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5 Retro Ninja Games and Series for Ninja Fans

Updated on May 24, 2017
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Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. Cedric’s favourite movies and games are those that allow him to enjoy the world from his bedroom.

1) Ninja Ryukenden Trilogy

Japanese promotion for Ninja Ryukenden II. Arguably the best episode in the trilogy.
Japanese promotion for Ninja Ryukenden II. Arguably the best episode in the trilogy.

Arguably the most famous series of ninja games nowadays, the Ninja Ryukenden Trilogy, or Ninja Gaiden, was already a cult classic favourite before re-released for the Xbox in 2004. Notorious for unforgiving difficulties, these NES gems also stood out for their strong stories and plot twists. Playing any one of them is akin to watching an 80s Anime movie. One that’s filled with ambiguous, multi-faceted characters.

Interestingly, the Ninja Ryukenden series features 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, instead unfolding in Contra-like settings such as a South American jungle. If you enjoy old-school action platforming with strong storylines, you must give this retro trilogy a try. Do be warned, though. At end stages, you might wish for your fingers to have ninja reflexes.

Jaquio! The grotesque arch-villain from Ninja Ryukenden I and II.
Jaquio! The grotesque arch-villain from Ninja Ryukenden I and II.

2) The Legend of Kage

"Kage" means shadow in Japanese. It's a classic metaphor for ninjas.
"Kage" means shadow in Japanese. It's a classic metaphor for ninjas.

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

One other noteworthy aspect of The Legend of Kage is 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 provides the sensation of open-world exploration. Often, it can get quite intoxicating, soaring over the canopies of those huge Hinoki trees.

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."

3) Shinobi Series

The cover for The Revenge of Shinobi. For many players, this image is synonymous with the Sega Genesis and ninja games.
The cover for The Revenge of Shinobi. For many players, this image is synonymous with the Sega Genesis and ninja games.

Was Shinobi the first name that came to mind when you read the title? It should be. Just as Ninja Gaiden is representative of the genre nowadays, Shinobi was the name gamers associated with ninjas in the 80s and 90s. The series was also developer Sega’s showcase for their best technologies and designs.

And the games are fantastic! While replaying the Mega Drive episodes recently, I continue to be mesmerised by Sega’s winning combination of mythical Japan with modern mechanical terror. Note that like all other retro ninja games in this list, none of the Shinobi games are walkovers. The series quite rivals Ninja Ryukenden when it comes to difficulty. For me, that adds to their overall addictiveness. Also that dizzying feeling of euphoria when executing awesome ninja fire magic.

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 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.

Hagane: The Final Conflict is a lesser known SNES title released by Red Entertainment and Hudson in 1994. In this retro ninja game, you play as a cyborg ninja up against immense odds to prevent worldwide annihilation. With a variety of techniques and weapons to experiment with, and macabre enemies inspired by classic Japanese imageries, the whole game is dark and intense. The gritty soundtrack further adds to an impending sense of doom.

By the way, when I said intense, I meant INTENSE. This game 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 ninja games to feel modern, but without losing the overall Japanese feel, Hagane: The Final Conflict is a great choice to consider. Just be prepared. You would need to spend substantial time memorising murderous enemy attack sequences.

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

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

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 game. For me, what’s particularly memorable from this title are the bosses. Many of them are heavily inspired by classic Japanese mythology.

The game is easy to play, 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. Lastly, Ninja Spirit could be 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.

Creepy, deadly boss.
Creepy, deadly boss.

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