In retrospect, The Ninja Warriors reads like a compendium of just about every violent eighties pop culture staple you could care to name. It has a lone warrior fighting against a militarised horde, much like the ultimate Reagan-era hero, John Rambo. It has that late-eighties obsession with ninjas that also gave us the likes of Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi. But what’s cooler than a straightforward, kunai-throwing, katana-swinging ninja? Why, a cyborg ninja, of course, which ties this side-scrolling brawler in with another cult eighties touchstone: James Cameron’s low-budget sci-fi shocker, The Terminator.
Released at a time when arcades were crammed with similar action games, The Ninja Warrior’s most immediately striking feature was its ultra-wide field of view. Like Taito’s own Darius before it, The Ninja Warriors used three monitors and a couple of mirrors to give the illusion of one seamless, scrolling landscape. It’s a technical feat that doesn’t add hugely to the gameplay itself, but does at least provide the player with an extra second or so to clock the endless waves of soldiers who flood the screen from left and right.
A far more captivating innovation was The Ninja Warriors’ damage system. As your title character strode fearlessly on, they’d inevitably take hits from the array of bullets, knives, and gleaming canine teeth that crowded the screen on each stage. A traditional life bar kept you apprised of how close to death you were, sure, but the more obvious gauge was the damage displayed on your cyborg ninja: if they took a shot to the chest, the gleaming metal beneath would be exposed. An exploding ordnance to the head would reveal a grinning skull. If you were doing really badly, then your ninja’s entire body would be reduced to a striding metal skeleton straight out of The Terminator.
This might not sound like much in a modern age of detailed 3D character models and elaborate death animations, but in 1987, The Ninja Warriors’ increasingly bedraggled assassins were fairly unique. Before this, perhaps the only other game where you could see the damage to your character’s body was 1985’s Ghosts ’n Goblins (see Wireframe #14’s Killer Feature), though that took the comical form of armour flying off rather than grisly, physical injury.
The Ninja Warriors’ effect looked cool, yes, but it also gave you a connection to your character once the initial novelty wore off – getting to the end of the stage without having them denuded of flesh became a goal in itself, especially as, in the bustle of an amusement arcade, passers-by could look over your shoulder and see at a glance just how well (or poorly) you were doing. A cyborg ninja almost reduced to a skeleton was a far more striking visual than a dwindling life bar, after all.
The Ninja Warriors’ damage system added to the game’s anime-style feel of hacking and slashing nimbly through an entire army. Its obvious progenitor was Konami’s Green Beret, released in 1985, which also involved slicing and dicing your way through entire army bases of doomed soldiers. But Taito’s dedication to upping the pace and flow, in addition to its then-impressive attention to detail in sprite design, made it a major step forward: as well as the battle damage, check out the curlicues of blood that issue forth as you slay another enemy, or the way second playable character Kunoichi’s hair swishes back and forth as she struts through the battlefield. In terms of that effortlessly cool, anime swagger, the only late-eighties ninja game that really came close was Capcom’s Strider (which was, appropriately enough, also a manga series).
Of course, none of this is to say that The Ninja Warriors was a particularly deep game, nor one that you’d want to play for more than a few minutes at a time. But like all good arcade games, The Ninja Warriors was designed to thrill you in the moment: in exchange for a shiny coin from your pocket, Taito’s game offered you the chance to hop into the tabi shoes of an implacable killing machine, that absolutely would not stop, ever, until it was dead.
Taito / 1987 / Arcade, PC Engine, Various