During those blessed golden years when SEGA and Nintendo were lobbying for the attention of playground inhabitants the world over, the former’s catalogue of top quality franchises easily rivalled Mario and company. You of course had a certain nippy blue hedgehog that brought a new attitude and sense of speed to gaming. Then you had Alex Kidd - SEGA’s previous mascot. Streets of Rage. Golden Axe. Ecco the Dolphin. Many more came during the console wars between the two mega corporations, but there was one certain franchise that had no Nintendo equivalent, and that was Shinobi, a series of games telling the story of one ninja’s battles against an evil organisation. Although Shinobi has not retained its initial popularity into the modern day like other longtime franchises, SEGA have nonetheless tried to reintroduce the brand to a new audience in more recent years; firstly with a duo of games on PlayStation 2, and now a reboot of sorts for Nintendo’s humble 3DS handheld. With Griptonite Games at the helm, will the ninja master strike a critical hit from the shadows, or be caught unawares?
Although Shinobi on 3DS firmly places its roots in the older games via the historical unlockables in the game, long-time fans will immediately notice differences. Whereas the previous games consisted of basic 2D platforming and fighting at a steady pace, here we have lightning-quick movement speeds, split-second reactions for blocking attacks, and nimble platforming with 3D models on a two dimensional plane. Also, the older games primarily starred Joe Musashi in the lead role as the Shinobi, but here you take control of new character Jiro, who sets out for revenge after a friend betrays him and comes into conflict with the crime syndicate Neo Zeed. This story takes Jiro from 13th century Japan all the way to 2056 as he fights the threat in the future, told through stylish comic-book style cutscenes and minor voicework.
Shinobi’s levels play out in a side-scrolling manner with an effective and responsive amount of control given to the player. Jiro’s primary weapon is his blade for short distance strikes, his shuriken dealing with faraway foes. These tools, used in conjunction with his jumping and acrobatic movesets, make Jiro a force to be reckoned with, and he needs to be as this game has retained the franchise’s trademark immense difficulty; it’s a challenge to get to the end even on the easiest setting. Many gamers would prefer usage of the D-pad for accurate movement, especially on tight and narrow platforms in a 2D game such as this, but Griptonite have adapted Jiro’s movement to the Circle Pad perfectly. Even in the more linear pathway segments of the game, where you’re riding on enemy vans or sprinting along a beaten track on your trusty steed, Jiro responds to the slightest twitch of your thumbs. Sometimes a leap of faith is required for certain parts with unclear platforms, and dying on these will frustrate, but perseverance is key.
Enemies and bosses come in a variety of designs, each with a pattern to learn and dodge - or try to block if you’re feeling daring. Designs tend to repeat, but are enough of an overwhelming challenge altogether as to avert the feel of repetition. The block command stops any attack from hitting, but requires precise timing for its use; no mean feat considering how small some projectiles are and how quick they’re fired at your face. Shinobi pulls no punches, and through its points system shows great potential as a score attack game for completionists.
Although Shinobi’s visuals are by-and-large functional and solid, they rarely venture outside of the original DS’ comfort zone. The 3D effect is applied well to this game, turning the action into a window box of clashing blades and explosions with zero hiccups to the frame rate. The option is never essential to the gameplay, and does sometimes leave a ghosting effect behind on your character avatar; again, not a deterrent or a hindrance. 3DS’ unique abilities are by and large used sparingly in Shinobi; touching one of four symbols on the screen activates a ninja power with differing effects that can turn the tide of battle, but that is the extent of touch support. The gyro sensors are put to use in a later stage when boarding down a river packed with obstacles, and it works well enough there. There isn’t any online support, which would have given the score boards feature a real supercharge, but StreetPass is alive and well, used for exchanging challenge maps (or you can purchase them with Play Coins), from which more rewards of concept art, alternate costumes and the like can be unlocked.
Shinobi’s time in your 3DS is largely determined by how skilled a gamer you are with reaction speeds and patience; this is one game where you will die a lot, and only true sadists will attempt any difficulty higher than normal. The time investment needed to unlock everything, beat all difficulties and accomplish all the game’s achievement requirements could easily rival any meaty role playing game. Shinobi isn’t the best example of the 3DS’ gaming potential, but nevertheless it can be an enjoyable mission to undertake.
A solid and functional gameplay structure with heaps of challenge, mixed up nicely in intervals with sprinting levels and a shuriken-throwing mini-game to ensure a fun experience. Difficulty may be too high for some, and the level designs contribute to some cheap deaths, but the feeling when you complete it is second to none.
Environments take on a variety of designs from two completely separate points in history, and the visual quality never stutters or seizes up, but minus the 3D effect it never really offers the hardware a challenge, and doesn’t look like anything beyond the first dual screen handheld’s abilities. Still-motion cutscenes inject some juice into the story with success.
Voicework is sparse but effectively used in cutscenes, and the music itself isn’t too memorable, but entirely fitting for the backdrops it is used in.
Most players will go for the end of easy mode and call it a day, but for those seeking a major challenge three higher difficulty levels, a ton of unlockables and achievements, and a functional StreetPass feature that will require you to wear through many pairs of shoes to finish ensure more persistent players will get a lot out of Shinobi.
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Shinobi is by no means a showcase of Nintendo 3DS’ abilities despite making use of nearly all of them, but with a compelling old-school gameplay structure, a rewarding sense of achievement and a difficulty level bordering on the psychopathic, it is a viable option for those wanting a challenging pick-up-and-play title.
Shane, I've seen a few reviews of this now and yours, not being biased here or anything, is by far one of the most fair. A lot of criticism has been thrown at it, but you picked up a wide array of valid points and clearly stuck with it longer than most. Great work
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Jman (guest) 04.01.2012 18:35#2
The "franchise's trademark immense difficulty"? The early Shinobi games on Genesis were cakewalks. Either that or we older gamers were better players in our day than today's gamers.