Ninja Gaiden

Developer: Tecmo
U.S. Publisher: Tecmo
Original U.S. Release: March 1989
Virtual Console Release: May 14, 2007
Genre: Action
Format: 2-Megabit Cartridge

Based on: A faithful and nuanced depiction of Pre-Columbian South American mythology.

Games | Nintendo Entertainment System | Virtual Console | Ninja Gaiden

Article by Johnny Driggs | October 11, 2007

Read up on language long enough and you'll come across a theory called linguistic determinism. Even if you've never heard of it, there's a good chance you've been exposed to the idea; in 1984, George Orwell presented Newspeak, a language constructed in such a way that it actually prevented certain thoughts from being conceptualized. You can trace the theory back to a guy named Wilhelm von Humboldt. Mr. von Humboldt noticed that the language one speaks has a bit of an influence on how you think. For example, some languages don't bother differentiating between blue and green, while others lack any numbers above two. It might make sense to assume that people speaking such languages might have to look twice to determine whether there's more apples in the pile of four than the pile of five, but the idea that certain people are innately incapable of formulating certain concepts simply because their language doesn't have a word to describe it is a bit presumptuous. Concepts obviously exist before there are words to label them with -- otherwise we wouldn't be able to come up with new words, now would we?

My stupid AIBO doesn't do anything...

And you have a fairly compelling argument for refuting that little theory in the form of video games. Yes, video games. In a medium still experiencing its growing pains, new concepts and conventions are invented and abandoned nearly too rapidly for terms to be attached to them. Compounding that is this age of the Internet; before its standardizing influence, most people developed their own regional or personal terminology, hence those who still refer to levels in a video game as "boards". Still, concrete definitions don't develop overnight -- sometimes they take a while to gel. Gamers knew precisely what a first-person shooter was long before we could all agree what exactly they were called. Some said Doom? clones, others prefered ungainly names like "first-person-perspective gun-wielding action adventures." But now we know: they're first-person shooters.

Enter Ninja Gaiden, which taught gamers the finer points of the then-nameless concept of spawn points.

God. Damn. Spawn. Points.

Make no mistake: Those who played Ninja Gaiden were intimately familiar with spawn points. Of course, they didn't call them that. That term was a few years away, at least among people who played games as opposed to making them. What they called them was, "When I move two feet to the left and the midget made out of Flubber that I killed a second ago hops out out of freaking nowhere and knocks me off a cliff." That proved a bit clumsy, especially in the heat of action, so Ninja Gaiden players simply remained cognizant of these unmarked pockets of space where enemies would inexhaustibly appear time and again, and conversations with fellow players took place with the mutual understanding of the nature of said spaces. They got along just fine without a word to convey this meaning. Considering a lot of them were in grade school, they probably just used sound effects, or cried a little.

I've personally come the conclusion that 8-bit game designers

gave up on making enemies that could be recognized as appropriate to their setting and simply settled on making enemies that could be recognized as something. Case in point: Clam-head guy.

And this is an important aspect of the game! Spawn points were integral to Ninja Gaiden's design, a large facet of the game's infamous difficulty level. Players kept Ryu moving forward at all times, because they knew the only thing awaiting them if they moved backwards one inch was an avalanche of rogue linebackers and banshees with knives. What with the game's fairly forgiving life bar, being hit by an enemy wasn't so much a concern based on the damage received but rather the fact that an impact could knock you back far enough to trigger an endless cascade of unarmed soldiers who would then proceed to play hacky-sack with your body until you ended up hunting for the bottom of a bottomless pit. Players lived in constant fear of these mystical anomalies in space-time, especially those unfortunate enough to contain a bird.

Of course, every Ninja Gaiden player knew the word for "bird." But most of them came up with a few new and more colorful terms to attach to the concept of birds after dying at the hands, er, wings of infinitely regenerating eagles.

This boss would have been eight times more difficult with

the addition of a single White-Breasted Nuthatch.

Savvy players even knew how to exploit spawn points to their advantage. Obviously, a knowledge of their placement was helpful when navigating the levels, but it went beyond that. Sub-weapons could be utilized in anticipation of as-yet-unmaterialized enemies and timed based on how they would appear according to Ryu's movements. Some enemies could even be phased out of existence by rapidly triggering the point of appearance by leaving it just on the edge of the screen until the game gave up and decided not to bother conjuring up enemies.

Players were atomizing enemies into oblivion utilizing something they didn't have a word for.

The rest of the game? Timeless classic. Satisfying, uncluttered arcade gameplay. Pioneering use of cinematics in console gaming. Memorable music. Atmospheric graphics. Controls tighter than a Botox OD victim. Consummate example of old-school kick-your-assitude difficulty. Any review site could tell you that. You come to GameSpite to hear how Ninja Gaiden relates to the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Why you'd want to, I couldn't imagine. But here we are.

Epilogue: Hey, Ryu! Are we going to see that picture of you standing outside the castle that appears alongside every mention of Ninja Gaiden?

Images courtesy of VGMuseum