself to the endless frustration of dying over and over and over again. Progress shall be incremental and rendered futile shortly thereafter. Once you make it to the later levels, you will strain to advance a single screen, and once you do, the next screen will kill you immediately and you will howl at the heavens for understanding.

I know this because I struggled through Ninja Gaiden for about an entire damn decade before I achieved true mastery of it. I had beaten it a good many times in that decade, but that’s about how long it took for me to feel as though I had the whole thing down pat. Today, in an effort to mitigate the suffering of others, I shall impart my knowledge of this journey that this psychotic masterpiece of a video game may torment you slightly less.

What follows are some helpful notes and guidelines for beating Ninja Gaiden. This is not a walkthrough – Ninja Gaiden is mostly a test of skill, and skill requires practice. No written description of what happens when can prepare your reflexes and fingers for what will be asked of them, but a vague set of principles can be applied to almost any situation.

A Ninja Never Hesitates: There are some out there you will tell you that Ninja Gaiden is, fundamentally, an unfair game. These people are mistaken. Ninja Gaiden is completely fair from start to finish. When it seems like the game is cheating, it’s because you fucked up. The most common mistake in Ninja Gaiden is waiting at the edge of a platform to see what happens. You stand at the edge, an enemy comes, so you wait for it to come to you before killing it, then you jump and get knocked down to your death, because another one of those enemies just spawned in the exact same place. If you had just jumped and killed the enemy during your jump, you’d have been fine. It is always better to go for the jump and find a way to deal with the consequences. Ninja Gaiden favors the bold and punishes the cautious. The best way to deal with any problem is to keep going.

The Spinning Slash Is Your Friend: Like Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden has special weapons. Unlike Castlevania, all of these special weapons are useful from time to time, including the lowly shuriken. However, the best of these weapons is the spinning slash (no idea if that’s it’s real name), the icon for which is a blue and white spiral. When you jump and attack with the spinning slash, you’ll do a whirling sword attack instead of a normal attack. It is ludicrously powerful – not only will it obliterate any regular enemies who come close, it can kill most bosses with one hit. But, like all special weapons, it expends magic, so when I was a kid I didn’t like the way the spinning slash used all my magic. This was dumb. The spinning slash is your friend. Use it whenever necessary, just try to kill some of the regular enemies when you’re on the ground, so you can save a little for the boss.

Master jumping up walls: If you jump onto a wall, you will hang on to it. If there’s an opposite wall, you can jump back and forth between the two to climb up, but you can’t climb straight up a wall you’re hanging on to unless there’s a ladder present. However, if can jump off a wall and then land on the same wall, you can slowly but surely ‘climb’ up the wall without a ladder or an opposing wall to assist you. It can be a real pain to learn this at first – you have to jump off the wall and get back to it in a very tight motion to make any sort of progress, and it will take forever to jump up a wall the first several times you do it. But stick with it! Someday you’ll get almost all the way knocked into a pit only to land on a single wall, and you’ll be able to save yourself, but only if you can jump up to safety.

Practice makes perfect: Unlike many games of the time, continues are unlimited in Ninja Gaiden. This doesn’t mean that you can mash your way through with nothing but brute force, but it is a significant mercy nonetheless. Once you get stuck, you have all the time and chances you need to figure out how to get past wherever it is you’re having problems. The only limit on how many chances you get is your own capacity for punishment. It is imperative that you use this to your advantage. With, Ninja Gaiden, as with almost any skill, progress is not always linear. You may breeze through a segment the first time you play it only to get killed repeatedly the next time you roll through. This may seem like a setback, but this is the game’s way of telling you that you aren’t yet ass good as you think you are. Listen to the game when it tells you these things.

The meanest prank the game pulls on the player comes at the very end. The final boss chamber has three bosses in a row. Die against any one of them, and you are sent all the way back to the end of the agonizing murder gauntlet known as Level 6. While this may seem unconscionably cruel, it is the nicest thing Ninja Gaiden does to its players, since it gives you all the extra reps on Level 6 you need, and you’ll need a lot. There is only one true way to master Ninja Gaiden, and requires investing time, patience, and lots and lots of deaths. You can do it, but only if you put the time in. And remember, a ninja never hesitates!

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