The story follows a ninja named Ryu Hayabusa as he journeys to America to avenge his murdered father. There, he learns that a person named "the Jaquio" plans to take control of the world by unleashing an ancient demon through the power contained in two statues. Featuring platforming gameplay similar to Castlevania and the NES version of Batman, players control Ryu through six "Acts" that comprise 20 levels; they encounter enemies that must be dispatched with Ryu's katana and other secondary weapons.
Ninja Gaiden has been renowned for its elaborate story and usage of anime-like cinematic cutscenes. It received extensive coverage and won several awards from video gaming magazines, while criticism focused on its high and unforgiving difficulty, particularly in the later levels. Over fifteen years after its release, the game continued to receive acclaim from print and online publications. It was novelized as part of the Worlds of Power NES game adaptations written by Seth Godin and Peter Lerangis, and it spawned a soundtrack CD. It has been described as one of the best arcade-style games, and the best ninja-related game, released for the NES.