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!
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