Ninja Gaiden was an odd game for an odd time. It was part of the inescapable ninja craze of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that I appear to have never grown out of, judging by the star tattooed on my shoulder. There were many other ninja games from that time, ushered in by (among other things) the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The key difference between this and the rest of those games, though, is a simple one: Ninja Gaiden is totally awesome.
It’s also harder than hell.
NES games from that era are infamous now for their extreme difficulty. It was a time when games were hard, when men were forged, when the kids playing didn’t have real lives.
As I’ve mentioned, I got my NES in 1989. I’d dabbled in Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt on my step-brother’s console, but my real first game came home with my own Nintendo. That game was Ninja Gaiden.
And that game taught me that life is never, ever easy. Yes, games were harder then, but no game was able to teach a six-year-old about life with the same swift brutality as this one.
I’m not a musician, but give me a piano and a few minutes to plink-plonk on it, and I’ll play you the death music. I still wonder if the multi-colored strobe flash when you lost your last life gave kids seizures; I figured out I wasn’t epileptic after three or four hundred times seeing it.
And yet I persevered. Over time, I learned the patterns of the game’s Neolithic AI. I remembered when to jump, which items were most useful when, where to stand to avoid getting hit: all the good things that a kid learned about his favorite games. The more I played, the better I got.
That’s rather like life, really. One of the worst things about growing up is realizing how stupid you were when you were younger. Looking at it the other way, though, you’re able to recognize that you aren’t that person any more; you’ve learned.
A decade or so ago, in the same old-school console-filled apartment in which I got back into Sonic 2, I replayed Ninja Gaiden. It was a frustrating experience. I will never again know hate like the hate that I have for those fucking birds. (This, of course, makes me a better person; no corporeal being will ever make me throw a controller in anger.) That frustration aside, though, I remembered practically all the weird quirks of the game, to the point where it seemed as though I’d never stopped playing; my roommate even voiced how impressed he was that my muscle memory still led me to a few moments of perfection. I made through five of the six acts in about 45 minutes.
That’s when I handed the controller off to my brother. I’ve never actually beaten this game. I’m fully confident that I am capable, bit I’m also fully aware that I’m much too impatient.
I watched as my brother spent a shade over two hours playing and replaying the sixth act, fighting through the same enemies, countering the same patterns. He beat the third-to-last boss, then was killed and had to restart. He fought his way back from the beginning of the level (for, as previously mentioned, games then were cruel) to beat the penultimate boss, then was killed and had to restart. Finally, he was able to reach and vanquish the final boss, and for the first time, I saw the ending of that game.
It was glorious.
Over a decade after the first time I blew into that cartridge and clicked it into my NES, I saw the culmination of the story, something I probably would never have done without my brother’s help.
Obviously, I see games as an extended metaphor for my own life. It’s not for nothing that I think this way, though. Could anything possibly fit that metaphor any better than accomplishing something with the help of your family that you would not have accomplished on your own?
It’s been over 20 years since I got that NES and played that game for the first time. In the meantime, I’ve owned another 15 consoles and played several hundred other games. I suspect that the things I learned from Ninja Gaiden could have been gleaned from any number of these games, but that’s the thing about a lesson well taught: you only need to learn it once.
It’s strange for me to imagine the pure joy that playing that game gave me back then. After all, it would seem to take a masochist to have fun while being so often massacred. But even with its legendary difficulty, the original Ninja Gaiden is not too far out of line with other games released on the NES. Any gamer of my generation can regale you with stories Battletoads or Contra that are no less fraught with failure and exasperation than mine. What is it about games that has changed where a really hard game is the outlier and not the norm?
Gaming has matured along with the generation that came to play in the NES era. We’ve gotten older, got jobs, have less time and less energy to devote to playing. That’s the common answer, and I don’t really have a better one. But where does that leave us?
A probably unhealthy portion of my development was informed by video games. If I were six years old now, gawky and awkward (gawkward?) like I was, and there were all these lessons waiting to be taught… would I be able to learn them from games the way I did? Life is hard; so is Ninja Gaiden. Life is unfair; so is Ninja Gaiden. With practice and persistence, you get better and you learn and you move forward. Having someone to help makes the seemingly impossible happen. So too with Ninja Gaiden.
It may just be my age and experience that keep me from seeing it, but nothing like that seems to exist any longer, and no one can really agree on whether we’ve lost something or merely evolved. What it boils down to is this: games have long been denied inclusion in capital-A Art, but if what defines Art is that it teaches you about the world, then there is no doubt where I stand.
And here I’d said I wouldn’t be getting into that too much.