1. Ninja Ryukenden Trilogy
Arguably the most famous retro ninja games series for NES console, and one of the best, the Ninja Ryukenden Trilogy, or Ninja Gaiden, was already a cult classic favorite before it was re-released for the Xbox in 2004.
Notorious for its unforgiving difficulty, the series stood out for its well-crafted stories and bold plot twists. Surprises that made playing any episode 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. For that matter, the bulk of the trilogy doesn’t even take place in Japan. Instead, the key events unfold in Contra-like settings such as a South American jungle.
Should you enjoy old-school platforming action 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.
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. The graphics are also nothing to write home about.
The above said, you do still play with the classic combo of shurikens and a sword, with your missions involving the infiltration of humongous Japanese castles to rescue damsels in distress. Overall, the game is also a substantial challenge, no thanks to there being 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 arcade side-scrollers are vertically restricted, never allowing you to jump beyond screen height.
The Legend of Kage, in comparison, equips you with massive leaps that allow you to effortlessly scale immense trees. In a limited way, this retro ninja game provides an early taste of the sort of open-world exploration found in later generations of games. Often, this taste can get quite intoxicating too. It is positively ecstatic soaring over the canopies of endless Hinoki trees.
Another NES Classic That's Like "The Legend of Kage"
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 superior 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 the genre for the NES, Shinobi was the name Sega gamers tagged to these Japanese shadowy warriors in the 80s and 90s. With the various episodes themselves nothing short of fantastic, be it action, gameplay, or visual design.
To share, 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 on this list, none of the Shinobi titles are walkovers. Shinobi quite rivals Ninja Ryukenden when it comes to difficulty.
In my opinion, this just adds to their overall addictiveness. Also, that dizzying feeling of euphoria when executing awesome oriental magic.
4. Hagane: The Final Conflict
Hagane: The Final Conflict is a lesser-known SNES title released by Red Entertainment and Hudson in 1994. One in which you play as a cyborg up against immense odds to prevent worldwide annihilation.
Dark and wonderfully atmospheric, the game offers a fascinating variety of oriental techniques and weapons to experiment with, as well as numerous macabre enemies inspired by classic Japanese folktales. Fans additionally remember it for the gritty soundtrack, which was full of poignant compositions. In short, an intense sense of doom and mayhem suffices the whole adventure. It is an unforgiving battle from start to end.
By the way, when I said intense, I mean INTENSE. I do not exaggerate when I said this retro classic barely allows you any breather throughout. In my case, the most memorable intense sequences were the hovercraft segment in the middle of stage three and the ICBM climb during the fight boss encounter.
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 will need to spend substantial time memorizing murderous enemy attack patterns to survive the stages.
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 medieval Japanese ninja adventure.
For me, what’s memorable about this title is also the visual design of bosses. One glance and you’d know the character concepts were heavily inspired by classic Japanese mythology.
The game is additionally easy to master; that is, compared to other ninja classics like Shinobi. For some players, 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 a great introduction to the more esoteric aspects of Japanese religious practices. After beating that floating monk shown above, do a search online for Japanese sariras. My guess is, you are going to be horrified by what your search uncovers.
© 2017 Ced Yong