Ninja Gaiden should be devoid of drama. It was a simple game about a ninja on a revenge mission and a violent, fun answer to Konami’s Castlevania. Almost 30 years after its release, though, Tecmo’s NES staple still feels strange and grand thanks in large part to the way it depicts Ryu Hayabusa’s journey. The story is affecting, seemingly on accident. Its creators were trying to infuse video games with cinematic style, but Ninja Gaiden’s most dramatic moments are delivered in the language of comics.
“It was the idea of Mr. Yoshizawa, who has to be called the father of the series, to create an action game with a dense story,” recalls writer and artist Masato Kato in Hardcore Gaming 101’s interview about Ninja Gaiden. “One might say that creating, of course, means to make something that hasn’t been there until then, anyway, but yeah, even at the time of development, I felt we were creating something that hasn’t been done before.”
Tecmo conceived of this 1988 NES classic as a slick way to capitalize on the booming popularity of ninjas in late ’80s America. Ninjas, teenage mutant and otherwise, were big business thanks to the popularity of imported movies like Shogun Assassin and crappy domestic flicks like American Ninja. Those pulp reimaginings of feudal Japanese mercenaries fueled Ninja Gaiden’s story of a young ninja trying to avenge his father’s murder and getting tied up in a CIA operation to bring down Jaquio, a cult leader trying to resurrect a world-conquering demon.
Kato, Yoshizawa, and the rest of the team tried to compete on the same level as their big screen inspirations. Rather than stages, each action set was called an “Act” and was bookended by what Kato dubbed “Cinema Displays.” Filmic pretensions aside, these interstitial scenes didn’t feel anything like movies. The game opens with static images of two ninjas facing off before rushing toward one another in a moonlit field. The aging NES, already 5 years old when Gaiden was made, could scarcely animate the ninjas running at one another, so Tecmo fudged the scene by alternating between close-ups of each ninja’s minimally animated legs. When they finally clash, though, everything freezes perfectly in place, both warriors hanging midair in front of a full moon. The vivid green of the grass and yellow of the moon make the scene especially striking.
Tecmo’s team might have been aiming for something that felt like Nine Deaths Of The Ninja, but it comes off a hell of a lot more like the Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Wolverine comics or the manga of Goseki Kojima. The tricks used to beef up a sense of momentum during the duel, like adding white lines in the background behind the ninjas’ faces, are the exact same tools artists had been using in comics since the 19th century. The real comic flourish, though, is the game’s splash-page style. Splash pages are illustrations that take up one or two full pages, drawing out spectacle or setting mood. In the world of comics, the term and style are often credited to Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, whose depictions of flowing water also conveyed speed and activity on a still page.
Only being able to show a single image at a time, Gaiden tells most of its tale in splash pages between acts, and almost every one of them feels Eisner approved. After Ryu beats the crap out of some ax-wielding reject from The Road Warrior in a forlorn pub, we see him ambushed by a young woman with a gun and the wide-eyed shock on his face tells us more about what’s happening than any of the sword-swinging and jumping that preceded it. When Ryu tracks down ally Walter Smith, the image of a ninja holding a dying, bearded archaeologist in his arms hits with surprising weight despite how inherently silly it is. Most striking of all is the image used in the middle of Act 4. After a rushing through the jungle hunting for Jaquio’s fortress, the action pauses for a shot of Ryu standing on a plateau above the tree canopy looking upon an enormous mountain castle in the distance.
Everything about Ninja Gaiden is distilled in this static moment. We see the hero standing stoic, dwarfed by the expanse between him and his destination, as well as the sheer size and foreboding angles of the stronghold. It’s only going to get harder from here, but the sky is a stark blue; there’s light in the world. Gaiden trades in simple themes—let’s not forget about those random football players and vicious birds that hassle Ryu—but the way it presents them draws you in with remarkable skill.
The mid-Amazon splash page also drives home why the comic-book presentation is so effective at eliciting such powerful emotion. Ryu’s character, the scale of his journey—everything is largely implied. In the absence of spoken dialogue and choreographed animation, the imagination steps in to fill all of the blanks left off the screen. In the same way that comic artists like John Cassaday can wordlessly illustrate the alien grandeur of a civilization living off the body of a dead god, Ninja Gaiden uses Kato’s illustrations to tell a story larger than what most games attempted at the time.
Had Tecmo made the game even 10 years later, it wouldn’t be as effective. While Yoshizawa and Kato couldn’t make their Cinema Display truly cinematic on the NES, game technology in the ’90s offered plenty of opportunity for spoken dialogue and interstitial scenes (cutscenes, if you prefer video game speak), which follow pretty much the same pacing as Gaiden. Fight, explore, watch a little bit of story; it’s the same in 2015 as it was in 1988. Even though 2004’s excellent Ninja Gaiden reboot nailed the classic game’s self-serious absurdity—the football players are gone but there are fights against obese cyborgs on top of zeppelins—its fully acted and animated interstitial scenes never capture even a fraction of the drama in that single image of the Amazon. There’s no room left for imagination in all the moving images.