The American Era – Japanese games on the Atari Video Computer System

Until the mid 1980s, console gaming was dominated by the American company Atari, and their home platform the Video Computer System, or VCS for short.

Ports of Atari’s own arcade games were the main selling points of the system, alongside Atari’s made-for-home efforts and eventually games by the first third party developer, Activision.

The VCS was not officially supported in Japan in the 70s (it was eventually released in 1983 as the 2800, far too late), but was sub-distributed in the country by Epoch, who also had their own line of consoles at the time. Nintendo was still releasing their single game Color TV Game series consoles. Japan was pretty much just a minor regional market in the grand scheme of things.

However, this changed in 1978, when Space Invaders by Taito became the biggest video game hit of all time to that point.

It was so big in Japan that entire arcades opened dedicated to that single game, but it was a huge hit everywhere in the world where games were played. Space Invaders was the start of what would eventually become Japanese dominance of the video game industry.

An ‘Invader House’ in Japan

It was ported to the VCS in 1980 in the first ever licensing deal, and became the killer app for the system.

It was a decent port that resembled the arcade game well.

And was packed in with every console, leading sales to increase substantially.

From then on, all the biggest games seemed to come from Japan. Nacmo’s Puck Man (renamed Pac Man for the west) was the next big name, followed by Nintendo’s Donkey Kong.

Another small Japanese firm named Sega were also making a name for themselves too, particularly with racing games like Monaco GP and Turbo. Having previously made mechanical arcade games, Sega games were known for fancy custom arcade hardware.

Steering wheels and sit down cabinets were Sega’s calling card.

All these Japanese companies’ games made their home debuts on American systems. Pac Man had an infamously bad VCS port which was the start of a downward trajectory for Atari.

Pac Man? Is that you?

Coleco managed to sign up the rights for Donkey Kong and several Sega games for their Colecovision system, but also published them on the VCS. Though the ageing VCS hardware and shoddy ports did not do the games justice.

This was the last time for decades Nintendo and Sega games were officially published on the same platform, though some of Sega’s games turned up on Nintendo platforms in roundabout ways, such as Sunsoft’s publishing of some Sega games on the Famicom.

And thanks to Nintendo taking over Japan and then the world with the Famicom/NES, and then Nintendo or Sony winning every generation since, to this day Japanese consoles have dominated. Though admittedly western software has regained sales dominance worldwide in the last decade.

One final interesting note is that due to some licensing deals of the era, a Nintendo game was released on Atari VCS that never saw a release elsewhere. A 1981 Nintendo game called Sky Skipper was never released in arcades following poor reviews in location testing.

But a port by Parker Brothers made its way onto Atari’s system.

The port is not too bad, considering the hardware.

Sky Skipper was never released or ported to any other platform for 35 years, until it was finally released as part of the Arcade Archives series on Nintendo Switch in 2018.

Shortly after release of Sky Skipper on Nintendo Switch, I was #8 in the world on the high score table. I’m sure scores have exploded since then…

First Edition Black Stripe/’Germany’ model Sega SG-1000 (エスジー・セン)

A while ago I got something rather special, the original ‘Black Stripe’ edition of the Sega SG1000. It’s also known as the ‘Germany’ model since it features a front panel with three colours that match the German flag.

This machine is somewhat analogous to the first edition square buttons Famicom model, in that it was the first ever model of the first Sega console, produced as a short initial run, but was quickly replaced by a revised model which became more ubiquitous. As such the majority of original SG1000 consoles feature the revised red/blue colour motif matching the blue Sega logo.

This one was in pretty rough shape physically, and was sold as ‘untested’. But it powered up fine.

And it booted and played a game perfectly the first time!

It obviously needed a good cleaning. For comparison here it was lined up with my restored square buttons Famicom.

On a side note, now that I have both true first edition models I should probably revise my 1983 Nintendo/Sega Face off article.

So I set out to restore it visually in the usual way.

In the meantime, I inspected the board and found something interesting.

It’s such an early model, Sega was revising the PCBs by hand! Later revisions had these trace fixes integrated into the PCB.

And here’s the restored console.

The label on the controller has seen better days.

But the main unit is now in pretty nice condition.

Finally, some glamour shots with its younger brother.

Sega Mark III Telecon Pack (テレコンパック)

The Telecon Pack is a radio frequency broadcaster for the Mark III.

Sega really went nuts with the accessories in the 80s, but this one makes a lot of sense from a Japanese perspective. In Japan, consoles were designed to sit near the player, and run a long cord to the television. This is the reason Japanese controller cords are so short, and why the SG1000, Mark III and Master System have the pause button on the console – because it was assumed you’d have the console next to you on when playing.

The Telecon Pack would allow you to have the console on a side table at the back of the room with power cord tucked away, and avoid needing a wire to the television for the video and audio.

It connects via the AV port, and then broadcasts the composite signal via a Japanese TV channel.

It originally came with a satellite dish you could plug into your TV for reception, which I don’t have right now.

Picture courtesy of Sega Retro

But it actually works fine with a regular television antenna – as long as the TV can tune in Japanese stations. My current TV can, and the results are surprisingly decent. Powering up one of my favourites Makai Retsuden:

RGB via Framemeister for comparison below:

It also works fine with the FM adapter, which has the composite signal passed through the adapter cord.

It looks super neat this way.

FM adapter plus Telecon pack on Mark III is the original Sega Voltron console.

Grand Master Sega Voltron Challenge – Telecon Pack to Game Gear TV Tuner

So now we have a Sega console that broadcasts, and a Sega console that can accept broadcasts. Time for the ultimate combo!

The only Japanese TV tuner I have is from the white Game Gear, but unfortunately the white Game Gear needs repair, so I cannot make an all white Sega Voltron.

So I’ll sub in a working recapped Game Gear. I touched the TV tuner’s aerial to the Telecon pack’s aerial for maximum reception.

And there we have it.

Is it the least convenient way possible to officially play Mark III games? Almost certainly.

Sega Steering Wheel Handle Controller SH-400 (ハンドルコントローラ)

Here’s a pretty cool piece – the Sega Steering Wheel Handle Controller (ハンドルコントローラ)

It was designed for the SG1000, which had a few racing games like Safari Race

As shown on the side of the box.

And it was clearly styled to match the SG1000 II

But personally I think it’s best suited to playing Outrun – with FM audio – on the Mark III!



Mark III set up and ready to rock.

To be honest it’s slightly annoying to use, because Outrun requires you to hold one of the buttons to accelerate. But it oozes 80s charm, and this was the premium ‘Sega at home’ experience of the mid 80s.

GG-WHITE – The Rare White Sega Game Gear (セガゲームギア)

Here is a quite rare and valuable item, the GG-WHITE set. They were not sold and were only given to Sega employees or developers, according to Sega Retro.
It comes in a custom case with matching accessories.

Including of course a Japanese TV Tuner.

Unfortunately this one doesn’t work, and needs to be recapped like most Game Gears.

My go-to is the red model, which was one of the last releases in Japan and used better capacitors, so still works fine.

Well, as fine as a Game Gear ever did…

But it’s pretty nice to have put all the white Sega consoles together! Though I forgot my SG1000s for this picture…

Game Box Protectors – Japanese Sizes

I’m a great believer in game box protectors. With vintage games only getting older, anything that helps them (and their related paraphernalia) to stay in great condition without being fully archived is a great investment.

I recently got some box protectors for my Japanese Game Boy/Game Boy Color games. There are two sizes for Japanese Game Boy games, the original size which are very small, and a later size which is about 4/5 of the ‘standard’ Famicom box size. This later size continued through the Game Boy Color era too.

Previously I had stored my small Japanese Game Boy games in Japanese Game Boy Advance protectors, which were okay in one direction, but way too big in the other two.

Similarly, I kept my larger Japanese Game Boy games in Famicom box protectors, which was a closer fit but still quite a lot of room at the top.

It’s great to finally have my Game Boy games secure in snug fitting protectors.

Adaptations for less common sizes

I was glad to find these Japanese Game Boy sizes, as a good fit is important for protection. It’s hard (or impossible) to find decent box protectors for less common box sizes, so here are some adaptations of sizes designed for other purposes that I use. While usually not perfect, they are good enough for solid protection without too much internal movement.

Japanese Game Boy Advance size works very well for the ‘mid size’ Famicom boxes

Only a small amount of room to move.

Western Game Boy protectors obviously work perfectly for Virtual Boy boxes.

NES protectors work nearly perfectly for the large size Konami Famicom games.

The unique Gun Sight box is nearly an exact match for Euro NES size protectors.

Famicom protectors work okay for small SG1000 games. It’s not really the right size in any direction and is very tight, but protects okay.

Large SG1000 boxes are a perfect match for an older style ‘too big’ NES protector size I found.

And these new small Japanese GB work very well for Famicom Mini GBA games

And finally, I’ve recently tried Nintendo 64 cartridge protectors on my small box Famicom games.

The fit is not perfect, much like the SG1000 games in large box Famicom protectors, they’re too tight in thickness, but too large in other directions, so they fit, but are somewhat tight. Until there is a better option, it’s a decent solution.

Customs

I had customs done for all these SG1000/Mark III box sizes. It’s a fully one off for Alex Kidd BMX (it’s the only box of that size), but a few each for the two card game sizes and big box Mark III gold.

Unfortunately the producer of these customs has quit the business, so I’m on the lookout for a new producer, if anyone knows of one!

Sega games on Nintendo consoles – a history.

Nintendo and Sega first crossed paths as rivals in the arcade business, and this spilled over into the console business when they both released their first home console on the same day.

Unfortunately for Sega, Nintendo well and truly won round 1, and not having a great income stream from their consoles, Sega allowed their games to be released on competing systems like Nintendo’s Famicom and NEC’s PC Engine. The games were published by third parties, but nontheless there were several official Famicom/NES releases where the Sega logo could be seen on a title screen.

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By the late 80’s everything had changed however. Sega’s third console the Mega Drive was doing  very well, and was eventually a solid competitor to the Famicom/NES and later Super Famicom/SNES. As a result, the concept of Sega on Nintendo (or vice versa) faded from memory as a possibility.

Outside of dodgy Famicom pirates of course…

But by the late 90s, Sega was in a bad position again. All their Mega Drive add-ons had failed to gain decent marketshare, as had their Game Boy competitor the Game Gear. And their latest main console, the Saturn, had been a borderline disaster. While it managed to establish a decent niche in Japan (even outselling the Nintendo 64), their previously strong marketshare in the west had crashed. Their entire legacy rested on the hopes of the new Dreamcast console.

As a result, their publishing rules started to relax again, and they allowed other non-competing platforms to see their crown jewel property Sonic. In 1997 a terrible version of Sonic Jam was released on the Game.com, a terrible console by Tiger Electronics. More notably, Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure was released on SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket Color in late 1999.

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On March 31st, 2001, the battle was no more. Sega discontinued the Dreamcast, and started developing games for the remaining platform holders, including Nintendo. The first release was a port of Chu Chu Rocket to Game Boy Advance. The end of the very same year the previously unthinkable had already happened – An official Sonic game on Nintendo.

Two Sonic games were released on December 20 2001. Sonic Advance on Game Boy Advance

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And Sonic Adventure 2 on GameCube. In a strange twist of fate, Sonic actually beat Mario to a new Nintendo console, as it would be another six months until Super Mario Sunshine.

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It went on from there, and the next Sonic game, while multiplatform, was designed primarily for the Nintendo GameCube. SegaNintendo_8975

But for long term fans of both companies, it really really hit home when in 2003 Sega developed a Nintendo game.

This splash screen blew my mind the first time I saw it.

The game? F-Zero GX. And it was one of the greatest games of the generation, and still a killer looking and playing title today.SegaNintendo_8974

Technically that was about it for Sega. In 2003 they were taken over my Pachinko company Sammy and have continued as an upper-mid-tier third party developer. And over a decade later, despite varied game quality, Sonic is a strong seller on Nintendo.

Who would have thought?

 

Neo Geo Pocket and Pocket Color (ネオジオポケットカラ)

By the mid 90s, pretty much everyone had given up attempting to compete with Nintendo in handheld video games. Nintendo had seen off every competitor quite easily in the early years, and in the mid to late 90s the release of the first Pokemon games started a new handheld boom period for them.

So in 1998, with the original Pokemon explosion just rolling out worldwide, a struggling SNK thought they’d give it a go, and released a handheld partner to their Neo Geo home consoles – the Neo Geo Pocket. The platform ran through three models in its short life between 1998 and 2001, and while now a footnote on gaming history, it managed to be a worthwhile Game Boy alternative and is now quite a nice little platform to collect.

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The three Neo Geo Pocket models

In terms of capability, the system is somewhat comparable to the Game Boy Color, but what sets it apart from your average handheld is its focus on the fighting game genre, which until then was always quite weak on handhelds.

To facilitate the easier control of fighting games, SNK developed a mini joystick to use as the directional controller instead of a dpad. Feeling somewhere between a genuine joystick and the rather excellent floating dpad of the Sega Saturn controller, the ‘clicky stick’ takes up more profile than a dpad would, but it’s simply a fantastic little controller, much better than dpads for fighting games, and makes playing the handheld a unique experience.

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The original model used a black and white LCD like the original Game Boy, but was quite shortlived, as unfortunately for SNK Nintendo had just released the Game Boy Color to great fanfare. It was followed quite rapidly with the backward compatible Neo Geo Pocket Color, which used a similar non-backlit reflective colour LCD display to Nintendo’s machine. SNK attempted to respect early adopters, and most games continued to be compatible with the original black and white model, which probably held certain games back somewhat. While the original was only released in Japan and Asia, the colour model was also released in Europe and the US.

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The initial colour model is slightly larger in every dimension than the original. But there is also a final Japan-only revision, the Neo Geo Pocket Color ‘slim’ model.

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Each model came in a variety of colours.

The slim is comparable to the original black and white machine’s size, and has a slightly sharper, higher contrast screen. It’s definitely the best model.

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The system has an odd two battery design. In a similar fashion to Sega’s Saturn and Dreamcast it uses a button battery to save console settings, and like those systems it has a bios with some basic built in software like a calendar.

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Of course also like those systems, it has a nag screen about a dead battery, and asks you to set the date when the sub battery has died.

At least it doesn't beep like a VMU...
At least it doesn’t beep like a VMU…

Black and white games can be ‘colourised’ on colour models in a similar manner to original Game Boy games on a GBC, except that the choice is made and saved on the bios screen, instead of selecting via a button combination at boot.

A rather nice official pouch was also available for the slim model.
A rather nice official pouch was also available for the slim model.

The games came in extremely cool little cases fashioned after the Neo Geo AES ‘Shockboxes’.

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At least they did in Japan and Europe. The USA got basic cardboard boxes, and unfortunately late in the life of the system the Japanese games moved to cardboard as well.

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Frustratingly the cardboard boxes are thinner and slightly taller then the mini shockboxes, so the two types of game packaging don’t like up nicely next to each other on a shelf.

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While the system is mostly famous for the handheld versions of many SNK classics such as Samurai Spirits, King of Fighters and Metal Slug, it actually received some support from third parties as well, such as Puzzle Bobble Mini from Taito and a pretty nice version of Pac Man from Namco.

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Quite famously, Sega released a Sonic game on the platform, Sonic Pocket Adventure. A semi-remix of Sonic The Hedgehog 2, it’s probably still the greatest original handheld Sonic game. Sega and SNK entered into something of a partnership, as there was a Neo Geo Pocket Color to Dreamcast cable released that allow transfer of data between certain games, such as the Dreamcast ports of King of Fighters 98 and 99 and the Capcom vs SNK games.

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The system is unique for the many excellent fighting games. While all the fighting games look pretty similar, in a super-deformed style, they evolved and got significantly better as time passed. Earlier games like King of Fighters R1 and R2 and Fatal Fury First Contract are decent, but the latter ones are much smoother. Match of the Millenium: SNK vs Capcom is simply the best handheld fighting game ever released, and the super-kawaii Gals Fighters, with its female only cast, is full of crazy-cute animations reminiscent of Capcom’s Pocket Fighter.

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It’s a pretty nice system to collect. There are decent to great games of most genres (action, RPG, puzzle), and many people love the quite addictive SNK vs Capcom card game. But it’s really about the fighters, as they’re what sets the system apart.

Sega SG1000 II (エスジー・セン II)

The SG1000 most likely did okay for itself all things considered, but in the wake of Nintendo’s superior (and much higher selling) Famicom offering, Sega pivoted to make their home console platform more Famicom-like.

While the eventual result was the upgraded Mark III console, the first fruits of this pivot were realised with the SG1000 II.

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Essentially a repackaging of the original Sg1000, it is also a design link between the two generations of Sega consoles.

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Like the Mark III (and Mega Drive) it features English text on the top of the console, explaining its purpose and function. This one is particularly cute and amusing.

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Instead of the terrible SG1000 joystick, it now has Famicom-style controllers which attach at the back, and Famicom like controller docks on the side of the console (more on this in the controller rivalry article).

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There were two revisions of the SG1000 II. One was a simple re-configuration of the original console, and the second featured major internal revisions – it consolidated several of the original chips (among them the ‘off-the-shelf’ Texas Instruments SN76489 sound chip and TMS9918 video chip) into one new custom Sega part. This later model is much closer to the circuit of the Mark III, and because of these changes can be modded to output an RGB signal.

Both console revisions look the same on the outside. Very late release SG1000 II consoles came with an updated controller, though it doesn’t seem this change lines up with the internal board revision changes.

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The Sg1000 II is a somewhat redundant console from a collecting perspective. It lacks the ‘first Sega console’ cachet, but isn’t as useful as the upgraded, more compatible, more user-friendly Mark III.

And in terms of looks, the redesign is more modern but a bit plain. It lacks the nice simple ‘retro evolved’ vibe of the original, but doesn’t quite nail the ’80s futurism’ look that Sega perfected with the seriously stylish Mark III.

But I really like that Sega was developing their own unified design aesthetic, and so it does look pretty cool with this matching joystick.

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More pics:

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Ninja Princess/The Ninja (忍者プリンセス) – SG1000/Mark III

Ninjas were everywhere in the 80s, and Japanese game developers were happy to fulfil the international demand for martial arts action. Nintendo’s console had Kung Fu, Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Turtles, The Legend of Kage, Shadow of the Ninja and many others. Sega had their Shinobi and Dragon Wang series, as well as their shortlived Ninja series.

Much like the Dragon Wang/Makai Retsuden series, Sega’s Ninja series is a somewhat convoluted progression of the same basic game template over a couple of generations of hardware.

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Ninja Princess/Sega Ninja – Arcade

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Ninja Princess (released in the west as Sega Ninja) began as a Sega System 1 arcade game in 1985. It’s an overhead run-and-gun game, one of a batch released around that time, such as Capcom’s Commando and SNK’s Ikari Warriors. Swapping out a warzone and slow moving bullets for Sengoku-era Japan and throwing knives, Ninja Princess is one of the first ever examples of an action game with a female protagonist, a whole year before the highly celebrated Metroid.

The game stars titular princess Kurumi, whose castle has been overrun by bad guys. She escapes a kidnap attempt in a cute animated intro, and sets out to take back the castle with her ninja skills.

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It’s a truly great example of the genre, with tight gameplay, great graphics and sounds, and some nice gimmicks. You have two fire buttons – one fires knives (or via a power-up, ninja stars) in the direction you are facing, and the other always fires directly up, no matter which way you are oriented. This innovation completely fixes the clunky feeling the genre can have, as you can actually fire at enemies while retreating. The third button activates a temporary ninja-vanish to evade enemy attacks.

On top of this, Ninja Princess mixes up the gameplay with gimmick/event stages, including a stage where you avoid falling boulders, another with stampeding horses, one set on logs floating on a river, and two stages where you climb castle walls.

The graphics are fantastic, especially for 1985, colourful, detailed and stylish, and Kurumi herself is a particularly cute and nicely designed sprite.

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The original arcade version is available on the Saturn, included in the compilation package Sega Ages Memorial Selection Volume 2.

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It has a slightly squashed aspect ratio to fit in the Saturn’s resolution (but with no detail loss), and the graphics have been slightly retouched, mostly for the better. But it is a great way to play the game. One of the menu options allows you to play with infinite lives, which is a godsend, as being an 80s arcade game, it’s brutally difficult in the later stages.

Ninja Princess (忍者プリンセス) – SG1000

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Sega’s first contemporary home port was for the SG1000 in 1986. As you’d expect, the graphics have taken a fairly big hit, and with only two buttons the ‘ninja vanish’ function has been mapped to hitting both action buttons at once, but it’s otherwise as faithful a port as could really be possible on the hardware.

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The event stages are gone, but otherwise pretty much the entire game is intact, including the climbing stages. It’s actually quite fun to see some of the set-pieces from the arcade re-created in a more primitive form, and while the enemy ninjas are mostly single colour sprites in this version, their single colour often matches the primary colour of that enemy type in the arcade – you can see the designers of the port really tried to make it resemble the original.

The dinky SG1000 graphics have their own charm, and assuming you’re using a decent controller it plays really well for an SG1000 game. In an attempt to prolong the life of the title for home gamers, it introduces a ‘secret scroll’ system, and you have to collect all the secret scrolls to access the last level. They’re basically randomly located in the levels, so this is probably the most frustrating part.

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While it had no chance of living up to the arcade original, it’s still very fun, and is one of the best games for the SG1000.

Ninja Princess 1 Mega Han (忍者プリンセス1メガ版) – Mark III

When Ninja Princess finally made it to hardware that could do it full justice – in the form of Sega’s newer Mark III console – it was ostensibly in the form of a sequel. Ninja Princess 1 Mega Han.

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In what was assumedly an attempt to make the game more ‘serious’ (and perhaps appeal to console gaming’s primarily young male audience), the graphical style has been changed completely, removing any hint of the original game’s cutesyness. And instead of starring Kurumi the Ninja Princess, it stars a goofy looking dude named Kazamaru, who now must save the princess.

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I wonder if Archie and Veronica will like my outfit?

Despite the long-winded title on the box, the title screen shows simply ‘The Ninja’.

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It’s set up as a sequel story-wise, but is actually another, more faithful, port of the arcade game. All the arcade event stages are back (in re-drawn form), including the falling boulders, stampeding horses, and river. Controls are identical and the scroll system is back from Ninja Princess SG1000, so you have to collect all five scrolls, then perform a particular task at a particular place to access the secret basement level and rescue the princess. There is also a new speed power up scroll.

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It plays about as well as the arcade, but the new graphics are kind of badly drawn (especially the main sprites, including Kazamaru who looks as awkward in-game as he does on the cover), and the limited cartridge space meant there is much less detail and animation than the arcade game. Apart from the odd nicely drawn section, it’s not a particularly good looking Mark III game. There are more musical tracks, but they’re pretty bland, especially when your knives are powered up to ninja stars and you hear the same tune over and over.

The Ninja – Master System

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Another Master System cover art ‘masterpiece’

Ninja Princess 1 Mega Han was released in the west under its title screen name The Ninja. While many Mark III/Master System games contain a universal ROM with both English and Japanese versions of the game onboard, The Ninja was actually ‘upgraded’ for its release outside of Japan. The western release gets a scrolling text intro, a new title screen, and an extra image on the splash screen when you collect all the scrolls.

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Unfortunately the entire second level is missing, no doubt sacrificed to make space for the above. Which is a shame because it’s actually one of the better looking levels. Two of the secret scrolls have also changed location, one in particular makes a heck of a lot more sense in its Mark III location.

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No village level for you, US/PAL Kazamaru!

And here the Ninja series ended. One fantastic arcade game, a very good SG1000 game, and a decent-but-nothing-special Mark III game. They’re worth a play through, but probably the best experience of the series is to be had on the Saturn port of the arcade game.

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