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July 24, 2011 / jwaxo

Ninja Gaiden (Game Guides)

Apparently ninjas had huge problems with birds. Back in the day.

My huge envelope, on which I’ve been writing down things to blog about, is rapidly running out of space. I’ve now covered the entire thing, writing in the self-imposed margins and the flap. So this is a problem.

It’s also a problem because they’re not in any order. I go through them, look for something that sounds interesting or I’ve figured out what an entire blog post could be composed from, do the post, and scratch it off. This results in a few things that have been on my list of things to nostalgia over that have been here from the beginning, and a few that I’ve written down one day only to blog about them the next.

But here’s a topic that I’ve been putting off, mostly because it can cover so many areas. There’s such a wide base. The subject, of course, is difficulty.

Most notably, game difficulty. And the really, really hard ones. The ones that are, as they say, Nintendo Hard.

What makes a game Nintendo Hard? For one, it requires a high amount of concentration and superb reflexes. We’re talking the need to focus on animations for tells on when an enemy is about to attack, controls that are half-responsive and super-difficult to use, extremely precise timing, and more. A second major factor is that the game actually punishes you. It’s not a big deal that you’re having trouble with a certain screen if you have unlimited lives; no, Nintendo Hard games give you maybe room to mess up once or twice, then you start over. Completely over. Then you take away the ability to adjust the difficulty level (no easy mode for you), throw in a bunch of boss fights and about a million enemies, and you have a Nintendo Hard game.

The perfect example is the original Ninja Gaiden.

We found it at a garage sale, sitting in a stack of NES games, probably right at the top. We pooled our money and brought it home. There was one reason: it had “ninja” in the title. And, if you had seen half of our home movies, or our enormous collection of Ninja Turtle toys, or even just said the word “ninja” around us, you would know that our love for that word had no depths.

Even to the point of embarrassing our future selves. We did not care.

And now a video game where you could be a ninja! It was ours.

The problem was, Ninja Gaiden didn’t let you pretend to be a ninja. You had to freaking be one just to play it. The absurd timing, the difficult enemies, the stupidly impossible jumps. Your character could climb walls, but so would you, in real life, with frustration.

Bottom line, this game was difficult.

But here’s the other thing: games were more difficult back then.

Please note that I’ve never said anything like “games were better back then”, or anything of that similarity. I drool over nostalgia, but I openly admit when I’m being biased. But this is something that I sincerely believe to be 100% true. Video games were so much more difficult back then. In most of them you couldn’t save. Half of the games were originally developed for arcades, which meant the owners would squeeze more quarters from you the more you lost. And video game companies were small, exclusive affairs, tailored for small, exclusive groups of people: if they made something that could be casually beaten, it wouldn’t be seen as very good.

Which brings us to the second main point of this post: game guides.

I’ve mentioned before that game guides are kind of akin to cheating. This still holds true. I scoff at the people who I know (and yes, they exist) who buy the guide with their copy of Zelda and hardly look up from it while playing.

Seven-year-old me did not hold this opinion, of course. So when I discovered my school’s library had a selection of games guides I about exploded with joy.

“Soon I shall know everything!”

Really, there was no reason for the library to even have them. What were they there for? How did they arrive? Were they donated? Dropped on the doorstep? Brought in by our awesome librarian, Mrs. Hirahara? Who knows? All I know is that there they sat, right next to the collection of Tintin books, and that’s where I went for help with Ninja Gaiden.

Squeezed in the middle of a gigantic, spiral-bound book of guides was the section that would reveal to me the secrets of beating that hallowed game, right between the gigantic map of Metroid 2 and the section on Kid Icarus. Maps of every level. Information on all of the enemies. Where to find each powerup and the secret locations. Strategies on specific bosses. This thing had it all.

I would check out the guides that were allowed. I brought them home and read them everywhere, even on the games I hadn’t played. There’s just something fun about an information dump like that, telling you everything about a game, even the things you don’t know. I can’t deny it. While it can detract from the experience, there’s so much fun information to be had from game guides.

Didn’t help me, though. Still haven’t beaten Ninja Gaiden.

That game was hard. We’re talking Nintendo Hard.

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