The Ninja Gaiden series is notorious for its unforgiving gameplay and brutal difficulty. I can’t count the number of times the various entries have reduced me to rage quitting. But even with all the frustrations, the masochist in me seems to keep coming back, ready for more punishment!
When it comes to dealing with difficulty in games, the developer is walking a very fine line. The satisfaction derived from conquering that seemingly impossible challenge can be a very strong motivator for the player. On the other hand, making a game too difficult can lead a player to decide it’s not worth the effort at all. There are many ways to ensure a player deems a brutally difficult game worthy of their time and patience – and our next game in this series perfectly illustrates many of them.
Ninja Gaiden Shadow is the only entry in the series that graced the Game Boy. Developed by Natsume and released in 1991 by Tecmo, it was originally planned to be a Game Boy adaptation of another of Natsume’s NES games; Shadow of the Ninja. As such, Ninja Gaiden Shadow feels a little less complex than its NES brethren. Ryu’s ability to stick to walls and wall jump have been removed, but he can hang from railings, a mechanic lifted directly from Shadow of the Ninja. In a series first (and last), he also utilizes a grappling hook to climb vertically. Ultimately, Ninja Gaiden Shadow still feels and plays like the tight action platformer we have since come to expect from the series.
So how does Ninja Gaiden Shadow do it? How is it that I keep coming back to such a punishing game, time and again, when there are many more hard games out there that are just as fun, but I don’t have the patience for?
Well, it certainly feels great to play for one. With an instantaneous acceleration to top speed on button press (and likewise with deceleration to complete stop), the controls feel very responsive. With such a demanding game, you’d want Ryu to react to incoming threats as soon as you do! A slow acceleration or the slightest of slippery controls would be far too frustrating in a game such as this.
What about the fact that there is little to no randomness in the enemy design? Predictability goes a long way when the stakes are high. If the player attacks a scenario one way in a play-through but that same strategy yields different consequences in the next, no amount of practice will help the player conquer the challenge before them. In other words; any unpredictability will prevent the player from figuring out what they did wrong, and they will therefore be unable to work on correcting that mistake during their next try. It’s scenarios like this that have the player yelling “Hey, that’s not fair!” at the screen and dropping the game for good.
Great controls and predictable gameplay alone won’t deliver on the promise of a worthwhile challenging game though. Ninja Gaiden Shadow expertly gives the player a chance to learn how the enemies behave before it asks them to jump into the fray. How? Through careful consideration of enemy placement. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the first stage in the game and discuss why the developers made the choices they did.
Stage 1’s opening screen follows a similar design philosophy seen in the Super Mario Land series. A flat platform and no obstacles gives the player space to experiment with Ryu’s basic movement before pushing forward through the rest of the stage. However, unlike the opening screens of the Super Mario Land titles, which feature no enemies, Ninja Gaiden Shadow’s opening screen has a single enemy soldier closing in from the outset.
The soldier enters the frame from the right and slowly paces towards Ryu. The player has ten seconds to react before Ryu takes damage. Rather than let the player relax and learn the basics in comfort during those first moments of gameplay, the level designer has put the pressure on immediately. In those ten seconds, they expect the player to figure out that pressing ‘B’ will initiate Ryu’s sword attack, killing the enemy before any damage is done. The game is telling the player that, if they want to survive, they will need to pay attention.
Next, the player comes across an enemy soldier that stays in one position but jumps and throws a grenade at regular intervals.
Notice the raised platform to the right of Ryu? If the player doesn’t decide to hang back and observe how this enemy behaves for a moment, and instead sprints forward in the face of danger, Ryu will collide with the raised platform and stop dead in his tracks. In the meantime, the grenadier will have jumped and thrown the grenade clean over Ryu’s head. In either case, the outcome is the same; the player will know how the grenadier behaves without having taken damage. If the enemy wasn’t on that raised platform, the throwing arc would have had the grenade connect directly with Ryu’s face. Through clever enemy placement, the developer has protected even the most reckless of beginner players from taking damage while they gather information about the new threat.
Another great way of allowing a player to observe a new enemy in safety is to give them the higher ground. This also gives the advantage to the player when they choose to attack.
As a rule, it’s typically easier for a player to attack an enemy from above than below. So shifting the y coordinate of the enemy relatively higher or lower to the player allows us to control the difficulty in addition to simply gathering information.
Take this next example for instance:
The first enemy in the stage makes his triumphant return. This time the player is shown an additional contextual behavior. The enemy soldier will jump down from a ledge if possible, attacking the player from above. Compared to the opening screen, it’s a more difficult scenario to respond to because the player’s options are relatively reduced. They can no longer jump to get out of the way (they can only evade using movement along the x-axis), and can’t use the sword to attack until the enemy soldier is directly in front of Ryu. All of this depends on enemy and player character design of course, but generally speaking:
As the relative sprite height or vertical position of an enemy increases, so too does the difficulty.
That’s part of the reason why Ninja Gaiden’s eagle enemy is so infamously infuriating! That and it’s high speed… and it’s angle of attack… and the knock back over instant death pits… Argh! SO INFURIATING!
Anyway, let’s take a look at the most threatening of the enemies featured in Stage 1. The Rocket Launcher enemy perfectly illustrates how a simple position change throughout a level can ease the player into the game as well as increase difficulty.
In the first instance (seen in the left screenshot), a similar configuration to the grenadier enemy soldier is used. The player is able to observe the launching rockets in safety as the enemy placement ensures the rockets will fly over Ryu’s head. (On a side note, you can see how elevating the enemy above the player won’t increase difficulty in every case – how the enemy behaves and is designed must be considered too.)
In the middle screenshot, the launcher has been placed far enough away from that raised ledge, that the player will need to jump up to the same platform, putting themselves at risk of the rockets. It is here that the developers first teach the player about ducking to avoid attacks. The player must exercise some patience and duck down at least once before they can take out the enemy.
Finally, in the screenshot on the right, the launcher is placed on a platform that extends beyond the width of the screen. Furthermore, there are enemy soldiers patrolling the same plane, so the player must quickly plan a strategy of attack if they wish to make it through untouched. In this way, the developer expertly ramps up difficulty.
So there you have it, that’s all the enemies in stage 1! On the surface, Ninja Gaiden Shadow seems to hold no punches and delivers on the Ninja Gaiden promise of exciting yet challenging gameplay. But importantly, it also makes sure the player is given a fair chance when it needs to through considerate enemy placement. It is this fairness that is key to developing a great difficult game. As long as the player knows they are the one that made the mistake, and the developer makes sure they are fair to the player, then everyone ends up having a good time and masochists like myself end up coming back for more, again and again!