80s Ninja Games

A look back at some Ninja games for the C64 and Arcade.
February 26, 2007
As winter drags on, like many of you, my thoughts turn to ninjas and ninja video games. In the eighties I had a slight obsession with ninjas fueled by martial arts movies, ninja magazines and comics, and ninja video games. I had originally thought that I would write an article about my favorite arcade machines, but then realized the dominant ninja-theme.

I will begin with a few games for the good old Commodore 64. Check out my other articles for more info on this holiest of holy computing machines:

80’s Toys for Young Nerds

Impossible Mission

Ninja (1986 – Mastertronic)

This appropriately titled game was simple and addictive. The graphics were pretty average for the time, but the music and game-play were enough to keep me coming back for more. Your mission was to explore each room of a temple working your way to the top floor, battling enemies along the way. There were a variety of moves at your disposal including kicks, and sword strikes. You could also throw knives and ninja stars to soften up your opponents. In some rooms there would be only one enemy to fight, but there were several occasions where the baddies would be stacked 4 deep on the other side of the room. I thought it was interesting that they would all stand there patiently waiting their turn and then approach you one at a time…just like the movies! If you get a chance, you should play this one if only to listen to the crazy-awesome music.

The Last Ninja (1987 – System 3)

You simply can’t talk about C64 ninja games without mentioning The Last Ninja. The problem is…I never had this game! I asked for it for Christmas one year but my parents accidentally purchased the IBM version. When we went to the store to return it, I got The Hobbit instead (also a good game). The Last Ninja was the first of 3 games that are considered to be the best games ever released for the Commodore. There are several great reviews over at a site called www.lemon64.com and I urge you to check them out. I did get it going on my C64 emulator, but I guess my brain has been poisoned by modern graphics and gaming technology…and I had trouble controlling the thing with the arrow keys on my laptop.

My love for the Commodore is everlasting, but there was a time in the later half of the 80’s where other technologies surpassed the graphics and game-play possibilities of the great C64. My parents had made it clear that a Nintendo was too expensive and game machines in general were a waste of time and money. Enter “The Two-Bit Bandit”!

Picture any nice summer day in the 1980’s. I grew up in a typical midsized Midwestern town and the best times were had during summer vacation. On certain weekday mornings, I would get up, get ready, hop on the old 10-speed and head to North Park Shopping Center. It was sort of an outdoor area behind my grade school with several shops, a grocery store, a theater, and a few restaurants. My first stop was TaeKwonDo class. Is it just me or was there a Martial Arts explosion in the mid eighties? Was it because of the Karate Kid? Well, my brother and sister were signed up so that meant I had to try it too. It wasn’t Ninjitsu but it would have to suffice.

"Sweep the leg."

After class, I would change back into my clothes and go a few doors down to the bookstore to purchase a G.I. Joe or Spiderman comic or Ninja magazine depending on what was out. But the last and greatest stop on my little outing was a dark and mysterious arcade called The Two-Bit Bandit. I can’t think of a better way to blow the little bit of cash that I made mowing lawns.
My mom wasn’t too crazy about me going to the arcade, so I always had a little catholic guilt going on inside my brain. It kind of made me feel like I was committing a crime but it also made it more exciting. The place was dimly lit and filled with odd noises and odd people. I spoke to no one, spent a little money at one machine and then moved on to the next. I therefore never got good at any one game.

Every game in the place looked and sounded amazing next to what I had at home. I always left wanting more and feeling a little let down but inspired at the same time. After the arcade, I would sometimes stop by my school, sit in the bleachers and read my new comic before heading home for lunch. Fond memories!

These days I often think it would be cool to have a basement full of arcade machines…but I know better. For now, emulators like MAME usually feed my retro-gaming hunger. If you don’t know what MAME is and you like old arcade games, you should check it out. Here are some great Ninja games that I discovered at the arcade.

Shinobi (Sega – 1987)

I had played a game similar to this one called Rolling Thunder, but because of my obsession with Ninjas at the time I liked this version better. The graphics in this game were pretty good for the late 80’s, but I think the game-play is what made it stand out.
You could jump up and down, but if you looked up you could jump up to a higher level. The basic attack was to throw ninja stars but you could also acquire a gun, and if enemies got too close you would slice them with a sword. You could also destroy everything on the screen using Ninja Magic. The bonus level was neat because you would throw ninja stars at enemies like you were dealing out a deck of cards. If you weren’t fast enough, a ninja would jump right in front of you.

Ninja Warriors (Taito – 1988)

Ninja Warriors is perhaps one of my favorite ninja-themed games from the late eighties. I later saw an Anime called Black Magic M-66 that seemed to have similar themes: crazy robot ninjas on the loose fighting against the military. It had three tv screens inside right next to each other so it was like having one really wide screen. The graphics were crisp, and the music was very catchy. This is the only arcade game I ever beat in the arcade. It cost my friend and I like 10 bucks or something to make it to the end. I played through most of it the other day and realized it involves a lot of killing military personnel with knives. Every once in awhile you have to fight these jumping cyborg things, a sword wielding female ninja, a tank, and a big guy with a mace. The characters are animated in a very cool way. You can tell someone spent a lot of time on it.

Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo – 1988)

This game is a classic and holds up very well. Your ninja could do the basic punch and kick, but you could also swing from poles, pick up weapons, flip off of walls, and throw enemies into breakable objects. I never made it too far in this game but it was fun playing through the first few levels over and over again. At one point in the early levels you had to cross a busy street (frogger style) which resulted in many deaths. The only bosses that I can remember are the sumo and the half-naked tree trunk wielding guy. The graphics and characters have a slightly cartoonish look to them and are well animated. Attention to detail is what makes this game stand out from the hundreds of side-scrolling beat ‘em ups.

Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja (Data East – 1988)

Everybody remembers this one. It had ninjas in it so it was instantly cool. One of many games in the 80’s where the hero is an over muscled vigilante hired to save the president or the president’s hot daughter (this could describe about 30 or so side-scrolling “beat ‘em ups” from the mid to late 80’s). This game had cool bosses including the fire-breathing Karnov (a character from another game). You could pick up various items including nunchucks, soda, and swords. I seem to remember your dude would say “got it” when you picked up an item, and of course at the end of each level he’d raise hit fist to the sky and yell “I’M BAD”.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Konami – 1989)

I was starting high school by the time the Turtles hit big and didn’t think it would be cool to become too big a fan. I enjoyed the cartoon and the game, and I had one of the toys…but I generally kept it quiet so as not to risk being dorky (teenagers are silly that way, or at least I was). This game is similar to Ninja Gaiden when in comes to game-play and attention to detail. The coolest thing is perhaps the 4-player action. You can team up with three of your friends and each take on a turtle persona. The screen would scroll to one side but also down which added a sense of bigness to the levels. Overall I enjoyed this game because it felt like you were in the cartoon. The game holds up well and offers a creative vision of the TMNT universe. This one is a must-have if you have MAME. Does anyone remember the TMNT pudding pies filled with green radio-active ooze?

I think one of the coolest things about being a teacher is the fact that I have snow days! I tell you, there is nothing better than hunkering down in front of the computer on a snow day and playing some old school ninja games with MAME. I urge you to enjoy a classic ninja game this winter.
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