Ninja Gaiden (Prototype, Nintendo Entertainment System)
In early 2012, a man from Roseville, California by the name of Matt Lewis contacted me claiming to have a Nintendo Entertainment System prototype of the original Ninja Gaiden.
Aside from the word “Ninja” in marker on the front, the game’s cartridge was entirely bare, but nestled inside was an official NES-SKEPROM-01 development board with garish orange stickers over the EPROM chips (Tecmo had a penchant for distinctively colored adhesives).
Lewis said that Ninja Gaiden, as well as two other prototypes, Blaster Master and Sky Kid, had been in his family for 20 years. A relative who used to work at Paramount Pictures was given all three back in the day after a chance meeting with a Nintendo representative. Why Nintendo would have been on a Paramount studio lot is not known, but one thing is for sure: These weren’t leftover props from The Wizard, as that was a Universal film, and Fred Savage most likely walked off with everything on the set anyway.
After two decades of collecting dust, Lewis decided that it was time for them to go to a new home. Blaster Master and Sky Kid had long been dumped, so they were nothing more than collectibles at this point, but Ninja Gaiden stood out in that its data was never publicly backed up. In fact, after searching extensively, I could not find any mention of a Ninja Gaiden prototype being in private hands before then. I inquired if he might consider saving the data; he answered by saying that he only wanted to sell. His asking price? $500.
He proceeded to place the game on eBay to some fanfare, with even G4TV promoting the sale, but the listing was removed shortly thereafter on the grounds that beta software is not officially allowed on the popular online auction block (link). In the end, Ninja Gaiden was sold privately to a person who also lived in California only 20 minutes away.
That individual turned out to be Danny “Armageddon Potato” Tatro.
“I didn’t even know this was for sale, as I thought it had long since been sold, until I saw his ad for it on Craigslist,” Danny said. “I couldn’t believe we lived so close to each other, so I told him I would be interested in purchasing the game for the listed price.”
Lewis had told me that he could not find any differences in the prototype. What he did not tell me was that his lack of gamer skills prevented him from making it past Act 2.
Danny asked Lewis if he could do a playthrough of the game before they made a deal so that he could look for changes.
“I told him I was pretty familiar with the game and could probably blow through the game in about 20 minutes,” Danny said. “He actually didn’t seem to believe me, and when I showed up, he actually kind of told me I could test it but he didn’t want it to take too long.”
Danny subsequently pulled a Jimmy Woods in front of Lewis’s eyes, putting all of his Ninja Gaiden years of training at work to take on the ultimate challenge.
“After the first two levels went by, we were both glued to the screen, and I think he realized I wasn’t kidding. I remember reading most of the text from the cutscenes aloud hoping to find differences from my memory.”
It all paid off in the end, as Danny did spot some rather intriguing changes later in the game.
Ever an enthusiastic video game prototype collector, Danny had been looking for an opportunity to publish his findings and release the binary file for all to play. Not only that, but he had built up a collection of other prototypes in the meantime, which he also wanted to set free.
“‘Ninja Gai-den!’ What else is there to say about such an epic Nintendo Entertainment System classic?” Danny said. “It’s among some of the most remembered Nintendo games, and one of the most challenging to beat. The mix of storytelling and platform action was revolutionary for its time. The series is still around even to this day and lives on through newer consoles! For the most part, this prototype is identical to the released Ninja Gaiden. All of the levels are there, and everything is in its place; however, there is a scene near the end of game with some text differences.”
Two curse words, “damn” and “hell,” appear in the prototype’s dialogue.
“These were most likely removed due to Nintendo’s infamous censorship policies,” Danny opined. “Something even more interesting is that in retail copies of Ninja Gaiden, at the addresses 0x1AA0A and 0x1AB27, this same text appears! These addresses contain an earlier version of the script (link). Why Tecmo left this portion of the early script hidden in retail copies of Ninja Gaiden is unknown. Perhaps this prototype is the version Nintendo reviewed prior to asking the company to edit it? Is it possible that Tecmo changed this text before letting Nintendo review it? Why then would they include those words in the first place?”
Danny then came across a game-breaking glitch that occurs after defeating Jaquio’s first form.
“The game counted down my score, and then reset the game! A loud sustained note from the last sound played echoed in my ears as I watched the title screen come up again.”
Danny wondered if Tecmo did not have Jaquio’s final form finished at the time of this build, or if this was a measure to prevent players from seeing the ending before the game was officially released. He decided to hack the prototype to force the final boss fight to appear.
“The whole battle is here in all its glory,” Danny said. “Even the ending of the game is present. I guess they didn’t want anyone actually beating the game yet, or seeing the ending.”
Whatever the reason, we should be damn thankful for Danny to have the courtesy to preserve the history of one hell of a game.