Despite the generally stylistic and cool appearance of ninjas in video games, there’s a severe lack of truly memorable ones. Joe Musashi, the protagonist of Shinobi, certainly paved the way for the appeal of sleek ninjas dressed in black with almost ungodly supernatural abilities and stamina. It wasn’t until 1988 that the release of Hideo Yoshizawa’s Ninja Gaiden on the NES would introduce the world to one of the most iconic ninjas in modern gaming – Ryu Hayabusa. Having an impressive history in the franchise that spans decades, Ryu’s awesome design and cool persona made him the ideal definitive ninja of gaming, leaping into other titles outside of the game-changing Ninja Gaiden series and well into the consensus of avid gamers hoping to find the true successor to Shinobi.
Ryu Hayabusa made his debut in the 1988 arcade game, Ninja Gaiden, released on the NES. While games were slowly becoming more focused on telling compelling stories in that era, Ninja Gaiden was among the first to give its shadowy protagonist an emotional backstory. After the disappearance of his father, Ken Hayabusa, Ryu is instructed via a mysterious letter to travel to the United States where the first clue of tracking down Ken would begin.
Ninja Gaiden on the NES borrowed heavily from the more refined side-scrolling ninja-themed video games at the time, including the popular Shinobi which had just been released a year prior. However, what set Ninja Gaiden apart from its predecessors was its eye-opening difficulty. Only a year after Contra had blown expectations out of the water with its brand of insane challenge, Ninja Gaiden almost doubled up on it – something fulfilled to its potential in the immensely challenging and satisfying 1990 sequel, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos.
Subsequent entries into the series followed, each further expanding upon the character of Ryu and the lore of the world introduced in Ninja Gaiden. The series stuck to a more traditional form of storytelling that blended modern elements while remaining true to the interesting history of ninjas in Japan. Ryu was the combination of a sleek modern leather-strapped ninja whose abnormally quick reflexes and inhumane speed and strength paid great homage the mythology surrounding ninjas at the time, or more accurately called ninjutsu. The series saw a revamp with the 1992 Sega Master System that overhauled the previous games’ canon in favour of telling a more basic narrative involving Ryu seeking revenge for the murder of his ninja clan and entire home village. The continual shift in Ryu’s origins was vital to his appeal as a deeply layered and multi-dimensional character, including him coming into the possession of the elusive and legendary Dragon Sword which remained a staple of his character design.
Ryu Hayabusa expanded his appearance in video games outside of the Ninja Gaiden series through another Koei Tecmo fighter titled Dead Or Alive. Ryu was once again given a compelling story arc intertwining with other fighters in the DOA universe, shooting him into international stardom. While Ninja Gaiden evolved into a far grittier, sleeker third-person hack and slash game going into the PlayStation 2 and beyond (and the difficulty remaining as boisterously challenging as the original), Ryu’s inclusion in an expanding universe of fighting games that catered to a wider demographic appeal is what cemented his cult status as gaming’s ultimate ninja.
Ryu Hayabusa is widely recognized as gaming’s most beloved and cool ninja. His sphere of influence, not only in the Ninja Gaiden series but Dead Or Alive as well, stylistically pioneered the calm, collected but badass ninja archetype that made alternative icons like Raven from the Tekken series so appealing. While his intricate backstory may warrant as much digging as Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series, the lore and rich backstories behind the character always kept up the mystery of Ryu’s elusive, subdued and greatly detailed characterization – an icon worth its grit.