(Review archived from April 8, 2023)
Ninja Gaiden is another in a long line of popular 8-bit franchises to have tested the waters with a Game Boy release. My past experience with Game Boy franchise installments has been rather excellent! Legend of Zelda made an incredibly solid transition to Nintendo’s portable system. Mega Man retained its patented series magic on Game Boy. The lone Contra release for the system was quite good and Castlevania … well Castlevania is a mixed bag … but hey mostly pretty good! So I was excited to see how the flagship Ninja series for NES would fare on the ol’ grey brick. And for the most part it’s great(!) … so long as you temper your expectations just a smidge.
And what I mean by “just a smidge” is that Ninja Gaiden Shadow is not technically a Ninja Gaiden game. Instead what you’re getting here is the Game Boy port of Natsume’s Shadow of the Ninja with a fresh (and still wet) coat of Ninja Gaiden paint. I won’t lie that part was a bit disappointing to me, because it’s one of things that once you see, you can’t unsee it. This game doesn’t really play or feel like a Ninja Gaiden game. It plays like Shadow of the Ninja. Rather than a breakneck pace and a non-stop barrage of enemies, the gameplay here is a bit more tactical. Instead of sticking to and climbing walls ala Spider-Man you get a (still pretty sweet) grappling hook that allows you latch on to overhead surfaces which you can then traverse hand over hand. This last bit is the real tip of the hand that we’re in Shadow of the Ninja country. What I truly missed the most though were the ‘cinematic’ scenes interspersed between the levels. At the beginning of the game, you get a single still of Ryu saying, “Jaquio has not yet been awakened” and that’s it. There you go suckers, that’s your entire story. It’s not that action platformers of this era truly need story elements like this, but the cinematic scenes in Ninja Gaiden were a series trademark that set it apart from contemporaries. I feel like had there been even a few more scenes like this interspersed throughout the game, it would have gone a long way towards recapturing that Ninja Gaiden feel.
So the concessions to Ninja Gaiden are mostly aesthetic, but what’s there is fairly solid. The player sprite is recognizably Ryu, and it’s fun to see him flipping out and killing people (as well as a host of mechanical foes) on the small screen. Interestingly your sword strike attack feels exactly like any other Ninja Gaiden game and the Fire Wheel special attack is here in the mix as well. The graphics probably hew a bit closer to the Shadow of the Ninja side of the equation, but really that aspect could go either way. The set dressing is a bit more “future tech” than most of what we ever saw in 8-bit Ninja Gaiden games. That said, the graphics are well executed and contain a very nice level of detail for a Game Boy title. The music is where things get interesting though, because you get a mix of Shadow of the Ninja tracks, Ninja Gaiden classics, and a few originals. It all sounds absolutely fantastic as the Game Boy sound chip was an incredibly versatile workhorse (or at least I’m quite fond of it).
All that’s left to talk about then is the game play, and I’m happy to say that it’s very decent! If you enjoyed Shadow of the Ninja for NES, you’ll love it. If you’re looking for an ‘honest and true’ Ninja Gaiden title on a portable system, well … it’s not quite that. I mentioned earlier that the action here feels slightly more tactical. What I mean by that is that most Ninja Gaiden games put you on the offensive (and doubly so in boss fights). Here the most successful approach is likely to be something a bit more defensive (particularly in boss fights), requiring you to bide your time and choose the best moment to strike. It works well, but is again something moreso out of the Shadow of the Ninja playbook.
I need to be crystal clear on this point though. Ninja Gaiden Shadow is still the best ninja game I’ve played for Game Boy. I’d give it a high recommendation to any fans of action platformers. It’s just a recommendation with an asterisk, and the footnote says “simply don’t expect it to be a by the books adaptation of its namesake series”.