Mega Drive Essentials: Shadow Dancer

What happened to ninjas? I feel like they were unironically cool in the ’90s, and that they were everywhere.

Perhaps they simply learned that being highly visible is not an especially desirable characteristic for a ninja, and thus deliberately relegated themselves to the world of overly tryhard “wacky!” memes alongside pirates, dinosaurs and zombies. Put them all together and you get LOL SO RANDOM, yo. And these days, everyone wants to ignore that nonsense. The perfect cover.

Anyway, here’s Shadow Dancer for the Mega Drive, a 1990 release from Sega and one of the first games I ever played on the system.

Shadow Dancer is part of Sega’s Shinobi series, though where exactly it fits into the “canon” of said series — if indeed one exists — varies according to which version you’re playing. Technically, if we go by the original 1989 arcade release, it’s the second installment in the series, albeit starring a different (and nameless) protagonist to the first game’s Joe Musashi, but in the world of the Mega Drive, it actually released after the console-exclusive The Revenge of Shinobi and, according to its region of release, starred either Joe Musashi’s estranged son Hayate, or Musashi himself coming out of retirement.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter. All you actually need to know is that in Shadow Dancer, you play the role of an extremely fragile ninja with an awesome but equally fragile dog, and it’s your job to battle your way through a besieged New York City in an attempt to defeat the evil reptilian demon-worshipping ninja cult Union Lizard. Man, I miss the ’90s.

Gameplay in Shadow Dancer is as veterans might expect for the Shinobi series. For the unfamiliar, rather than taking the form of a beat ’em up as you might expect, Shadow Dancer is actually more of a “run and gun” game with light platforming elements, with, in this case, the “gun” element being covered by a seemingly endless supply of shuriken our hero keeps stored about his person.

The main twist on the basic formula here is the presence of the dog. By holding down the attack button while the dog is barking at a nearby enemy, you charge up a meter at the bottom of the screen; releasing the button when this is full launches the dog at your foe and, if timed correctly, causes said foe to be mauled in a highly entertaining manner. During this time, they are unable to attack and in some cases will even eventually be defeated by the dog; however, the dog is most useful when confronted with enemies who have the ability to block your shuriken or attacks that are difficult to avoid, since it will open them up to your own strikes. You’ll have to be careful, though — timing your dog strike poorly will cause the mutt to revert to a puppy, making him temporarily useless. Take good care of your furry friend!

Structurally, Shadow Dancer’s arcade roots are very much apparent. You progress through a linear series of five stages, each of which is split into several areas, with the latter area in each stage being devoted to a dog-free boss confrontation. Notably, Shadow Dancer is significantly more challenging than many of the other installments in the Shinobi series for the fact that the ninja protagonist can only take a single hit before losing a life and having to restart the current area; other Shinobi games are somewhat more forgiving through the use of a life bar, though they still put up a tough fight!

Like many run-and-gun games from the era, Shadow Dancer is quite heavily choreographed, and there’s a clear route to follow through each level in order to keep yourself as safe as possible. As the game progresses, you’ll find yourself confronted with more risky situations, however, sometimes having to deliberately fling yourself into danger and quickly deal with threats all around you. It takes time and effort to learn the game, but as with all games of this type, the difficulty is set at such a level that it always demands care and attention, but allows those willing to put in the practice to make gradual progress with each new attempt.

The sense of choreography continues into the boss encounters, which generally require learning your foe’s attack patterns, then unleashing a flurry of shuriken during a suitable opening. The game actually has a rather strong difficulty spike with the first boss, which has two separate and sometimes overlapping attack patterns to deal with at once; the second, meanwhile, has a much simpler pattern to deal with. Perhaps that first boss is a way of the game setting a minimum expected standard for players to perform at — it’s by no means an insurmountable challenge, but it definitely requires a lot more in the way of precision and caution than those raised on more forgiving modern games may be accustomed to!

Visually and sonically, Shadow Dancer is a lovely game for the era. Blaring FM synth music combines with deliciously crispy ’90s-era samples for an unmistakably “Mega Drive” sound, and the visuals look great right from the outset, with the first level making heavy use of the iconic Mega Drive “wobbly background” effect (that probably has a fancy technical name) to simulate the flames of a city under siege. Both the protagonist — whoever he is — and the other characters are well animated, and even the dog is delightfully convincing in its behaviour.

Shadow Dancer’s relatively high level of difficulty — or perhaps more specifically, its rather unforgiving nature, thanks to its one-hit deaths — may put some modern gamers off immediately, particularly as even the very first level has no qualms whatsoever about kicking your ass. But if you think you can handle that aspect of things, what’s waiting for you is a very enjoyable, great-looking, great-sounding ninja romp that is highly representative of the Mega Drive — and Sega — at its absolute best.

Plus, you know, you get to Press B To Dog. We wouldn’t get to do that again until Fable II nearly twenty years later!

More about Shadow Dancer
More about Sega Mega Drive Classics

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5 thoughts on “Mega Drive Essentials: Shadow Dancer”

  1. I took these sorts of games so seriously as a kid. Like, “Yeah, into battle I go!” and I lived the experience. Now 33, I’m much more grownup. I only call my Switch a “bloody SOB!” every time a red shell hits me on Mario Kart 8. What happened to me? The fun has gone from my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You need to recapture that magic. I have hurled many obscenities at this game in just the last week. I am 37. I recommend the experience. Of hurling obscenities at Shadow Dancer, not of being 37, being 37 is kind of rubbish.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I wish Sega would do a Mega Drive Mini. That’d be great. This one looks exactly like the type of game I’d love. I was a SNES lad, although my mates had a Mega Drive.

        I’ve been swearing at Runner3 as well. They really didn’t need to make that one so bloody difficult.


  2. Speaking of obscenities, I have decided to abandon the Nioh DLC today since it puts me in a much angrier place than the rest of the game and I want to play something fun instead of cursing every 3 minutes.

    That said, I’m 38 myself this month and I think a wider perspective/contextual awareness has actually made these games MORE enjoyable to me. I picked up Shadow Dancer with Revenge of Shinobi fresh in my mind and still one of my favorites on the system (Yu Suzuki’s Chinatown theme!). I was REALLY disappointed by the complete change in gameplay and atmosphere and didn’t pick it up again til the PS3 collection.

    Now it’s one of my favorites for completely different reasons. I can appreciate the level design and gameplay choices now that I can put it in the context of the entire Shinobi line instead of the other 16-bit titles. Quick question: can you switch to the Japanese version and are their any differences? Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, no switch to the Japanese version in the Sega Mega Drive Classics collection, but I don’t think there are any differences. The context of “who” the protagonist is was entirely in the manual, there’s no story in the game itself.

      You’re right about having a different appreciation of these games over time! There are a lot of games from back in the day that I feel like I really didn’t “get” back when I first played them, and it’s always fascinating to revisit them from this perspective. Particularly with newer games in mind, and the ability to consider how older games like this might have influenced them. Dark Souls has a ton of old-school game DNA in it, for example, particularly when it comes to boss fights.


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