EZ Racer's Blog

Posted on Mar 30th 2019 at 11:10:39 AM by (EZ Racer)
Posted under Ninja Gaiden 3, Ninja Gaiden, NG3, Ancient ship of doom, NES

Ninja Gaiden III: Ancient Ship of Doom is the third entry in the classic Ninja Gaiden series for NES, a series known for its unforgiving difficulty, and on the surface, NG3 pushes this over the line when you compare it to its predecessors. Unlike the first two games, there are no 1-ups for points, all enemies do multiple points of damage (and they come in swarms!), any death sends you back to the very beginning of the level (instead of segmenting the levels), and youre limited to 5 continues.

But heres the catch:  the more I played NG3, the more I came to appreciate its game design, which is nothing short of ingenious throughout the experience. It also, somewhat surprisingly, might be the most balanced and fair game in the series.

Full disclosure- Growing up, I was a huge fan of the first two games in the series, and still consider NG2 to be one of my favorite games of all time. I rented NG3, and it just felt different. Ryus jumps were floaty instead of quick and crisp, and he now made noise whenever he slashed his sword. On top of that, the story seemed to have nothing to do with the first two games. Suffice to say I was disappointed. Later, as a teen, I discovered Ninja Gaiden Trilogy, and was pumped. At the time, I only owned NG2, so here was a way to play any Ninja Gaiden I wanted, without having to change over any hookups.

I bring this up, because my earliest in depth experience with NG3 was on NG Trilogy, playing it a ton as a freshman in college on the dorms (and boy am I glad nobody knew its potential value back then). It does feel more like the first two, with unlimited continues and taking less damage on hits. I made it deep into the game, and I appreciated NG3 more, but only to the point of it being a good game, but nothing special.

Fast forward to 2019, when I was finally able to acquire NG3 for NES through a friends generosity. I also felt like I kind of owed it to my friend to go through and complete the game, since he knew how much of a Ninja Gaiden fan I was. And boy, did I ever sell this game short over the years.

Lets get the obvious out of the way. Yes, this is a difficult game. But part of that difficulty comes from looking at the game through a misrepresented lens. If you go into the game expecting a platformer based on exploration, similar to Mario Bros or Metroid, the game will seem overly difficult. But likewise, going at this game from a run and gun (or hack and slash in this case) survival style, as was the case for the previous two Ninja Gaiden games, makes the gameplay seem overly unbalanced.

The problem is you have to look at this game as more of a puzzle platformer, akin to Super Ghouls and Ghosts, only about 10 times faster and more fluid. Its about learning how to get through each section taking minimal damage, while still offering high adrenaline action. You have to learn when to wait and when to run, when to take out enemies and when to just move on.

A great example of this element is level 5-1. If you rush over the 1st jump, and enemy will trigger that runs in and likely knocks you back into the pit. Clear that, and a few jumps later you're on a platform with enemies coming from four directions diagonally above and below you. Stay and try to fight off the swarm, you'll probably take a bit of damage. Kill the enemy to the upper right of you and get to a safer spot, you won't take any damage. It's more like finding the right path through a platforming maze, but once you find the right path, it's often fluid and fun, and the difficulty sort melts away.

And when looking at it that way, all those negative difficulty spikes I mentioned earlier become positives, in that the game makes you master each level before youll be able to progress. I can see where this could be a turn-off for newbies, but the payoff for getting good at it is immensely worth it, as it is extremely satisfying to get into a rhythm and just start dominating the levels that had kicked your butt initially.

Recently, in the Shoot the Core-Cast for Zanac, the guys and guests briefly got into why people play video games in the 1st place, and Im paraphrasing but the consensus opinion was how good it feels to be on a power fantasy and plow through everything that stands in your way. As you get good at it, this is a great representation of that type of experience.  A great example from my personal experience with it was one of the later levels, which throws swarms of enemies at you while you navigate several perilous jumps from platform to platform, while those platforms start slowly disappearing once you touch them. Didnt have a clue initially how Id get through it, but once I figured it out, its an awesome level to play. As you gain consistency, the more the game throws at you, the more you find yourself grinning at the game wanting to say aloud, What else you got?!

Thats where NG3 is a masterstroke in game design. For all the game throws at you from a difficulty perspective, it also in many ways sets you up to succeed. I could go level through level with examples of this, but theres also several general examples of it. Earlier I discussed how I was turned off by the floaty jump mechanics when I first played it as a child. Now that Im through it, this was a necessary change, as levels like 4-1 and 7-2 would be impossible without that change.

It also sets you up beautifully for the boss battles. In almost every level, the last weapon you receive is also the most effective against the boss. Tecmo even throws some other subtle assistance at you, as Act 7 is by far longest level, nearly impossible to complete on one life because of the timer (yeah, theres another element to add to the difficulty), you can pick up two different 1ups in level 7-2. It shouldnt go unnoticed that its the only time in the entire game there is more than one 1up in an Act.

Also, a few things set it apart in the platforming itself. First, a much needed fix from earlier games is the handling of respawning enemies, of which NG1 was infamous for. Respawning is handled in a very fair manner. If you kill an enemy, and trigger its spawn point again, nothing happens. If you avoid an enemy, and it de-spawns by going off screen, then it will respawn if you go over its trigger point. Completely fair.

It also should be noted that this game never asks the impossible. There are no precise, nearly pixel perfect jumps to make, just many that have to be deliberate. Go through technical sections with conviction and a plan, theres very few difficult spots. Go in wildly, or get in a panic, and you wont last long.

Needlessly to say, in terms of game design, this is one of the best games Ive ever played, period. The only downside is that you have to start mastering it before youll realize everything its doing right. And that brings me back to a point about what sets it apart as a great game.

If the difficulty was anything less, it ultimately undermines the overall experience (hence my initial experience with NG Trilogy)

You wont fully appreciate this game until youre good enough to overpower it, and without the difficulty set up exactly how it is, there would be no reason to get to that level of mastery. For how difficult the levels are, theres only two spots in the entire game where you take what seems like unavoidable damage: One of the last screens in Act 5, and the Act 6 boss because of a somewhat random attack. Thatsit. The rest of the time its just about taking the correct route through the game.

This far into the review and I havent mentioned graphics, music, and controls, so lets briefly run through them-

Controls- As fluid and responsive as any game Ive ever played on the NES

Graphics- fantastic looks to the levels and backgrounds, with plenty of variety mixed in. Nicely done cutscenes (though late in the game it incorporates a strobe light effect that may negatively affect some players)

Sound- Absolutely fantastic, plenty of high adrenaline tunes for the levels, mixed with mystery for the cutscenes.

All this isnt to say the game is flawless. From a story perspective, the game does jump the shark. Its by far the weakest story of the three NES NGs, with the only really interesting point coming about midway through the game (dont worry, no spoilers). The environments arent nearly as connected to the story as they were in the first two games.

Also, there is one spot in which the difficulty doesnt seem right: the boss order. While none of the bosses have overly difficult patterns, the Act 3 boss is probably the toughest, next to the final boss rush, while the Act 5 boss is the easiest. None of the bosses, including the final boss rush are anywhere near the difficulty of Jaquio, from earlier in the series.

I went into this having defeated both NG1 and NG2, and Ive played both semi-regularly for nearly 30 years. Ill just throw this out there- for all that is said about NG3s difficulty, its the first in the series that Ive beaten start to finish without using a continue.

In the end, Ill take a soapbox moment and say its sad that NG1 is the game recognized by casual fans, because its the 2nd and 3rd entries that are among the best games on the system. But thats in a way what truly works against it. The more time you put into this, the more youll get out of it, so it hinders it from being a casual gaming experience.

But once you do put the time into it, you find that it wouldnt be as special to overcome its challenge. Ultimately, its because of its difficulty and near perfect game design that its a unique and fun game to play, and the deeper you get into it, the more it becomes one of the most satisfying and rewarding gaming experiences ever made. Period.




Posted on Jan 26th 2019 at 01:24:11 AM by (EZ Racer)
Posted under dragon warrior, NES, erdrick, DW4

When the NES challenge was announced, it was a way for to check out games that each of us wanted to experience, but always needed that little extra motivation to sit down and playthrough, and for me personally, Dragon Warrior IV had always been that type of title.

Quick backstory- Like many, I grew up with the first Dragon Warrior due to the Nintendo Power giveaway, but I also paid a lot of attention to news about the 2nd and 3rd installments, as those were both part of the same storyline. Rarely did I get to play the sequels, once seeing DW2 at a family friend's house, and renting DW3 a few times. Because of this, I craved to be able to dive into all 3 in the Erdrick line, and since there was a 4th game, go for it, too, even though it wasn't related in story to the 1st three. Quite literally, this became my first collecting goal, and while I acquired the first 3 relatively quickly, it was several years before I purchased the 4th. Even then, it just sat alongside the others in relative obscruity. Sure, I had heard it was good, but I always waited for the excuse to put time into it, partially fearing it would be a grindfest in the same vein as DW2 and to an extent DW3.

Enter January 2019 and that excuse I had been waiting for...

And my goodness, was it ever worth it.

As some may know, Dragon Warrior IV starts out by developing the back stories of all the members that will eventually form your party. You first meet Ragnar, and are tasked with finding and saving the children of Izmit village, as monsters have kidnapped them in hopes of finding and destroying the prophesized Legendary Hero before he/she can grow old enough to fulfill that destiny. Once you complete Ragnar's chapter, you are introduced to Alena, a tom-boy princess and her companions, Christo and Brey, as they set out to live their own adventure by seeing all parts of the world. Then comes Taloon, a merchant who dreams of becoming the greatest weapons seller in the world. Next, you play as Mara and Nara, two sisters bent on revenge after the murder of their alchemist father. Only after all of these backstories do you finally meet the hero and begin a massive quest.

All this backstory could get tedious if not for a few things done very well. First, while there is occassional grinding for money or levels, it's never for more than 30-45 min at a time, unlike some of the earlier games of the series. Second, each character is unique enough to keep things fresh and interesting. Taloon's chapter is an especially good example, as the first thing that happens is your wife gives you a kiss goodbye, hands you your lunch and wishes you a good day as you head to the local weapons shop to work for the day. After so many sales, the shop owner pays you your commission for your sales, and you head home for the night to see your wife and sleeping child, who dreams of someday following in his father's footsteps.

Where DW4 really shines though, is how immersive the world and its inhabitants feel. Things that happen in chapter 2 are referenced in all the following chapters. Secondary charcters abound, each having there own motivation in the events of the story; it's very satisfying when you see these characters go through some personality development as well. And nearly all the towns and castles are unique from each other in some form, not just layout or item choices, but each having a distinguishing feature to make it memorable.

The music and enemy sprites are probably the finest in the series, and the tune that plays when you first enter Aktemto may be the best in the NES library at setting a somber tone. It gave me chills the first time I heard it. (I do wonder if the developers knew just how good the song was, as they give you a way to trigger that tune yourself on demand later in the game.)

Before this turns into a total gushfest, I do have a few nitpicks. One, once you start chapter 5, the only controllable character in battles is your lead hero. The rest of the party is controlled through the AI in a "Tactics" system, where you preset a basic strategy for the computer to follow during each round of actions. I had fears that this would ruin the game for me, but instead it's executed about as well as you could expect, and it streamlines the battles in a way. Still, I can't help but wish this was an optional setting, instead of it being the only choice.

Secondly, while 80% of game involves a deep, detailed and engaging story, the last 20% feels a bit incomplete. Without using spoilers, there are several questions that remain unanswered, and some plot points that could have used more expostion, even upon completion of the game. (From doing a little research, the DS remake attempts to address both these complaints, but as of this writing I've only played the NES version.)

Still, it's amazing how deep of a game this is considering the limitations of the NES, and shows that by the time DW4 was released developer Chunsoft and publisher Enix were at the top of their games. They maximized the NES's capabilities in a way that few, if any, games at the time did, and produced one of the truly great JRPG's of the era.

It's sad that this game didn't get a better following from North American audiences, and one can only wonder if that would have changed at all with some fan service (maybe slip the name Erdrick into an item or two?). But the reality is any fan of 2D JRPG's needs to try this game, as although it's a long game, it's worth every minute spent.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
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