It should be easy to understand why ninjas are so entrenched in popular culture. After all, they're basically superheroes. They're mysterious, they often conceal their true identities, and they usually have powers beyond the reach of regular men. Ninjas are specially trained in the areas of assassination, espionage, and various martial arts. The variety of abilities at their disposal makes them perfect gaming protagonists. Depictions of ninjas in video games range from realistic to supernatural, but there's validity to either approach. This list deals with gaming characters, so don't bother looking for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Naruto, or the Surf Ninjas. I've also decided to include only male ninjas on this list, since there are enough video game kunoichi to warrant a list of their own.
Virtua Fighter Series
Virtua Fighter's token ninja character was born in a small village where he was trained by his father and taught the art of Hagakure. A staple of the franchise, Kage has appeared in every Virtua Fighter game to date and easily ranks among the most popular fighters in the series. Throughout the course of the games, Kage avenges his murdered father, attempts to rescue his kidnapped mother, and vows to take down a mysterious cyborg-producing corporation. But perhaps more importantly, he also manages to look good while doing it. Kage is both fast and brutal – some might say cheap and overpowered – and his striking attacks can be especially devastating when chained together. You know a guy means business when he tosses you 10-feet into the air and kicks you three times before you hit the ground.
Mortal Kombat Series
The Mortal Kombat series has always been known for blood, fatalities, and a plethora of palette-swapped ninjas. In total, there were eight male ninjas, four female ninjas, and three cybernetic ninjas. Choosing the greatest from the bunch was surprisingly easy, and basically came down to the two originals – Sub-Zero and Scorpion. Some will argue that Sub-Zero is cooler, but Scorpion gets the nod here because he returned from the bowels of the Netherealm and avenged his own death by burning Sub-Zero to a charred skeleton. From this point, Scorpion continued to be a badass ninja spectre while Sub-Zero went to the Netherealm and changed his name to Noob Saibot for some unknown reason. Scorpion also earns points for his iconic taunts of "Come here!" and "Get over here!" that accompany his spear attacks.
Ganbare Goemon Series
While only a handful of Goemon's games have been released in North America, the franchise is widely popular in Japan where it has spawned several anime and manga series. The Mystical Ninja himself is loosely based on Ishikawa Goemon, a bandit warrior not unlike Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Just like the noble thief of Japanese folklore, Konami's Goemon has a strong sense of justice and will attempt to right any wrong that is in front of him. Goemon's trademark blue, bushy hair makes him stand out from the other ninjas on this list, but his fighting style is even more bizarre. Instead of using traditional ninja weapons, Goemon attacks his enemies with oversized smoking pipes and yo-yos. In the end, the fact that Goemon actually has a sense of humor puts him in a league of his own.
Metal Gear Series
Gray Fox was introduced in the first Metal Gear game as a FOXHOUND agent and a friend of Snake's. After being rescued by Snake, Fox defected to the side of the enemy before he was seemingly killed in a fistfight with his former friend. Although he was left for dead, Gray Fox returned in Metal Gear Solid as a Cyborg Ninja. Protected by a cybernetic exoskeleton and armed with a high frequency blade, Gray Fox instantly became one of the game's most iconic characters. There was just something incredibly cool about the way he would appear out of nowhere and slice things up with a laser sword. Sure, he got beat up by Snake (again) and met his final demise when he was squashed by Metal Gear REX's oversized foot, but Cyborg Ninja has lived on through crossover appearances in several other games.
Yoshimitsu is a master swordsman with a mechanical arm. He aims to fight oppression, and his clan of ninja bandits is often tasked with stealing from unethical companies. Yoshimitsu has appeared in every major installment of the Tekken series and was popular enough to be featured in the SoulCalibur games as well... sort of. The Soul series takes place centuries before Tekken, so the Yoshimistu from SoulCalibur is technically an ancestor of Tekken's Yoshimitsu. They both fight with the same sword (which is handed down through the generations), and their fighting styles, personalities, and ideals are virtually identical. The Yoshimitsu from the Soul series has a wooden arm instead of a mechanical one, but it functions exactly like its modern-day equivalent and is every bit as dangerous.
Armed with a single sword and guided by a strong sense of destiny, Rikimaru maintains his composure through even the most dire situations. Rikimaru took on the role of leader for the Azuma Ninja Clan after the death of his master, and a scar over his right eye reminds him to stay focused in battle. Although he does posses a sixth sense allowing for special vision, Rikimaru seems underpowered when compared to some of the other ninjas on this list. He can't defy gravity, use magical attacks, or single-handedly take on entire platoons of enemies. Rather, he must rely on his ninja skills and perform silent kills on his unsuspecting enemies. The use of stealth is a crucial aspect of ninjitsu, and Rikimaru reminds us all that ninjas are supposed to be silent assassins. In some ways, Rikimaru is the purest ninja on this entire list.
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VI featured one of the greatest cast of characters in RPG history, and Shadow (a paid assassin and mercenary) is easily one of the game's most compelling personalities. Travelling the globe with his trusty canine sidekick, Shadow joins the rebellion on several occasions, but comes and goes as he pleases. He swears allegiance to no one and even offers his services to the Empire when the price is right. Like any good ninja, Shadow is a man of few words and essentially lives by his own rules. The quintessential loner, Shadow leaves his best friend, abandons his own daughter, and chooses to split off from the rest of the pack whenever he feels like it. More so than any other character in the game, Shadow's past, present, and future remain a mystery. Also, his theme music is ridiculously catchy.
Hiryu is a member of an elite group of counter-terrorists, known as Striders, who use their ninja abilities for kidnapping, assassination, demolition, and other top secret assignments. Belonging to the "Super A Grade" class of Striders, Hiryu defends the future against a diverse cast of villains. Hiryu travels to the icy mountains of Siberia, battles giant mechanical gorillas, hitches rides on the backs of dinosaurs, and has to deal with constantly-changing gravity while working his way through an enemy space station. Fortunately for Hiryu, he possesses remarkable agility and makes excellent use of his surroundings. He gets help from robotic animal sidekicks, uses metallic hooks to latch onto walls and ceilings, and slices through his enemies with a laser-sword. A ninja with a laser sword: it doesn't get much cooler than that.
While the Shinobi name has actually been used by many ninjas over the years, Joe Musashi is most often associated with the title. Joe became the most respected member of his clan through practice and determination. Not only does Joe master traditional ninja weapons like shurikens and swords, but he is also able to wield lightning and unleash powerful fire dragons. He can also levitate, and his mid-air somersault technique proves to be extremely useful. Of course, all these ninja skills wouldn't mean much if Joe didn't have any one to use them on. In addition to your usual assortment of kabuki masters and stripper ninjas disguised as nuns, Joe also battles Batman, Spider-man, and the Incredible Hulk! The Shinobi name was used by other members of his clan, but none were more legendary than Joe.
Ninja Gaiden Series
Was there any doubt who would be number one? Between the assortment of super arts at his disposal, his mastery of countless weapons, his ability to cling to walls, and his remarkable ability to clone himself, Ryu Hayabusa is easily the most iconic video game ninja of all time. The guy can even fight on top of water! As the sole survivor of the Hayabusa clan, Ryu demonstrates wisdom far beyond his years and his list of accomplishments is extremely impressive. He avenges his father's death, battles powerful demons, resurrects his girlfriend, defeats his Doppelganger, makes several narrow escapes from exploding island fortresses, and still manages to find the time to befriend the busty ladies of Dead or Alive. Ryu has earned the title of "Super Ninja" in his games and he stands tall as the definitive video game ninja in the real world.