The first Ninja Gaiden for Famicom/NES was released in Japan on December 9, 1988, in the United States in March 1989, and in Europe on August 15, 1991. A ninja named Ryu Hayabusa finds a letter by his recently missing father, Ken, telling him to go to America and meet with an archaeologist Dr. Smith. Dr. Smith tells Ryu that two statues hidden by Ryu's father and the doctor have the power to end the world - if united. Ryu ends up in South America and battles Jaquio, an evil cult leader bent on reviving the ancient demon called "Jashin" and responsible for the attack on Ken Hayabusa.
The game introduced many of the series' staples, including the cinematic cutscenes, the boomerang-like Windmill Shuriken and the magical techniques called Ninja Arts (or Ninpo). Like all games in the series, it is noted for its difficulty, particularly the infamous Stage 6-2. To use the ninja arts, users had to collect power-ups. Each art used up a certain number of power-ups.