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Ninjas! Who doesn’t love a ninja? Everyone did back in the ’80s and ’90s, it seems, since there was a glut of popular media where ninjas played a starring role or at least put in a guest appearance.
And video games were no exception to this trend, either; the fact that ninjas were associated with fierce combat and spectacular agility made them ideal heroes (and villains) for a wide variety of games, and we still see them pretty often even in today’s games.
So let’s pick out some of our favourite retro games of all time that feature ninjas. As always, this isn’t intended to be a definitive list, so if you’ve got your own favourite ninja-related games, feel free to sound off in the comments and share your own highlights!
Bruce Lee (DataSoft, 1984)
In this unusual but highly playable combination of platformer and beat ’em up, you take on the role of the eponymous martial arts star as he attempts to collect lanterns from around a wizard’s tower.
At all times, Bruce is pursued by the green-skinned sumo wrestler Yamo and an unnamed ninja. Yamo can actually be controlled by a second player in the game’s competitive multiplayer mode, but the ninja is always controlled by the computer.
Neither Yamo nor the ninja are a particualrly formidable opponent, but that doesn’t stop it from being satisfying any time you successfully lure either of them into a death trap that you successfully dodged moments earlier.
Bruce Lee is available for Atari 8-bit, Apple II, Commodore 64, PC-88, IBM PC, BBC Micro, MSX, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC.
Ninja (Mastertronic, 1986)
Developed by Steve Coleman of Sculptured Software, this game casts you in the role of a nameless ninja and tasks you with exploring Akuma’s castle in an attempt to rescue the beautiful Princess Di-Di.
Ninja (also known as Ninja Mission in some versions) is unusual in that it combines elements of arcade adventure and fighting game; combat involves using a variety of different moves to defeat your opponents in one-on-one or one-on-two combat. Unlike many other fighting games of the period, victory is scored by depleting your opponent’s health bar rather than simply scoring a clean hit.
Ninja is a simple game, but it’s enjoyable; it’s also interesting as an early example of a rather open-structure, non-linear game in which you can choose your route through the game’s screens rather than being forced down a linear path.
Ninja is available for Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Amiga, Atari ST and IBM PC. There’s also an arcade version for Mastertronic’s Amiga-based Arcadia system out there.
The Last Ninja (System 3, 1987)
The Last Ninja was a popular series for its blend of isometric perspective exploration, combat and puzzle solving; first released for Commodore 64, it became one of the most successful games on the platform and was subsequently ported to Apple IIGS, MS-DOS PC, BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Apple II, Amiga, Atari ST and Acorn Archimedes.
The game was originally to be developed by a Hungarian team called SoftView, but after missing all their deadlines, System 3 refunded their advance and rewrote the game. Designer Mark Cale’s intention was to create something that was a bit different from side-scrolling games of the time, and which offered more than just the straightforward combat of the era’s beat ’em ups.
“What we were essentially trying to do was take the square cursor blob from Adventure on the Atari 2600 and turn it into a fully interactive 3D adventure,” Cale explained in conversation with Retro Gamer magazine in 2005.
Ninja Spirit (Irem, 1988)
This fast-paced side-scrolling hack-and-slash captures the high-stakes feel of ninja combat perfectly thanks to its hordes of enemies, delightfully agile player character Tsukikage, and the ability to summon your own shadow to cooperate with yourself.
Originally released for arcades, the game was ported to a wide variety of platforms, with the most popular being the PC Engine version. This features a special console-exclusive mode where you can take five hits before losing a life, but also allows you to play in the original arcade-style mode where a single hit means death.
Ninja Spirit is available for the arcade, PC Engine, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Game Boy and ZX Spectrum. The PC Engine version can be found on the PC Engine Mini.
Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo, 1988)
Ninja Gaiden first appeared in arcades in 1988, and despite becoming better known for its action-adventure installments, began its life as a belt-scrolling beat ’em up. Known as Shadow Warriors in PAL territories, this original arcade version casts you (and, optionally, a friend) in the role of a nameless ninja travelling around the United States in an attempt to defeat an evil cult led by a descendent of Nostradamus.
Ninja Gaiden’s arcade incarnation was noteworthy for its interesting moves, including the ability to hang from poles and swing-kick, and somersault over enemies’ heads, throwing them in the process. It became infamous for its continue screen, which featured the game’s hero with a gradually descending circular saw representing the timer running out.
The game was ported to a variety of different platforms, including Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Amiga, ZX Spectrum and Atari Lynx, and the original arcade version can be played as a hidden bonus in the Xbox version of Ninja Gaiden Black.
Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo, 1988)
Yes, there’s an echo in here. The better-known NES incarnation of Ninja Gaiden (which also ended up ported to PC Engine and Super NES) is worthy of inclusion on this list in its own right, if only for all the conventions it helped establish along the way.
Ninja Gaiden is credited with popularising the idea of in-game cutscenes to help a game tell a story as it proceeded, as well as the overall feel of the action platformer going forward. It has pretty much nothing to do with either the original arcade game or the Xbox reboot of the series, but the later titles all pay homage to their earlier counterparts in a few ways.
There’s also a Tiger Electronics LCD handheld adaptation of this, but probably the less said about that the better.
Shadow Dancer (Sega, 1990)
An oft-underappreciated entry in Sega’s Shinobi series, Shadow Dancer is a highly enjoyable platform action game in which not only can you fling shuriken at your foes, you can also hold down a button to set your dog on them.
Like other early installments in the Shinobi series, Shadow Dancer has more of a “run and gun” feel than being a beat ’em up thanks to its emphasis on ranged combat. The addition of the dog adds some interesting tactics, though; he can be used to throw enemies who would otherwise block your attacks off balance.
Shadow Dancer was originally an arcade game, but it’s probably best known for its Mega Drive version, which can be found as part of the Sega Mega Drive Classics collection for Switch, PS4 and Xbox One.
Ninja Commando (ADK, 1992)
While not the best game you’ll ever play — like many early Neo Geo titles, it suffers from some pretty severe balancing issues — Ninja Commando is nonetheless noteworthy for doing something a little different with the ninja theme.
Rather than adopting the side-scrolling hack-and-slash or beat ’em up formula, Ninja Commando instead unfolds as a top-down shoot ’em up with beat ’em up elements such as special moves triggered through directional and button combinations. Its name is appropriate; structurally, it takes some heavy cues from Capcom’s Commando and its numerous spiritual successors.
Ninja Commando can be played as part of the ADK Damashii pack, which is available for Japanese PlayStation 2, or worldwide on PS4.
The Ninja Warriors (Natsume, 1994)
This beauty of a game from Natsume is notable for its massive sprites, satisfying side-scrolling action and excellent soundtrack. It’s actually an enhanced and reimagined version of an earlier Taito coin-op from 1987 that was itself noteworthy for its Darius-style “ultrawidescreen” presentation using multiple monitors.
The Ninja Warriors is an interesting game in that it plays like a beat ’em up but it lacks the “2.5D” element of many of its contemporaries; rather than being able to move “in” and “out” of the background, you simply walk from side to side on a single plane. Rather than feeling like a limitation, however, this simply gives the game a very distinctive feel.
The original The Ninja Warriors was released for Super NES, but Natsume released an enhanced version for Nintendo Switch known as The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors. This latter version is absolutely the best way to play today.
Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (Acquire, 1998)
Our final game today is actually the one ninja-related game that acknowledges ninjas are supposed to be stealthy rather than rip-roaring badasses. Developed by Acquire, who are better known in more recent years for their Way of the Samurai and Akiba’s Trip series, Tenchu is credited with being one of the first games to help popularise stealth gameplay alongside its contemporary Metal Gear Solid.
In Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, you can take on the role of either Rikimaru or Ayame, each of whom has their own story to follow, but the same levels and missions to explore. The game was considered noteworthy for how its boss characters reacted differently to the player character depending on their gender — this was one of many ways in which the game acknowledged and explored Japanese history alongside its more fantastical elements.
There are notable differences between the different releases of Tenchu between regions; of particular note is the 1999 Japanese release known as Shinobi Gaisen, which featured a mission editor, and the 1999 Shinobi Hyakusen release, which featured a selection of 122 missions created by users of the Shinobi Gaisen editor.
So what are your favourite ninja-themed games? Let us know down in the comments!