Games are meant to fulfill a variety of “enjoyment types”, so to speak. Some of them are meant to evoke strong feelings of relation to the characters that populate its world, like JRPGs. Others are meant to simply pull feelings of joy and happiness from you (*coughKatamariDamacycough*). And still others are meant to inspire a mad devotion to learning the intricacies of a complex, involved system of gameplay styles.
There are literally dozens of others I can think of right now, but the subject of this review caters to one very specific aspect of the gamer psyche: the thirst for a challenge. Any game worth its salt is going to involve a modicum of difficulty in its structure. Be they through difficult puzzles, tough enemies, difficult bosses or even a world that requires more thought than just “You are here. Go over there”, games present us with obstacles to overcome to add that necessary sense of satisfaction.
There are some, however, who go beyond merely the offer of a challenge. For these games, the overcoming of obstacles is not merely a facet of the game, it is the purpose itself. You play through it, not so much for some perceived reward on the other end (although such an offer is rarely unappreciated), but for the cathartic satisfaction of surpassing the challenges placed before you. Back in the NES/SNES/Genesis days, a good amount of the shooters and platformers of the time fell into this category. The technology was too simplistic to really give any type of deep, meaningful experience, so the only thing developers could do was to create a gameplay system, and then give a challenging adventure on which to use it.
But time passes, and as games became more intricate and meaningful, less emphasis was placed on the challenge, and more on the “experience” of it all. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. “Games as experiences” is pretty much the primary reason for my love of the things, although I too was forged in the fires of the early-mid 90’s challenges. However, every now and then, a game arrives that adheres to that old principle. It gives you a set of abilities, and drops you in a world of powerful enemies and difficult situations, and says “Here, go for it”. Shinobi for the PS2 is such a game. It is not a mere coincidence that it was like this; the PS2 version acts as a spiritual successor/sequel to the Shinobi games on the Genesis, and they too were known for their challenge. When bringing it to (at the time) modern consoles, the developers decided to preserve the challenge that made the original series of games so memorable.
But the problem is, by and large, without the breath of necessity pushing on them, such games tend to be terrible nowadays. Challenge which once emerged naturally out of a cleverly designed system, which itself emerged from limitations on the systems themselves, now feels artificial in light of modern techniques. Could a game still bring that kind of feeling in this day and age? Or would it feel soulless and terrible, or worse, badly made and cheap? I am happy to say that Shinobi manages to avoid all these issues (mostly), and emerges as a fun, if incredibly frustrating, gem.
Go and Prevent a Panic in the City!
The star of our story is one Hotsuma. Hotsuma is a character designed by men who watch a lot of anime, and men who work at department stores. He’s all black cloth, oddly midriff-looking leather armor, arm spikes, a cool ass helmet, and most importantly, a long, flowing red scarf that is, to this day, one of my favorite visual flourishes on a character. Hotsuma is, in all things, a cool looking, bad-ass character, and his design definitely sticks out among all the other bland “action adventure” heroes, or even among the other solid colored ninja you see in other games.
Hotsuma is the leader of a clan of Ninja, the Oboro clan. And as the leader, he wields the ancestral sword, Akujiki. The sword’s history, and how he came to possess it, is all very ugly and ties in with his elder brother, Moritsune, and his childhood friend, Ageha. Other important clan members include Kobushi-sama, an ex clan leader who acted as the adoptive father to all three, and the numerous specialized members who act as the bosses of the game.
Wait, the bosses? But the Oboro are a clan joined by honor and familial affection, right? Well, voice of my invisible audience, that would normally be the case. But just before the events of the game, someone, or something, slaughtered the entirety of the Oboro clan, save for a handful of members, of which Hotsuma is one. Worse, all the ones who were murdered have been brought back to life, from the low ranking footsoldiers to the most skilled members. And these resurrected monstrosities are now attacking Tokyo, along with a host of demons. The leader of these creatures is an elderly mystic named Hiruko, who has a beef with the Oboro (and Japan in general, it seems) going back a long time. But why is he attacking now? Why did he slaughter Hotsuma’s people? And how many fools is Hotsuma going to cut now that he’s pissed?
And so you guide Hotsuma through a series of stages, most broken up into two or so “sections” that must be traversed, and ALL lacking a mid-level checkpoint. This is an issue we will get into later. Generally, you fight through the first part of the stage, at which point you fight a sort of “midboss”, usually a resurrected Oboro (again, more on them later). The second half of the stage is usually a stiffer challenge, and at the end you’ll fight a more unusual enemy, like a Hellspawn Lord, or even a frickin helicopter.
Your tools in these confrontations are a small, but efficient moveset. You get your basic sword combo, a double jump, a button to toss a foe-stunning kunai, a spinning slash for crowd control, and a kick to break block on enemies. There’s also a wall running mechanic used mostly for platforming and taking out very specific enemy types, and some magic skills that, no joke, I used maybe twice in my whole time with the game. Most important is your shadow dash. The shadow dash quickly moves you left, right, back or forward from wherever you are standing. Besides being useful for closing on an enemy (and for helping you cover a little more distance on a jump), the dash also leaves an afterimage, which enemies will usually take a swipe at before realizing you are gone.
The dash, however, ties in to one more system, the one most unique to the game. Early on in the story, Akujiki, Hotsuma’s sword, gets a good taste of an early boss’s blood. After that, it gains the ability to absorb the souls/power of the demons it kills. This results in two things: one, if you do not kill enemies on a fairly regular basis, then the small, circular gauge near your life bar will start to empty. If it empties all the way, then Akujiki will start to slowly, but surely, sap at your life. This encourages you to move rather briskly through the levels. The second is it gives you access to the “Tate” system.
The system is as follows: whenever you kill an enemy, your sword will become stronger for a small period of time, about five seconds. Said killed enemy will stand in place, not falling apart until your tate has ended. Using the shadow dash, you want to move quickly to another enemy and kill them, further empowering the sword. As you kill more enemies onscreen, the sword will get stronger, to the point that you will be one-shotting everything you touch, dashing and killing while feeling awesome. The sword glows to show you how beefed it is: killing two or three enemies will give it a pleasant blue glow, will moving into the five or six range will give it a sort of violet aura. By the time you hit purple, you are killing shit indiscriminately. If you manage to kill everything on screen, and said things totals more than three enemies, then you get treated to a cool scene of Hotsuma posing while the enemies fall apart around you. The above screenshot is one such instance.
The Tate system is probably the game’s strongest point. Although there is of course the aesthetically pleasing aspect, and of course a good Tate will add to your end of level score, the system becomes more and more necessary the further in you get. Some bosses have absolutely staggering lifebars, ones that can’t even be scratched with a normal combo. On the opposite end, building up a good purple Tate can let you off even a boss enemy in one or two shots. Luckily, almost every boss has little minions of some kind who will show up, usually in fours, so you can build your Tate and get at them.
Except…yeah, good luck making it that easy. Actually, good luck making ANYTHING in the game that easy. You’ll recall that above, I mentioned that Shinobi is a hard game. Well, let’s talk about that. Shinobi is blessed with responsive controls, reliable mechanics, and some of the most ball-shattering difficulty I have experienced in a game. The difficulty, in this case, comes both by design and by cheapness. On the design side, enemies are aggressive and mildly intelligent, necessitating the use of the dash to survive when groups of them bear down upon you. The enemies run the gamut from your standard zombie Oboro clan members, to flying demons who shoot fire, to spear-wielding Tengu creatures. There’s not much variety, but it gets the job done. When they’re all attacking you at once, you need to keep your wits about you; a dash away from a ninja can send you right into the line of a demon’s fireball. A jump away from a Tengu can leave you wide open to a group of ninja doing a flipping drop strike, etc…
That is fine. Now we come to the ballbusting part. First of all, there are no mid-stage check points. The only time the game saves is when you beat a boss, that’s it. If you bite it mere inches away from the end of a stage, then you are shot right back to the beginning, and now have to recollect all the power ups, bonus coins, and all that stuff just like the first time through. This becomes an even bigger issue when some stages get very complex later on, with large amounts of difficult enemies and, God help you, the bottomless pits.
Oh yes. The pits. Like the great actioners of yore, Shinobi plays host to numerous “Fall and you die” jumping sections, usually in the middle or end of the stages. This is exacerbated by the unfortunate fact that Hotsuma’s jumps are just not that smooth. Granted, they aren’t terrible or unmanageable like, say, those of Lau from Bujingai. But they are stiff and lack much horizontal movement. The use of the dash in midair becomes not only useful but absolutely necessary as the game goes on, but even that can sometimes simply shoot you off a ledge to your death. Couple all that with the checkpoint issue, and this can lead to some of the most hair tearing deaths imaginable.
The bosses, luckily, avoid most of those issues, and are usually quite cool and challenging (again, in a good way). The Oboro members are a cool bunch, from the cocky fire user Homura to the fight craving Kongou. My personal favorite is Kizami, a blind swordsman with his sheath attached to his arm who uses Iaijutsu (that style that focuses on drawing the sword when attacking). His fight takes place in a flooded hallway where, if you don’t figure out the right way to fight him, he will fucking slaughter you. That’s really the bossfights in a nutshell: awfully difficult, but if you learn the enemy’s patterns and quirks, then you stand a chance. The visual designs on these guys is also worth talking about. Hakuraku is a little old man with a giant backpack that he shoots ninja dogs out of (yes, ninja dogs), while the aforementioned Kongou is a beefy giant of a man who uses a shuriken the size of a shield, which he flies on, and wears what appears to be some kind of high heels/stilts that he dropkicks you with. Yup.
Meanwhile the Hellspawn Lords, although serviceable, seem rather traditional by comparison. You have your standard fox demon type, your giant moth, your lizard-thing, pretty much what you’d expect. The only one who gets any points for originality is Shirakumo, who is, in fact, a giant spider with a tiger’s head. Or as even the game guide and manual so helpfully put together, a “stiger”. These fights, although by no means unfun, are generally less interesting than the Oboro fights (with the exception of the last of the four, but to go into that would approach spoiler territory), with broader, more predictable patterns and cheaper attacks that make death feel less like a matter of “Oh, I wasn’t skilled enough” than “Oh come on, he spammed that attack like twenty times in a row!”. Overall, though, the bossfights are all high quality, and offer pretty sound challenges for your stage endings.
It’s a good thing the gameplay aspects are so sound, because in terms of overall production design…eh, there are some issues with quality. Character models animate well, but are kind of blocky and awkward looking. It fits the artstyle, but some monsters are downright ugly to look at. Faring even worse are the environments: they are, to a one, ugly, muddy places with lots of fog to obscure the backgrounds and generally bland locations from one to the next. You’ve got your rooftops, your burning village, your laboratory, all the standards. Almost no effort was made to give you cool, good looking places in which to do all the cool shit that you do.
On the other end, though, Shinobi has, without a doubt, one of the best soundtracks of its era. The fusion of retro synth beats with traditional Japanese instruments gives the soundtrack an ambience to call to mind the old days, with quick, simplistic beats, yet feel distinctly new at the same time. The whole soundtrack is worth mentioning, but I’ll just highlight a few here.
Even from the very first theme, where you’re dropped on the city streets and Transfiguration kicks in, you know you’re firmly in the old school.
While Waiting Place provides a cool, memorable theme for your Oboro bossfights. Good thing too, since you’ll be hearing it a lot with all the dying you’ll be doing.
In terms of stage themes, you don’t get much better than Cool Corporation, which fits the gauntlet of gates and temples you find yourself in at the time. It’s a mix of ominous-sounding synth warbling with some good woodwind, which gives the theme an odd mix of comfort and foreboding
As mentioned above, the game has the standard “corporate laoboratory” stage. But luckily, it’s coupled with the distinctly un-standard Strange Device, a gloriously retro-like theme with a head bobbing beat that makes your stay in that hellhole of pits memorable. Particularly the part after :57 makes it all worth it.
However glorious, all of these pale in comparison to Call, the final boss theme of the game. It’s like someone took all the best parts of the rest of the soundtrack, and merged them into one epic, final theme for the bastard that you fight at the end of the game. It’s easily in my top ten boss themes ever.
All in all, the soundtrack is definitely one worth owning if you like some good ol’ fashioned, pulse pounding beats.
A Cast of Doornails
I saved the story and characters for last since Shinobi, in yet another throwback to its 90’s roots, has barely any of either to speak of. Couple that with the absolutely terrible voice acting, and the whole thing becomes a strange mix of blandness and hilarious memorability. Note that, although I have played it in both languages, the subject here is the english version of the game.
Let’s start with Hotsuma. As I mentioned above, he is a cool character, no doubt. His design is awesome, and he really feels like a cool engine of death and revenge. And yet, whenever he opens his mouth, you can be sure that is’s going to be the same spiel about “vengeance” and “It’s my duty”. His voice is oddly soft and high, not to mention monotone, in the english version, though, draining any real intimidation from his threats. On the opposite end, the “mysterious man in white” (It’s Moritsune. Come on guys, it’s obvious from the moment you see him.) you fight repeatedly has a rather bland design, very “generic cyber ninja”, and yet HIS voice actor is deliciously hammy, literally chomping every single syllable. His pronunciation of “Akujiki” is particularly memorable.
Moving on to supports and villains, we have Ageha, childhood friend of Hotsuma and Moritsune, and annoying dipshit extraordinaire.
I can’t say too much, but let’s simply say that she makes some very dumb choices throughout the game. The Oboro you meet throughout the game, almost as if to make up for their awesome designs, have thoroughly terrible voices, although for some of them, the cheese fits. As for the villain of the piece, Hiruko is voiced by Roger Jackson, a man who has made a career of voicing some of the best, most over the top characters ever (you may recall such gems as Colonel Nohman from Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner and as Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls). For the few scenes he is given, he of course approaches it with faux-gravitas, lending a sort of bombastic awesomeness to the villain. A ways through the game, Hiruko’s voice changes, and I really don’t care for the shrill nonsense that results. Oh, and in case you were wondering why I didn’t mention Ageha’s voice above, it was because it’s…well, take a look.
It appears that Ageha’s worst oppnent is not any enemy ninja, it is the paper bag she must try to act her way out of. Jesus Christ, not a single bit of that sounded natural. Oh, and before you think that the humans have a call on the terrible voicing, let’s let Shirakumo disabuse you of the notion that ANYONE, even a goddamn SPIDERTIGER, sounds good in this universe.
I have absolutely nothing to follow that with. Never has an ostensibly intimidating opponent made me laugh so hard.
The Way of the Ninja
As far as unlockables go, you got your standard suite of movie galleries and art. More interesting is what you get when you collect Oboro coins. Each stage has two or three of these golden coins, just chilling somewhere, that you can choose to try and get. Some are easy, requiring that you merely keep your eye out. Others are over bottomless pits, and carry a very real threat of death. The unlockables from these include new characters, both of which actually do a good amount to change how the game is played, and warrant multiple playthroughs.
So at the end of the day, what are we looking at with Shinobi? It’s a game that hearkens back to the time when the challenge was the thing. When managing to actually beat a game was all the reward you needed. And boy does this game challenge you, both in good and bad ways. A stellar moveset and capable enemies are mixed with some challenging bosses and more cheap fall deaths than I would care to count. Through it all, however, you never lose that thrill of success, and it is that which pushes you on. You feel as if, if you just get better, then you can get past that one obstacle, that one boss, that one stage. And seeing as that was the game’s goal, it achieves its mission with gusto.
The Breakdown (five sections, 20 possible points each)
Playability – Controls are precise for the most part. You never feel like the game is working against you, but the somewhat stiff jump mechanics are a bit of an issue for those damn pits. 13 out of 20
Graphics – Artistically, the game is quite solid. Enemy monster designs are cool, Hotsuma himself is sleek and awesome, and the enemy Oboro in particular shine. Unfortunately, all of this is let down by muddy textures and bland environments. 10 out of 20
Sound – Simplistic sound effects are combined with some of the most hilariously bad voice acting since Resident Evil. Everyone sounds awkward and stilted, some are trying WAY too hard, and in the end, it lends the whole affair a sort of campiness that just fits. On the other hand, the soundtrack is among the best you’ll hear, with catchy, memorable beats and epic themes for the confrontations you will find yourself in. 18 out of 20
Gameplay – A true throwback to the ages of hardcore controller throwing, Shinobi throws down the gauntlet, gives you the tools and says “Here, beat me if you can”. Combos come out easy, the stealth dash adds a good layer of complexity to fighting, and the Tate system keeps you on your toes. Although your combat options are thin, the furious nature of the game actually would not have lent itself well to an extensive moveset. Beyond that, some enemies are rather cheap, and the unfair placement of insta-death pits can be more than a little frustrating. 14 out of 20
Content – The game is pretty long, about 8 hours one way through. Although, God knows it will be much longer with the repeat deaths and restarts. Unlockable characters encourage repeat playthroughs, and game design in general is good enough that you’ll want to come back to “take on the beast”, as it were. 14 out of 20
Score Weighting – 5 points up from music and gameplay. Overall, 74/100
Ninja Ball Buster – 7/10