5 Retro Ninja Games and Series for Ninja Fans

Updated on June 24, 2019
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Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. Yong’s favourite movies and games are those that allow him to enjoy the world from his bedroom.

1) “Ninja Ryukenden” Trilogy

Arguably the most famous retro ninja games series for NES, the Ninja Ryukenden Trilogy, or Ninja Gaiden, was already a cult classic favorite before re-released for the Xbox in 2004. Notorious for unforgiving difficulties, the series stood out for its well-crafted stories and plot twists. Playing any Ninja Ryukenden game could be said to be akin to watching an Anime movie. One that’s filled with ambiguous, multi-faceted, and highly memorable characters.

Interestingly, the games themselves actually feature very few Japanese elements. That is, other than energy shurikens and Spiderman-like wall climbing. The bulk of the trilogy doesn’t even take place in Japan too, instead unfolding in Contra-like settings such as a South American jungle. Should you enjoy old-school action platforming with strong storylines, though, you should still give this classic NES trilogy a try. Do be prepared, however. At end stages, you will wish for your fingers to have actual ninja reflexes.

Japanese promotion poster for Ninja Ryukenden II. Widely considered one of the best ninja games made for the NES.
Japanese promotion poster for Ninja Ryukenden II. Widely considered one of the best ninja games made for the NES.
Jaquio! The grotesque arch-villain of Ninja Ryukenden I and II.
Jaquio! The grotesque arch-villain of Ninja Ryukenden I and II.

2) “The Legend of Kage”

Released in 1985 for the NES, Taito’s The Legend of Kage might feel a little too simplistic to today’s players. Stages are repetitive, graphics are also nothing to write home about. That said, you do still play with the classic ninja combo of shurikens and a sword, with your missions involving infiltrating humongous Japanese castles to rescue damsels in distress. Overall, the game is also a substantial challenge. Mainly because there is no password or continue system.

Of note, The Legend of Kage is famous for the expanse of some of its levels. Most other early NES side-scrollers are restricted vertically, never allowing you to jump beyond screen height. The Legend of Kage, in comparison, equips you with massive leaps that allow you to scale immense trees effortlessly. In a limited way, this retro ninja game provides an early taste of open-world exploration found in later generation of games. Often, this can get quite intoxicating. It is positively ecstatic soaring over the canopies of endless huge Hinoki trees.

"Kage" means shadow in Japanese. It's a classic metaphor for ninjas.
"Kage" means shadow in Japanese. It's a classic metaphor for ninjas.
Just because it looks simple doesn't mean it's easy. Daydream, and you'd be cut down faster than you can say "Om."
Just because it looks simple doesn't mean it's easy. Daydream, and you'd be cut down faster than you can say "Om."

After The Legend of Kage, consider moving on to Fudou Myouou Den. Also released by Taito, the latter uses the same battle system but with vastly better stage designs and power-ups.

3) “Shinobi” Series

Was Shinobi the first name that came to your mind when you read the title? It should be. Just as Ninja Gaiden is representative of ninja games for the NES, Shinobi was the name Sega gamers tagged to ninjas in the 80s and 90s. The series was also developer Sega’s showcase for their best technologies and concepts during those days.

And the games are nothing short of fantastic! While replaying the Mega Drive episodes in 2016, I continued to be mesmerized by Sega’s winning combination of mythical Japan with modern mechanical terror, a formula greatly reminiscent of Japanese live-action fantasy shows from the Showa Era. Note too that like all other retro ninja video games and series in this list, none of the Shinobi games are walkovers. Shinobi quite rivals Ninja Ryukenden when it comes to difficulty. In my case, this just adds to their overall addictiveness. Also that dizzying feeling of euphoria when executing awesome ninja fire magic.

The cover for The Revenge of Shinobi. For many players, this image is synonymous with the Sega Genesis and retro ninja video games.
The cover for The Revenge of Shinobi. For many players, this image is synonymous with the Sega Genesis and retro ninja video games.
Godzilla, another symbol of Japan, has a cameo in this retro series!
Godzilla, another symbol of Japan, has a cameo in this retro series!

4) “Hagane: The Final Conflict”

Hagane: The Final Conflict is a lesser known SNES title released by Red Entertainment and Hudson in 1994, in which you play as a cyborg ninja up against immense odds to prevent worldwide annihilation. Dark, intense, and wonderfully atmospheric, the game offers a fascinating variety of ninja techniques and weapons to experiment with, as well as numerous macabre enemies inspired by classic Japanese folktales. Fans of the game also remember it for the gritty soundtrack, which further adds to an impending sense of doom and mayhem.

By the way, when I said intense, I mean INTENSE. This retro classic barely allows you any breather throughout. Most memorable for me were the hovercraft segment in the middle of stage three and the ICBM climb during the fight boss fight. If you like your retro ninja games to feel modern, but without losing the overall Japanese feel, Hagane: The Final Conflict is definitely a great choice to consider. Just be prepared. You would need to spend substantial time memorizing murderous enemy attack patterns.

Hagane is the Japanese word for steel. No prizes for why this word was used as the title.
Hagane is the Japanese word for steel. No prizes for why this word was used as the title.
One of the more unique bosses of Hagane: The Final Conflict.
One of the more unique bosses of Hagane: The Final Conflict.

5) “Ninja Spirit”

First released as an arcade title in 1988, before ported over to the PC engine with a difficulty reduction, Ninja Spirit is a straightforward side-scroller with all the elements one would expect from a feudal Japan ninja video game. For me, what’s most memorable about this title is the visual design of bosses. Many of them are heavily inspired by classic Japanese mythology.

The game is also easy to master, that is, compared to other ninja games like Shinobi. For some gamers, this might be a turn-off but personally, I think it’s great to occasionally play a game and not end up swearing at the screen or flinging away the controller in disgust. Last but not least, Ninja Spirit is also a great introduction to the more esoteric aspects of Japanese religious practices. After beating that floating monk shown below, do a search online for Japanese sariras. My guess is, you are going to be horrified by what your search uncovers.

In Japan, Ninja Spirit was known as Saigo no Nindou.
In Japan, Ninja Spirit was known as Saigo no Nindou.
Creepy, deadly boss.
Creepy, deadly boss.

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    © 2017 Kuan Leong Yong

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