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The 20 Best Ninja Games Ranked

While certain noted academics may define ninja only by their mammalian status, fighting all the time, and their tendency to flip out and kill people, we can assure you there's a lot more to quality ninjutsu than that (though they do help). Video games have long been the perfect medium to explore the beautiful, bloody spectrum of ninja badassery, and in celebration of a glorious history in the subtle arts of murder and persuasion, here are 20 of the best ninja-based titles ever created.

Ninja Spirit (Arcade/Turbo-Grafx 16)

What Ninja Spirit lacks in complexity and speed compared to some of its peers, it makes up for in sheer chaos. At any given moment, ten keen-to-kill ninja enemies, all tossing multiple shurikens, can be onscreen at once, and in the Arcade, one hit from ANY of them means your death. The bosses are massive demons of Japanese myth, and just as epic and deadly as one can imagine. Fortunately, you eventually get two phantom copies of your main character, and getting them in just the right place to wreak maximum havoc on anything that comes is one of many of the joys this underrated little gem gave the gamers fortunate enough to track this down.

Alex Kidd in Shinobi World (Sega Master System)

With his cool mutton chops and wild world full of painfully specific Japanese folklore, Alex Kidd is one of those mascots that time forgot. All of his exploits are stranded on the poor, underrated Sega Master System. It's even more of a shame considering his final outing, Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, is not just one of the best platformers in the series, with some wonderful earwormy chiptunes and a pole swing mechanic to zoom across levels, but also started life as a sort of chibi remake of the original Shinobi. That game's four bosses returned as cutesy versions. All that said, Alex Kidd in Shinobi World still delivered the fast paced action that ninja fans would expect.

Fruit Ninja (Mobile)

One of the touchstones (pun unintended) of mobile gaming, Fruit Ninja was the first example of a game that just couldn't have happened anywhere except mobile, and with a gimmick that almost a decade later captures a certain primal pleasure that even some of the games higher up on this list don't necessarily get right. The fact that it's all about eliminating delicious fruit with extreme prejudice doesn't change the fact that Fruit Ninja aims to do one thing, and does it well.

The Last Ninja (Commodore 64)

On the surface, The Last Ninja is yet another point-and-click adventure game on the Commodore 64. But spend any significant time with it, and you can see the conceptual seeds that would eventually blossom in games released decades later. You could target individual body parts during combat, a la Fallout's V.A.T.S. system. The game itself is one of the first truly open worlds in gaming, with its isometric view letting players move and backtrack pretty much anywhere in a given level. And for the first time, a full range of ninja weapons were granted to the player. Today it feels like a severe de-make of Assassin's Creed, and that's not a phrase one can apply to anything else made in 1987.

Shadow of the Ninja (NES)

One of the Nintendo Entertainment System's more underrated treasures, Shadow of the Ninja feels like the perfect hybrid between Contra and that way-out-there NES port of Strider. Jam-packed with weird and intense obstacles and an unforgiving difficulty curve, it's also, oddly, one of the few ninja games with co-op, allowing you to play as a male or — another rarity — a female ninja right from the outset.

Legend of the Mystical Ninja (SNES)

The infamous thief/assassin Ishikawa Goemon is essentially Japan's answer to Robin Hood, but the specifics of Goemon's life are possibly even more inseparably Japanese than Robin Hood is British. Suffice to say, the poor guy's pop cultural street cred is virtually nil in the West, except for his one lucky break, where Konami saw fit to bring Goemon's SNES debut to Western shores. And Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a hell of a starting point.

Part side-scrolling beat-em-up, part platformer, part RPG, and all very quirky, the game's weird Japanese design elements turned the grim legend (seriously, look up how that dude supposedly died and shudder) into one of the more endearing would-be mascots of Konami's heyday.

Shinobido: Way of the Ninja (PS2)

Shinobido: Way of the Ninja feels a LOT like Tenchu, which makes sense considering the same folks who birthed that series into existence jumped over to Acquire, Shinobido's developer. However, splitting from their former employers gave them free reign to experiment. Shinobido has our hero, a ninja with amnesia named Goh, wandering Japan aimlessly until he finds himself in a three-way standoff between three feudal lords, all looking for a guy to do their dirty work.

What follows is not your typical ninja stealth title. Yes, there's a lot of the good stuff of running, jumping, hiding, and slitting daimyo throats from the shadows. But each little action you take affects your respect from one of the Lords, kinda like a precursor to Shadow of Mordor/War's Nemesis system. It makes for a nice, thoughtful twist that, even after the Shadow titles, we haven't seen much of.

Warframe (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

Strictly speaking, Warframe isn't specifically about ninjas. It's more of a "if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck" sort of ninja game where you play as a race of lithe space warriors called the Tenno as they slice and shoot their way through the various races of interstellar bastards who want their heads. But there's no doubt once you start playing what the intent was, especially considering the extensive amounts of customization you can pour into your individual Tenno's blades, guns, and costume to make them your own special brand of lethal space-faring viper. Most shocking, however, is the fact that Warframe is a free-to-play title, and yet, in many ways, its a major, epic experience on par with and often surpassing the similar experience offered by Bungie's Destiny.

Mark of the Ninja (Xbox 360, PC)

Stealth titles with any sort of depth are typically 3D games, but Mark of the Ninja flies in the face of that. Cel-shaded platformers aren't anything new, but there are very few games that use light and shadow the way this does, portraying not just enemies as dangerous little cones to avoid, but limiting the ninja's vision as well. It's also one of the few games of its sort that allows for non-lethal options, in which the player can rely solely on stealth and wits to succeed. Combine that with a surprisingly compelling plot where the mission is less against the private military goons who've decided to exploit your clan's powers, but against the titular mark slowly driving your protagonist insane, and you've got one of the most distinctive ninja games of the last few years.

N+

One of the founding father titles of indie gaming's rise, N+ falls into that special category of stripped-down, brass-tacks gaming, where the simplicity of its visuals and controls belies an evil deceit that is out to ruin you by any means necessary. Floating and running around the grayscale levels feels  great, and the game relies on the simple pleasures of no-frills platforming to throw unimaginable obstacles, laser-precise death traps, and death-defying jumps at the player when they least expect it. However, the game's infinite lives means that jumping right back in and trying again is always a second away, and the irresistible lure of banging your head against the wall of a particular stage again and again is a hell of a drug.

Nightshade (PS2)

Shinobi and Nightshade on the PS2 are more brother and sister, creatively, than original and sequel. Nightshade copy-pastes everything great about Shinobi: the tricky platforming, the slick sword-and-shuriken based combat, great taste in scarves. The big difference lies in the Tate system, a gimmick where the player can kill multiple enemies in an area at once, each kill powering up their blade to the point where one slash can take down the most dangerous bosses in the game. It's a joy in Shinobi, but Nightshade takes that glorious little gimmick to new heights, where many of the best levels of the game require our hero Hibana to chain a series of mid-air kills to not just slay demons and look good doing it but to survive.

Shadow Warrior [2013] (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

The ongoing story of Lo Wang — yes, really, that's your dude's name — always tended to live in the shadow of Duke Nukem, with a similar humor, look, and feel. While understandable seeing as the first games in the series were built using Duke Nukem's engine, the 2013 reboot gives Lo Wang the spotlight entirely. Given that Shadow Warrior has Wang facing off against a pantheon of pissed-off Japanese demons and their pissed-off drama, Wang doesn't just rely on his twitch-reflex ninja skills to slice and dice his way to his goals, but a hefty arsenal of pure steel firepower. And yet, the game never tips the scales too far in either direction, giving the game a nice balance of elegant, deadly ninjutsu and gleeful gunplay.

TMNT IV: Turtles In Time (SNES)

There were almost a half-dozen games starring the Ninja Turtles prior to TMNT IV, and goodness knows how many dozens since. None of them ever hit the perfect sweet spot that Turtles In Time does, though. It manages to capture all the personality of the cartoons with its bright color scheme and wild animation. The time-travel hook gave Konami license to get creative with the endless legion of Foot Soldiers and series villains. The combat itself feels divine with every hit, slam, and thrash. And three words: Neon Night Riders. Turtles In Time is simply the ideal way to step into the Turtles' shells for a little while, and it's remained just as compulsively playable for almost two decades.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)

Developer Vanillaware has pretty much cornered the market on pairing lavish, breathtaking 2D artwork with old-school side-scrolling beat-em-up gameplay, sprinkled with a bit of JRPG fairy dust for extra flavor. Unfortunately, while Odin Sphere and Dragon's Crown get most of the attention, one of their best efforts, Muramasa, has faded into memory, which is a shame because it's maybe the strongest effort of the three.

Vanillaware's fast-paced, lightning-quick combat is a better tonal fit with the Edo-period ninja story and aesthetic, which is captivating in its own right — involving a princess possessed by a dead ronin, and an amnesiac ninja who accidentally unleashes hell — while also delivering one of the most impressively detailed and extravagant visual tellings of Japanese folklore in all gaming.

Strider (Arcade)

Within the first ten minutes of hitting start, Strider Hiryu hang glides into hyperfuturistic Russia, fighting off mech spiders with a giant rapid-slicing blade and getting an assist from his robot tiger friend before battling a flying caterpillar wielding a hammer and sickle made up of the Russian politburo.

That sentence has no analog in gaming, and yet it's just a small taste of just how conceptually bananas Strider gets as things go along. Your constant in this crazy world is Hiryu himself, sprinting down avalanched mountains, making too-cool poses while flipping through the air, and climbing up and down the walls in his quest to take down Grandmaster Meio, one of the best and most intimidating bosses ever created. Seriously, nothing from the 8- and 16-bit eras has a line in it as great as "All sons of old gods, DIE!"

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven (PS2)

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven is the epitome of a certain style of ninja experience, a fine wine meant to be sipped carefully and thoughtfully rather than guzzled. Rikimaru and Ayame are designed to kill silently and invisibly, like in most stealth ninja titles, but there's a patience and precision involved that no other title perfected like this — least of all, the Tenchu sequels that followed.

More than this, however, that patience is rewarded, as new characters become available, operating on the same principles of stealth, the silent kill, and treacherous tactics against one's enemies. The story's how and why become more intriguing as the game plods along, reaching a climax in the present day with a job probably better suited to Agent 47 than an Edo-period ninja. Even despite its sometimes bratty camera, Wrath of Heaven is a refined experience that demands respect.

Ninja Gaiden Black (Xbox)

It still seems unconscionable that Ninja Gaiden was ever gone as long as it was between Ninja Gaiden III on NES and the Xbox port (a 12 year gap, to be specific, and no, Ryu showing up in Dead or Alive doesn't count), but when it returned, it returned with a vengeance. While certainly fairer in difficulty than the NES titles, Ryu Hayabusa's Xbox adventure Ninja Gaiden Black is utterly gorgeous, but also utterly unmerciful in punishing mistakes, though it also rewards skillful attacks and tactics. All together, these make for one of the most visceral and cathartic combat systems to this day. The penalty for not mastering that combat system down to the last button press is cold, swift death. As it should be.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)

Even as previous Metal Gears came off resembling a dream logic retelling of a Tom Clancy novel, they are milquetoast, teetotalling straights compared to the hallucinogenic cyberninja absurdity that is Revengeance. Platinum Games has no pretenses towards making a larger point with their take on Metal Gear, exemplified right upfront by focusing an entire game on everyone's least favorite Metal Gear character that isn't a crying Otacon. But Platinum Games commits, with gameplay that recalls the best and most exhilarating bits of the Xbox Ninja Gaiden titles, goosed up with a visually spectacular bullet-time multi-slash mechanic. Plus, it features all the tongue-in-cheek and freewheeling craziness that's ever fallen out of Hideo Kojima's skull. When Raiden poses, late in the game, two seconds from ripping a persistent enemy to shreds and growls "THE RIPPER IS BACK!", we're laughing with AND at him.

Ninja Gaiden (NES)

The NES has no shortage of speedy action-platformers with lethal enemies and magical powers, but the original Ninja Gaiden remains in an echelon all by itself. Not just because it is legendary for being one of the hardest games on the system — and deliberately so instead of accidentally, like many other NES titles — but because it set the bar in how this type of game is even presented.

Seeing Ken Hayabusa fight and die against the light of a full moon is still one of the most enduring images in gaming, and while Ninja Gaiden wasn't the first game to use cutscenes, it was the first to perfect them. It made the idea of movie-quality stories in games not only possible, but desirable, bolstered by one of the coolest, most evocative video game soundtracks ever composed.

Shinobi III (Genesis)

Take everything great about each of the games above, and cram them into one handy package. That's Shinobi III. Everything you want out of a ninja game is here: the flashy attacks, the speed, the acrobatics, the mystical arts, the swordplay, the shurikens, the endless horde of masked enemies to lay to waste. But Shinobi III refused to limit itself, and stuck our hero, Joe Musashi, in an insanely wide range of wild scenarios, from serene bamboo forests, to a laboratory that seems to only manufacture living brain tissue, to surfing during a missile assault. Somehow none of it seems out of place, and all of it, no matter what, lets the player be the most badass ninja on the planet at the push of a button.