The Most Cunning Ninja of the Era
11 February 2009
Shinobi was one of Sega's flagship franchises back in the day, starting with the Arcade original (also ported to the Master System and the TurboGrafx-16). Then there were three installments for the Genesis:
The Revenge of Shinobi (1989)
Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (1990)
Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master (1993)
Though there is some debate, I maintain that the first 16-bit title is the best of the trilogy. Shinobi III may have better graphics, but the music of the original and the deeper gameplay push it over the top. Yuzo Koshiro, the famous composer behind such classics as Actraiser and Streets of Rage, was responsible for the Revenge's soundtrack, and it clearly shows. While Shinobi III may have more moves, like bouncing off walls and blocking attacks without a power-up, the level design lacks the depth seen in Shinobi's Genesis debut.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Imagine you're living circa 1989. NES is all the rage, and people are just beginning to realize the potential of 16-bit consoles. You go over to a friend's house, and he pops in The Revenge of Shinobi: Black screen; a lightning bolt and the silhouette of a ninja; throwing stars fly across the screen; and a master shinobi deftly parries them with his sword. It's one of the greatest openings in video game history! Especially impressive considering this was among the earliest titles for the Genesis.
The first level sticks with the basics: a forest setting with bamboo laden dojos. White-pajama-wearing ninjas throwing stars and leaping about. Crates full of additional shurikens and the occasional time bomb as well. The muted color palette of dusk with a pink sky, yet the windblown leaves of fall provide depth and motion to the static backgrounds. At its time, these graphics were stunning, and they've held up surprisingly well by today's standards.
The musical score by Yuzo Koshiro is among his best, brilliantly setting the atmosphere for each stage. All the tracks have a distinctly Japanese sound—no pandering to Western audiences, thankfully. The first stage's track, called "The Shinobi," is one of my favorites, with horns, drums, and syth that suggest every shadow conceals an enemy, building with intensity. You won't be disappointed in the sound effects department either. From the swish of a thrown shuriken to the creaking of a hidden door rotating, you'll find unusually good samples and attention to detail.
In addition to the synergy of graphics and music, Revenge of Shinobi pushes the envelope in gameplay. While the late 1990s were dominated by the platformer genre, few of these games provided much real gameplay depth. Revenge of Shinobi gives you three different types of jumps: you can tap button C, press it in earnest, and hit it a second time at the peak of your jump for the greatest height possible.
As for attacks, you've got long-range shurikens, close-range kicks and sword-blows, and even quarter screen wide-spread multi-star attacks when you throw shurikens while spinning during your somersault second jump. All this and we still haven't broached the dark arts of ninjas. You also have a variety of magical attacks (just one use per stage unless you manage to collect extra), from a defensive forcefield and high jumping to offensive pillars of fire. There's even a suicide attack that requires paying one life to blast yourself apart and strike all enemies on the screen, allowing the use of an additional spell afterwards.
There are some rough patches in the gameplay. For a ninja, Joe Musashi moves at a surprisingly slow pace, and the timing required to pull off double-jumps is rather unforgiving. When Joe gets close to crates or the lifts in the factory level, for some reason he insists on only attacking with his sword.
Easy, Normal, Hard, and Hardest — Are your choices under "options." Don't be a fool! Normal is the equivalent of what your average game considers hard. Between levels, your magic is restored, but you only regain about a quarter of your life points. Plus, Shinobi not only features the dreaded deadfalls of your typical platformer but adds additional obstacles that cause large amounts of damage or instant death, such as lasers, cars, and plane emergency exits that suddenly open, sucking the unwitting ninja into the abyss.
These myriad ways to perish are spread out over an impressive variety of levels. Indeed, there are eight stages, each with two unique sections. Some of the territories you'll cover include a military plane, junk yard, highway, pier, and—naturally—Chinatown. As you creep through these many stages, you also face a large variety of bosses. And it's here that you run into the most controversial aspect of Revenge of Shinobi. Simply put, Sega AM7 borrowed quite liberally from numerous intellectual properties.
At the end of the junkyard (stage 4) you fight a humanoid that turns a deeper shade of green with each hit, each one more like The Incredible Hulk. With the final hit, the Hulk explodes, revealing a robotic exoskeleton that looks similar to Arnold's Terminator. The comic book references become more obvious two bosses later when you fight a spandex-clad Spider-Man look-a-like that sticks to the ceiling and hurls webs at you. After doing enough damage to him, he turns into a Bat-Man who swoops around the screen and sends his bat minions to chomp on you. The next stage's boss is a giant dinosaur that stands the entire height of the screen and breaths fire at you. It's not much of a stretch to assume that this dinosaur is inspired by Godzilla.
While the similarities above are too blatant to be merely coincidental, in my humble opinion they represent an amusing artistic homage to the originals, not copyright fraud. Nevertheless, Sega released two revisions of Revenge of Shinobi in an attempt to avoid unpleasant lawsuits. Revision 1.01 replaced the Bat-Man that looked too much like with, well, Batman.
Revision 1.02—in addition to the change above—swapped Godzilla for a skeletal dinosaur. Interestingly, while The Terminator and Spider-Man persist, only Spider-Man is acknowledged with a copyright screen. Amusingly, another change include flamethrower-wielding Rambo dopplegangers being replaced with bald men.
Copyright nonsense aside, The Revenge of Shinobi captured the mystique and excitement of the ninja better than any game before it—I'm not even sure any games since then have topped it. From the crossed shurikens to the fire dragon magic and foreboding music, this represented an ideal start to the 16-bit console era.
Large sprites and great animation abound. You won't be blown away by the color variety or huge special effects, but everything that's here is well rendered.
From oriental themes, to techno anticipation, to the sounds of throwing stars being deflected and a powered up sword slashing through the enemy's defense, this is an incredible first-gen sonic treat, testament to Yuzo Koshiro's genius.
The jumping and dodging demands are brutal and unforgiving, yet you can never blame your failure on play control. It's tight. Then you have the great details, like double jumps that only happen when you hit the jump button prior to the beginning of your descent, and the pow-powered shuriken blocking. Not to mention the impressive level design.
Sega seems to have forgotten this franchise. Ninja Gaiden has found new life in the current generation, but where is Shinobi? When it comes time to revive this franchise, look no further than the 16-bit original. One of the best Ninja games ever.