With apologies to Senran Kagura Peach Ball for shamelessly stealing its Dad joke-tier ninja pun, it’s time to look at another in Sega’s excellent Sega Ages series for Nintendo Switch.
This time around, it’s 1987’s Shinobi, an important game from the relatively early days of Sega’s video gaming portfolio, and a title that doesn’t seem to get talked about all that often these days.
Hailing from the height of the “ninja boom” of the 1980s — a popular culture phenomenon that is regarded to have kicked off with Menahem Golan’s 1981 movie Enter the Ninja — Shinobi remains a solid, challenging game today, and well worth revisiting.
In Shinobi, you take on the role of one Joe Musashi, a modern-day ninja with enormous eyebrows who is setting out to rescue the students of his ninjutsu clan from a terrorist organisation known as Zeed.
Joe is pretty confident in his own ninjutsu skills; we can tell this because although all the key art for the game — and its own title screen — depicts a ninja (presumably our hero) clad in the traditional, full-on zukin and fukumen hood and face mask combo, his sprite in the game is unhooded and unmasked. We can assume he’s not planning on leaving any witnesses who could confirm his identity.
Mechanically, Shinobi resembles Namco’s Rolling Thunder — which came out a year prior — in quite a few ways. Joe is an agile, responsive hero who proceeds at a relatively sedate pace through each level, encouraging you to think tactically rather than run in flailing wildly. He has the ability to make enormous jumps between different “layers” of the level — including in some circumstances between the “foreground” and the “background”. And he’s also very fragile; just a single hit will fell him in the original arcade incarnation of the game.
Shinobi diverges a little from the formula established by Rolling Thunder when it comes to combat, however. While Namco’s protagonist Albatross had a limited amount of ammunition, necessitating a somewhat cautious, careful approach to enemy encounters, Joe carries an unlimited supply of shuriken with him, and is also able to make use of melee attacks when close up against an enemy.
To make the latter option feasible, Joe doesn’t die simply by making contact with an enemy as in some games; instead, both simply get knocked back slightly — although you should still take care, as many foes have the ability to quickly lodge a knife in your gut while this is happening.
Like Rolling Thunder, though, Shinobi’s levels are based on fixed, learnable patterns of specific enemy types, with each distinctive type of enemy having their own way of moving and attacking. Each new level introduces at least one new type of enemy, ranging from pistol-firing mercenaries through bazooka-wielding Arnie clones to rival ninjas in day-glo shinobi shozoku — with each specific colour denoting a specific attack pattern, of course.
Success in Shinobi is dependent on learning how these enemies move, how to counter their attacks and how to find a suitable opening in which they can be defeated. Truly mastering the game involves remembering not only these attack patterns, but which enemies can be found where in each level.
There are a few additional tricks that can even the odds a bit. Firstly, rescuing certain captured kids in the level can reward you with an upgrade to Joe’s weaponry, replacing his shuriken with a gun that fires more powerful, explosive bullets and his simple punches and kicks with a broader katana swipe. Early in the game, most enemies go down in a single hit, but as you progress, you’ll encounter some that take two or more shuriken to fell; the gun, meanwhile, will take down most foes in one shot, assuming they don’t block your shot. And many of them will; timing and observation of animations is critical.
Joe also has his “ninja magic”, which can be used once per stage. There are several spells, but their only real difference is in animation; they all effectively act as a screen-clearing “smart bomb” — or a quick and easy means of doing a significant amount of damage to a boss.
Ah yes, the bosses; each of Shinobi’s five missions, which consist of three or four stages each, concludes with a boss fight of some description. The first couple of these are fairly straightforward, simply requiring you to hit a weak spot while fending off or avoiding attacks, but in the later stages of the game these encounters demand absolute perfection and incredibly fast reactions. The final boss in particular is very quick to punish the inattentive player, so it’s fortunate that the controls are so wonderfully snappy and responsive when in such situations.
Shinobi actually has an interesting take on the “credit feeding” dilemma that is particularly apparent in emulated arcade games: namely, the risk that any challenge the game might offer can easily be made meaningless with a poorly implemented continue system.
Here, while your score doesn’t reset if you use a continue, the game does track how many credits you used to record a high score and include that on the leaderboard, giving you some incentive to continually improve, even if you clear the game; it’s all very well taking the top spot, but if it took you 15 credits to do so, you still have some work to do!
The game also sends you back to the start of a stage when you lose a life — and the only opportunity to earn extra lives is in the super-fun first-person bonus stages — so you can’t simply brute-force your way through to the end, either; at some point you’re going to have to be able to overcome the challenges in your path.
This is a good way of doing things, and mitigates one of my own personal problems with many modern “arcade-perfect” versions of games on home platforms; having infinite continues, if implemented badly, can make your progress through a game feel fairly meaningless, but thankfully that’s not the case here.
The Sega Ages version for Nintendo Switch is mostly a fairly straightforward port of the arcade version, with a few nice additions.
The first of these is an optional stage select feature, which allows you to start at any point in the game — including jumping straight to the final boss if you please. This allows you the opportunity to practice any stages or encounters that have been providing you with particular difficulty, though if you want to take aim for high scores you’ll want to start from the beginning and run all the way through… preferably on as few credits as possible if you really want to prove your skills, of course!
The second of these is fast becoming a standard addition to these releases: an “Ages Mode” that makes the game slightly easier with some tweaks to its core mechanics rather than simply providing you with more lives or taking out some enemies. In this specific case, Ages Mode provides you with a permanently upgraded weapon plus the ability to take two hits of damage instead of just one. These simple changes make an absolutely huge difference to how the game plays, and make it much more accessible for newcomers — a welcome option for a game as notoriously challenging as Shinobi.
The more competitive purists out there will be pleased to note that like in all the other Sega Ages releases, the online leaderboards are stratified according to whether you’re playing Arcade or Ages mode on their default settings, or if you’re playing “Freestyle”, which is any other combination of modes and options. The former two in particular allow you to compare your performance between the two styles of play, and establish just how much of a difference those little tweaks to the Ages formula make in the grand scheme of things.
Shinobi remains a really fun game to this day. It’s challenging but fair, it looks and sounds great (bearing in mind it came out in 1987) and its admirably responsive controls make it a real pleasure to engage with. And the various options the Sega Ages release for Switch offers provide the whole thing with plenty of longevity and opportunities to challenge yourself.
It does, however, have one of the worst, most unsatisfying endings I’ve ever seen in any game in my 38 years on this planet. But you know what they say; it’s all about the journey, not the destination!
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