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Stories in video games were still a ways off of becoming a main focus when the NES was king of the consoles. There were definitely plenty of video game stories to talk about up until the 16 bit revolution came about and brought with it a slew of Japanese RPGs and the hardware potential to tell a more comprehensive and intriguing stories. A lot of gamers my age, however, were limited to a very few titles on the NES that displayed anything close. Most games had at most some limited cutscenes at the beginning and end of the game with most of the story being told in instruction manuals. Some developers, however, saw fit to try and cram a good amount of narrative into their games despite the limitations of the 8 bit hardware.

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Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden is a game that I only played for the first time in the last year. Somehow I missed out on it as a kid, but I was aware of it. What I didn’t know, was that Ninja Gaiden is a side scrolling action game with a pretty neat story that goes alongside it. While there isn’t really any in-game dialogue, the cutscenes between levels fleshes out the adventure of Ryu Hayabusa with pretty convincing anime-like art. The cutscenes aren’t all static pictures, either, but instead feature animation that really bring the scenes to life.

The game opens with an incredible battle between two ninja, followed by Ryu reading a note from his father asking him to seek out the American archaeologist and keep the family’s dragon sword safe. What follows is a story filled with mystical artifacts, revenge, betrayal, and a final plot twist near the end. I found myself pushing harder and harder to get through the incredibly tough game so I could find out what happened next. The ending was pretty satisfying, as well, with an actual end cutscene that tied up the plot rather than falling to the same boring text on a black screen ending so many other NES games went with.

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StarTropics

StarTropics is another game that had been on my “to play” list for a long time and didn’t get knocked off until very recently. I had played it briefly as a kid, but never got very far into it. I was surprised to find that the game has a pretty cool story contained within. Dialogue that moves along the narrative is done both in-game while adventuring through the islands in which the game takes place, and in small conversational cutscenes where the character you are speaking with is prominently displayed on-screen. It isn’t nearly as flashy as say, Ninja Gaiden, but it still provides a pretty fun mystery.

Mike Jones, the main character, travels to C-Island to visit his archaeologist uncle, Doctor Jones. The good doctor has disappeared, however, and after a pep talk and a gift of a weaponized yo-yo from the village chief, Mike sets out to find him. He meets all sorts of interesting and charming characters, such as a baby dolphin, a “singing” parrot, and even some people from a very distant land near the end of the game. It’s a memorable journey, and definitely one to check out if you haven’t.

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Crystalis

I’ve played Crystalis nearly every year since I got it back in the early 90s. I absolutely love this game, and it’s one of the first games I played that had a fully fleshed out narrative. If you aren’t familiar with it, the game is a top down action adventure game in the same vein as The Legend of Zelda or the aforementioned StarTropics, though it also incorporates a lot of RPG like elements such as HP, character stats, and interchangeable weapons and armor. The narrative plays out about how you’d expect from an early RPG, mostly in text boxes when conversing with various characters throughout the world.

The story centers around a nameless hero who awakens after ages of sleep, through an apocalypse that famously took place on October 1, 1997. After appearing from a cave near the village of Leaf, the hero makes his way through the world, collecting elemental swords and fighting the evil Draygonian empire. The visuals and some of the characters and monsters take cues from the Hayao Miyazaki film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which is a fantastic animated movie that you should definitely check out. Crystalis is chock full of drama, such as an entire village forced into slavery, a devastating defeat of resistance forces, and an underlying theme that tries to teach that too much technology can be a bad thing. It’s worth a play for any RPG or action adventure fan, and I highly suggest you do.