Ninja Gaiden by Tecmo, arcade release in 1988.
Ninja Gaiden - one of those videogame phenomena that has maintained a presence in the landscape of videogaming culture for decades now. Many gamers still recognize and love this series - yet like many of its brethren, it had somewhat lopsided origins. Let's investigate the birth of this legend!
The very first Ninja Gaiden video game that most people were aware of was the first part of the NES trilogy. A Castlevania-esque action romp, our hero traveled the world killing lots of other ninjas and creatures, set against an interesting backdrop of a story. Prior to this home console exploit, there was an arcade predecessor - not unusual was the fact that like many of its peers, the original arcade had almost nothing to do with it's console spin-off save for a name and some aesthetics.
The quarter-eating arcade machine was styled much more similarly to the sensational Double Dragon arcade game which was all the rage at the time (that game was cleaning up!) and Ninja Gaiden was Tecmo's example of following suit. Progress across a horizontally scrolling playfield, kill some enemies, move onto the next area, kill some more bad guys, defeat a boss, repeat until the game ends. Pretty simple. Mix it up with some fancy footwork and combo moves when possible.
Though the gameplay wasn't exactly terribly complicated, when the game released it was quite the looker. Whereas many other games in the arcade were still rather bright and cheery looking, Ninja Gaiden was a mean, gritty action experience that felt like the real deal - enemies didn't explode when you killed them! It wasn't particularly gruesome or anything like that, but compared to what else was available this did feel much more mature.
The game was also beautifully rendered, each level was wonderfully illustrated with lots of color and detail, bringing to life this disgusting, filth-riddled city. For graphics fans of the day, Ninja Gaiden delivered. It wasn't so much about exposition, as it was about solid and interestingly detailed environments that could hang with the best of what anyone else was releasing at the time. It looked like Tecmo was trying to stake a claim.
As mentioned, the gameplay was simple. Walk, jump, punch, kick - that was about it. You could grab onto things and swing occasionally, and (irritatingly) though your ninja always kept one hand on his Katana sword, he'd only unleash it - temporarily - when you picked up a power-up. When this happened, you felt like you had a true advantage over your legions of foes and would cut and slice through them like sticks of butter - it felt really cool.
As noted, the game was historically replaced in most gamer's minds with the console versions - and though some PC ports and such released, a proper conversion of the original arcade never really materialized. Strangely, a version showed up on the Atari Lynx of all places, some years later - a system famous for its lack of any developer support (seriously, almost nobody released titles for this thing except the original hardware dev!) The Lynx version was understandably a mere shadow of its arcade big brother, yet it did do an admirable job of preserving the gameplay and colorfulness of the source material - it was quite fun to play through, they actually did a really good job!
Ninja Gaiden's debut might not catch many modern gamer's eyes, but for some of us this was the pure definition of cool back in the late 80s. If you're interested, grab a buddy and spend a Saturday afternoon journeying through back alleys in NYC killing thugs and hooligans - it's a blast!