Review: Shinobi (Nintendo 3DS/Sega Game Gear)

Shinobi
Genre: Platformer
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 03/15/2012

As did the Wii, so too is the 3DS getting its own Virtual Console library to play around with, though while the Wii seemed more focused on offering up console and arcade ports, the 3DS seems to be aiming more at offering up classics from the handheld market, with the odd NES games thrown in. Games from the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance libraries are beginning to fill the market of the download service, but Nintendo’s not the only one looking to do something with their old handheld titles, as Sega has recently released three Game Gear titles to the service. The Game Gear, while not as successful as the old creamed spinach screened Game Boy, had some very good titles throughout its run, so this is an exciting prospect, and the first three releases are games you can’t find anywhere else, which is a good way to start things off. Of those, Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble is likely to be the most notable release, but Shinobi, AKA The GG Shinobi, is also a fairly well known property attached to a fairly unknown game. Like its predecessors, Shinobi stars classic series protagonist Joe Musashi, though unlike prior games, also focuses on four unnamed ninja allies who work alongside him to fight evil, making the game one part Power Rangers/Sentai shows and one part Shinobi with a dash of Metroid tossed in. The end result is a pretty solid side scroller, especially for the four dollar price tag, that’s definitely worth a look, though whether or not it’s worth your download depends on a few things.

The plot in Shinobi is basically like many of the plots of side-scrolling games in the early days of gaming: bad stuff happens, go sort it out. In this case, Joe’s students have been kidnapped by a non-descript evil force coming from Neo City (yes, New City), and subsequently brainwashed into being EEEEEEEEVIL (INDEED), so it’s up to Joe to liberate them from evil and team up with them to destroy the evil in Neo City. This essentially amounts to… mostly nothing, aside from “LET’S GO GET “ËœEM” announcements at the end of stages and a minute long ending sequence, but it was a different time, so we can basically expect that to be the case and move on. Visually, the game looks like one would expect; the Game Gear looked good for its time, but doesn’t have the most developed color palette at this point. As such, the game looks like a high quality eight bit title, with multi-layer backgrounds and decent enemy and stage variety, but the player characters are obvious palette swaps, for example. The game looks good in motion, though, and holds up well enough thanks to the variety available. Aurally, the game is mostly arcade-sounding explosions and hit effects, and nothing sounds terribly out of place in the least. The music, on the other hand, is fantastic, largely thanks to the talents of master creator Yuzo Koshiro, who, as always, brings the MIDI sound palette to life with excellent and enjoyable tracks that set the tone nicely. It’s easily the best part of the experience, and well worth a listen, years after its initial creation and release.

Shinobi plays simply enough that it’s easy to pick up and understand in seconds, though it’s got some mildly interesting quirks as it goes on. The D-Pad or analog stick allow you to move your chosen ninja around, one button attacks, and the other jumps. By default, you’re controlling Joe Musashi, the “red” ninja, though as you progress through the stages, you’ll unlock four additional ninjas to play as. Joe, the Red Ninja, uses a decent power short-range sword attack, and has Ninja Magic that destroys enemies on screen and can break down some fragile walls. The Pink Ninja throws high powered bombs, sticks to ceilings when you press Up and Jump, and has Ninja Magic that can light rooms and freeze enemies. The Yellow Ninja throws low power energy balls that can be charged for higher damage, walks on water, and has Ninja Magic that creates a lightning shield to protect from damage. The Blue Ninja uses a decent power grappling hook attack that allows him to swing on things, and has Ninja Magic that turns him into a damaging tornado that allows you to move around the screen and avoid damage. Finally, the Green Ninja throws weak shurikens, can double-jump, and has Ninja Magic that blows him up to damage all enemies… at the cost of a life and all your stored Ninja Magic. You can use Ninja Magic and switch Ninjas from the pause menu, so at the simple press of the Start Button you have all of your tools available. Switching Ninjas retains your life bar at its current level, however, so you retain damage across all Ninjas. You start the game with four bars, though you can find health power-ups, life bar extensions, 1UPs and Ninja Magic powerups as you progress through the stages to prepare yourself for the coming battles.

The stage structure gives you five total stages to play through, allowing you to play the first four in any order before you head to Neo City for the final showdown. There’s an ideal order you’ll want to take them on in, as different Ninjas are ideal for handling different stages and collecting the available powerups, similar to how something like Mega Man works, and in that fashion, you’ll need all five Ninjas for the final mission. You can get through the game in about two or three hours in one shot if you’re good, though your first few tries will likely involve you dying a lot until you get things down, as the game can be challenging in the early going. Knowing the order to do things in is a big help of course, as is using the built-in save state option the 3DS Virtual Console offers; you can save your position at any time via the touch screen, allowing you to save mid-session if you need to stop or if you want insurance before a rough battle. Even so, there’s plenty of challenge to the game, as the enemy patterns are well designed to make stage progression challenging without being frustrating, and the final stage, Neo City, is an incredibly complex level of puzzles and deathtraps that are difficult to figure out even with save states.

On the other hand, Shinobi is basically a game that becomes incredibly frustrating without knowledge of how to traverse the stages and the save state options for a few different reasons. The biggest of the lot is that Joe Musashi himself, the Red Ninja, is basically a character you’ll almost never use again once you unlock any other Ninja. This is problematic partially from a design standpoint, as it harkens back to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles problem of “Why would I ever use anyone but Donatello?”, but it’s also a hassle because if you pick any stage but the “correct” stage to start you’re going to be annoyed. This also becomes problematic because there are a few instances where you can miss out on vital powerups, like the aforementioned 1UP or life extension powerups, by bringing the wrong Ninja to the stage, or by not understanding what your characters can do, leaving you underpowered later, since you can’t revisit stages. This is something the sequel, Shinobi II: The Silent Fury addressed, but such is not the case here. The game is also short, relying on its challenge to make it interesting, but if you use the save state feature you can easily blow through it inside of a day, as most of the challenge comes from pattern recognition and the last stage.

Really, for four dollars, Shinobi is one of the better platformers to come out of the Game Gear, but it doesn’t hold up as well as it could. The game looks solid, sound great and plays just fine mechanically at this point, there’s a challenge here that older and challenge-loving gamers will appreciate, and the Virtual Console options make the game more accessible for the less skilled. The game is barren of modern conventions, mind you, so there’s nothing in the way of a coherent plot or cleanup, but as a classic re-release this is pretty solid. The game is built in a way that its successor improves on, however, as the game needs to be tackled in a certain order to get the most out of it, allows no return visits to completed stages, makes some characters decidedly less useful than others, and can ultimately be plowed through in one sitting. Shinobi is a solid re-release and platformer and franchise fans will love it, as it’s solid and not at all easy to find readily unless one owns a Game Gear, but Shinobi II: The Silent Fury is the better game in the series, leaving this one as more a cute history piece than a must-have retro experience.

The Scores:
Story: BAD
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: POOR
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: GOOD
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Shinobi, AKA The GG Shinobi, is a solid entry in the series that’s not readily available outside of the Game Gear, and while it’s not an amazing game two decades later, for the price it’s a fun old-school platformer that offers a decent challenge. The game looks solid for a Game Gear title, sounds fantastic in general, and is very easy to play, but full of challenging concepts for the player to learn and work with. The game offers a solid challenge, though the game also offers the Virtual Console options for saving your state that allow for some reduced difficulty if employed properly, so gamers of all skill levels should be able to have fun with the game, depending on how they approach it. The game doesn’t have the polish of its Game Gear sequel, Shinobi II: The Silent Fury, unfortunately, and the design punishes players for playing stages out of order, does not allow repeat stage visits to collect missed items, doesn’t do much to balance out the characters and leaves the game a little on the short side. If you’re a genre or series fan, Shinobi is a fun game and it’s not one you’ve likely played if you missed the Game Gear for one reason or another, and while there are better games in the series, if not in general, for the price and the novelty it’s worth a look.

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