Following the success of Enter the Ninja in 1981, ninjas became big business in the United States – everyone had to have one, or two or even a whole bunch. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Oprah was handing out ninjas to anyone who wanted one. “You get a ninja! And you get a ninja! Look under your seats – ninjas!”
Masters of the Universe had a ninja, Transformers had a ninja, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero started with a ninja or two until they ended up with an entire Ninja Force, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Well, it goes without saying that they were all about ninjas. Their popularity never really went away, but the ’80s were definitely the heyday for ninjas in popular media.
That isn’t to say that the craze is what inspired SEGA to develop a game about a ninja, but it surely didn’t stop them from capitalizing on it when Shinobi was released to arcades in 1987.
Just your average Joe?
For its part, Shinobi‘s gameplay could be seen as a little derivative of some other games of the time, particularly Namco’s Rolling Thunder. Action takes place as players move Joe Musashi through a variety of levels to rescue hostages and navigate obstacles by using a special high jump to reach and descend from ledges which transcend his normal leaping ability.
That isn’t to say Shinobi didn’t put its own stamp on the concept, however. In addition to ditching the game of hide-and-seek with doors throughout the levels, Joe eschews a pistol for shuriken – at least, until he rescues the hostages that grant him a gun with explosive bullets.
He’s also adept at close-quarters combat, handily disposing of foes with a powerful kick or a katana slash. Plus, when the hordes of enemy Zeed soldiers get to be too much (or you just want to pack an extra punch against a boss), Joe’s special ninjutsu techniques can wipe the slate clean for a short time.
Teaching an old ninja new tricks …
While there have been ample opportunities to experience this arcade legend over the years, this may very well be the best way for newcomers (or those beaten down by countless Zeed thugs) to jump right in.
As with all the other SEGA AGES releases on the Nintendo Switch, M2 is doing the honors with porting duties of this title. And as we all know, M2 doesn’t mess around when it comes to throwing in all sorts of cool extras and features for newcomers and seasoned veterans alike.
This release includes both the Japanese and international versions of the game, and offers four different levels of difficulty: Easy, Normal, Hard and Hardest. This can be further augmented by choosing whether the number of lives you’ll have on a credit is two, three or five. Still not enough? You can also toggle whether the enemies’ projectiles travel at a slow or fast speed.
If you’re itching to replay a particular part of the game, there is a stage select feature, though it only applies to levels you’ve already visited – no skipping ahead!
That said, there’s another feature here that is carried over from their release of SEGA AGES Alex Kidd in Miracle World: The ability to rewind time, which the game describes as “the pinnacle of ninjutsu! Press ZL or ZR during missions, and behold! Time reverses!” Even this great power has its limits, though, as it will only take you back about 12 ticks of the in-game clock. This should be sufficient, should you use it wisely.
Most of the other elements included are fairly typical for the SEGA AGES line: Button mapping, save states, music player, HD Rumble, rankings and a variety of screen setting options. The display modes include various fittings, from wide to pixel perfect and filling the screen, plus whether you’d like to incorporate a scan line filter, smoothing, both or neither. There’s also a unique Shinobi wallpaper, as well as the usual generic ones, a black border, and a little something special.
One display mode mimics playing on an arcade machine, with other games visible in the background. When playing this way, smoothing and scan lines are locked on, and there’s even a bit of background noise to simulate being in an arcade. After seeing what they did on the Nintendo 3DS, it’s maybe a little regretful that they didn’t include the sounds of a moving joystick (it remains static while you play) and the clicking buttons, too. Not a deal breaker by any stretch, but it is a mile we’ve seen M2 walk before.
Not a walk in the park …
Even with all these options and features, however, Joe Musashi’s mission is still a pretty tough one! Even on Easy settings, I was a little surprised that I managed to actually beat it. Fortunately, this ninja master has one other trick up his sleeve: AGES Mode.
“So you’ve made it here to AGES Mode!”, you’re told upon choosing the option. “Joe Musashi will be clothed in perpetual white! Each of his strikes on the enemy will be at its strongest! Go forth as he awaits your move!”
In plainer terms, this means that Joe is, as noted, in white (not his uniform from later games, but just a palette swap of this one). Rather than dying when he takes a hit, though, he’ll instead turn to red, at which point he’ll either return to white upon rescuing more children or die when hit again. He also has his explosive rounds and katana at the ready from the outset, and all together, this makes a rather significant difference.
That said, I wish that maybe there had been some options within the AGES Mode. The two hits alone are quite a game changer, and I’m curious how I’d have done with just that equipped, without the attacks at full power. Either way, though, it’s fun.
Oh, and something which might be worth noting is that while M2 made an effort to incorporate elements of the Master System version of Fantasy Zone into the SEGA AGES version of that title, they didn’t elect to do the same for Joe Musashi’s more vast arsenal and other elements of Shinobi from SEGA’s 8-bit platform.
One final thing to point out is that there have been some slight changes in the graphics over the years. While the original arcade release and home ports did feature a picture of Marilyn Monroe in the second stage, this was removed in later releases, such as on the Xbox 360. For this version, rather than outright removal, the images have instead been replaced with a visual of the werewolf from Altered Beast (I’d have used Streets of Rage‘s character portrait of Blaze Fielding, myself, for a sense of female star continuity, but it’s an amusing substitution nevertheless). Similarly, the Spider-Man-ish ninjas that crawl along the walls are in the newer green-and-yellow color scheme.
All in all, as with most of M2’s SEGA AGES catalog, this seems like pretty much the version of Shinobi to get. Whether you’re a veteran fan of the classic looking to reminisce or a newcomer who’s looking to improve their ninja skills and learn the legacy of the Musashi clan’s war against the Zeed, you really can’t go wrong with this release.
- Lots of options to help get the difficulty juuust right for most any player.
- Neat arcade simulation backdrop
- All the characters look like they’re from one big ’80s action flick.
- Arcade simulation backdrop not as robust as previous efforts.
- Lack of Master System features may keep this from feeling quite “definitive” for some.
- Purists may loathe some of the graphic tweaks made since the original release.