For the third summer in a row we’ve been blessed with a new installment in the Ninja Gaiden series. The first was a surprise hit with impeccable gameplay, an intriguing story with plenty of plot twists, and a wonderful presentation with cutting edge graphics and sound. Ninja Gaiden II built upon the solid foundation of the first game by introducing new gameplay mechanics and power-ups. The additional Ninja Shadows that followed Ryu around layered in an extra degree of strategy that normally isn’t seen in action games like these. With innovative parallax scrolling and a rocking soundtrack with a very exciting story to tell, it was one of the highlights on the NES last year. So you can imagine, with all eyes looking forward to the Super Nintendo, that Ninja Gaiden III; The Ancient Ship of Doom has a lot to live up to. It has to dazzle us with even better graphics and entertain us with a compelling story. Unfortunately the end result fails to deliver the goods and although not a horrible game by any means, this third installment is certainly the worst of the trilogy.
If you’re not familiar with the Ninja Gaiden games, they take a somewhat new approach to storytelling by including cinema cutscenes between levels to immerse the players in the world and keep them motivated to push on to see what happens next. While I’m not going to sit here and claim that the prior two games were stunning examples of original stories with impeccably written characters, at least they were something new and exciting on the NES. Two years later with the third game now upon us it’s somewhat old hat and honestly the story (and I’ve seen it from beginning to end) is really absurd. I don’t want to give away plot points, but let’s just say that 99% of the narrative has already been told before in the prior two games in one form or another. Add in the fact that the story makes zero sense, especially without explaining why a certain returning character acts the way he does, and that players will see the inevitable plot twists a mile away and I came away wanting the cutscenes to hurry up and end – the complete opposite of the way I felt with the first two games.
So, the story sort of sucks, but that doesn’t mean the action parts are any worse for wear. In fact, they still hold up rather well thanks to Ryu’s good controls and fun power-ups and moves. The problem is that while games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mega Man 3 gave players new moves and power-ups to play around with, Ninja Gaiden III does very little to move the needle. In some ways it’s worse than the last game because the wonderful Shadow Ninjas are absent from this game. I’d love to hear the reasoning for that stupid decision – those were so awesome! Instead Ryu has a brand new move where he can hang from certain platforms and move hand over hand. At any point you can pull yourself up to the platform and continue on foot. While this does have a certain cool factor to it, it really adds little to the overall experience.
Familiar power-ups return once again, including the Windmill Throwing Star, Fire Dragon Balls, Invincible Fire Wheel, and the only power-up worth holding onto throughout the entire game: the Fire Wheel Art (so you can throw waves of fire above you to take out enemies otherwise out of reach). You only get one new power-up this time around, the Vacuum Wave Art, which throws out a blade above and below you to take out enemies. It works in a pinch, but it’s not really that impressive. Although not really an extra weapon, you will come across the Dragon Spirit Sword power-up, which will increase the reach and power of your blade for that level.
I’m not sure if it’s because this is the third game in the series in as many years, but there’s just not enough new things to see this time around. Much of the game felt like I had been there, done that. Perhaps the most egregious area where this is immediately apparent is with the bosses you fight. Not only do most of them feel directly pulled out of a prior installment, but even within this very game some of them have almost identical patterns and attacks. The same could be true of the normal enemies, except this time around it feels like we’re playing a Mega Man game. Half the enemies are robots of some sort and even the levels have cribbed from Capcom’s games with disappearing blocks, moving mechanical platforms, and hard as nails precision jumps. I will give props to whoever came up with the idea to show what power-ups reside in each container before slashing them so you don’t accidentally pick up one you don’t want.
Familiarity extends to the actual stage designs too. Familiar hazards from the last game, like wind, ice, and flowing water will have you experiencing déjà vu. Similar to how Super C took a more sci-fi organic alien turn in the graphics department, so has Ninja Gaiden III. You’ll be traipsing through all sorts of organic mush with pulsating organs and alien lab rats scattered about in the backgrounds. Basically this game really went down a different path graphically and I’m just not overly pleased with the way it turned out. I will give the programmers credit for some amazing parallax scrolling on a few of the levels – they’re second to none on the NES. Some of the areas are just too busy for their own good with enemies blending into the backgrounds and too much going on at once, leading to needless deaths.
Oh, and speaking of dying – you’re going to do so a lot in this game. That’s because the levels are deviously designed with all sorts of hazards that will zap away your health. On top of that the enemies are placed in just the right spots to really screw you over and there’s more on the screen than ever before. The icing on the cake is that you no longer have unlimited continues – you get five and then it’s game over and back to the start with you! Only the most dedicated of fans will have the resilience to stick with this one, and without a great story I’m not sure if many will.
The bottom line is that I’m very disappointed with Ninja Gaiden III. I absolutely adored the first two games and this one brings almost nothing new to the table. It looks pretty and has a very good soundtrack, but the gameplay has become a bit stale, the level designs leave much to be desired, the weird sci-fi enemies seem out of place, and the characters’ motivations in the story sequences are almost never explained and that really sucks out a lot of the energy and willpower needed to beat the challenging stages. Even more disappointing is that upon seeing all of the story sequences it’s crazy that this entire game’s plot seems pulled from the first two games. Even the ending is practically identical!
According to the instruction manual, this is the last game in the Ninja Gaiden trilogy and I have mixed emotions about that. On the one hand it’s sad to see the series end with the worst in the trilogy, but on the other hand maybe it’ll free the developers up to create something more original and exciting the next time around. If you like very difficult games with tons of action this is still worthy of your time. If you’re easily frustrated or were in it for the characters or the story, you should probably skip it or give it a rent for the weekend. Despite all of my complaints, this is still a good game that should satisfy many gamers out there, but I strongly doubt this will be the favorite one of the trilogy amongst serious fans.
Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship Of Doom Review
- Graphics - 8.5/108.5/10
- Sound - 9.5/109.5/10
- Gameplay - 6.5/106.5/10
- Lasting Appeal - 6/106/10
Final Thoughts: GOOD
Even though Ninja Gaiden III is the worst entry in the series, it’s still better than most of the trash on the NES. If you like difficult action games with some sci-fi elements then this one will probably satisfy. For everyone else, check out the first two games and thank me later. If you absolutely have to see how the saga finishes, then a rental is probably the best option.