Review by hangedman
"Does this game live up to the hype?!?! Look to the right."
Ninjas are cool. I had a shirt when I was about 8 that just said, ''Ninja'' on it, and there was a picture of a Ninja. I wish I still had that shirt. Recently, I was overjoyed to have found some ninja posters (''Sho Kosugi: The Ninja,'' the poster reads) that I stored in my closet after a trip to Chinatown as a little one. America’s fascination with Japan died with the end of the 1980s, but the end of an era couldn’t emasculate a stealth assassin that fights with a four-foot long blade, at least not for me. Read any review that I’ve written about Ninjas, and I’ll bet you I mention something about how cool they are.
Anyway, Shinobi is one of those ninjas that comes from humble beginnings. I knew him first on the Genesis, where he ran around in white and could do all sorts of crazy ninja trickery. This ninja, one Joe Musashi, has little resemblance in the original arcade title to his later (and much cooler) forms. In fact, he seems to be more a goofy looking teenager with a dorky haircut more than anything else—those banana yellow arm and leg guards aren’t fooling anyone, Joe.
The gameplay seems a little different as well: Joe’s ultimate goal seems to be to rescue small pink-garbed ninja kids from the clutches of a terrorist corporation that is, of course, run by an evil ninja. The basics remain the same after that: jump, throw ninja stars, and use your magic attack if you need a way out of things in a hurry.
Though Joe looks a little goofy, and you might wonder just why you have to rescue these little pink ninjas from a bunch of Mongolian guys with shields, Shinobi is without doubt the quintessential arcade side-scroller. Joe’s got the reflexes of Robocop on cocaine: he can jump like the wind and throw up to four ninja starts at a time. Your magic attack is essentially random in appearance, but it’s all good: when you hit the special attack button, everything on the screen dies instantly. The catch is that you only get one per stage, and it definitely pays off knowing the problem areas of each stage in order to get the most out of it. Should you show your elite ninja prowess by not using the ninja ability, you get a 5000 point bonus, which is useful in gaining bonus lives.
Your enemies are relatively few, but fit together almost like puzzle pieces to form hairy skirmishes and tense fights. There are several enemies that run straight at you, enemies that fire multitudes of bullets, ninjas that leap straight up in the air to jump on top of you with a not-so-friendly katana to the spine, and even foes that launch grenades up in an arc. You’ll need either some good reflexes or some good pattern memorization to get past a few parts due to the complex nature of enemy teamwork: a shield-carrying Mongolian might stand in front of a pistol-wielder while a ninja tries to trounce you in midair.
Since Joe dies in one hit, and there are a lot of these situations, expect to die more times than you’ll be comfortable with. Your first time through the game will be observing more than fighting as you’re repeatedly skewered, shot, and knocked into bottomless pits several times over. You might give up, and certainly I wouldn’t blame you. Press on, and you’ll be amazed with yourself. Once you learn how the enemies work, what their weaknesses are, and how you can manipulate your environment in simple ways, you will be an unstoppable killing machine.
The game wants you to kick its ass, too. Otherwise, it wouldn’t give you your fall-back ninja power, the between-level bonus stage for extra lives, and the Power-ups from the ninja kids: you get a bazooka; I might have mentioned previously that Joe wasn’t all that ninja-ish. Your bazooka is a deadly tool despite how awkward it would seem for a ninja to be using it. Faster than your shuriken, it can easily bypass the shields of the kid-guarding Mongolians and sword-defense of the ninjas. It kills in one hit what your regular shuriken would kill in two.
Like the enemies, the bosses will also require you to die a thousand deaths before you know exactly what to do. The first boss, Ken-Oh (Fist of the North Star reference, ahoy!), is difficult enough with his fireball attacks that move erratically about. The third boss will test your patience with its avalanche of destructible statues that knock you into an electric barrier, and the fourth boss is almost impossible if you don’t know where to hit him—sure, he may be a samurai named ''Lobster,'' but you’ll stop laughing as he’s stabbed you for a few quarters’ worth. If you can beat the last boss, the Masked Ninja, overcoming the fact that the game won’t let you continue on the last level, consider yourself a Shinobi champ.
Because of the nature of the challenge, Shinobi seems at first impossible. After a few times through, you’ll realize that it’s entirely feasible to get through the game on one quarter: the mark of a great arcade game which rewards those of a higher skill above those starting out; one that encourages a gamer to master it.
And it’s not all that bad looking or sounding. Shinobi was made in 1987, but everything is kind of nice looking in a simplistic sort of way. Forgive Joe’s unappealing design and the palette-swapped ninjas (Mooooortal Kombat!) and you’ll enjoy the straightforwardness of things—low expectations also help. Backgrounds are plain while retaining functionality and atmosphere, and the characters are small without being uninteresting. Sound is considerably better, with some supremely catchy tunes and the delicate clink of ninja stars: an excellent sound considering how often you’ll be hearing it.
All in all, your enjoyment of Shinobi will largely depend on how much time you spend with it. A casual gamer will quickly be destroyed and booted off the machine in impossible time; the experienced ninja will breeze through it quickly and make things look sickeningly easy. That’s how arcade games should be, and a concept that sadly is becoming discarded with every new game released in this modern age.
Shinobi’s had a good run so far, and prospects look even better with a PS2 game on the horizon. Thankfully, Shinobi isn’t just an emaciated version of future titles; it’s not a game that you’ll set down with a disinterested, ''oh, so that’s where Shinobi came from.'' The Shinobi legacy has some real knockouts, and the first one is marvelous even when compared to its offspring. Give it some patience, give it some time, and let it charm you as it did for me.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Simple and eloquent, even if utterly unforgiving.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 10/18/02, Updated 10/18/02
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