Can you believe it’s been over two-and-a-half years now since I’ve treated myself to a Shinobi outing? I did take a look at the tongue-in-cheek spin-off Alex Kidd in Shinobi World last Fall, but that game, while not without its charms, hardly counts. Time to remedy this with 1989’s The Revenge of Shinobi.
Revenge is the third entry in the series and the first to be developed specifically for a home console, as opposed to the arcades. Although not a launch title for the Genesis in North America, it’s remembered as a highlight of the system’s critical first year. Before the Super Nintendo hit the scene, it served as a vivid demonstration of Sega’s cutting edge 16-bit technology. This was no accident. Director Noriyoshi Ohba has stated in interviews that The Revenge of Shinobi (or The Super Shinobi, as it’s known in Japan) was intended from the start to showcase the new hardware’s strengths. Large sprites, multi-layered backgrounds, and Yuzo Koshiro’s sublime FM synth soundtrack collectively achieved their intended effect. One look at a commercial or even a magazine ad was all you needed to know that this one wouldn’t be coming to your humble NES.
Historical context is nice. A ninja game that’s a blast to play in the here and now is nicer. Since I was never a “Sega kid” growing up, it’ll be interesting to dive in and see if Revenge fits the bill.
Ninja master Joe Musashi is back. Unfortunately, so are his arch-foes in the Zeed crime syndicate. Now going by Neo Zeed, their agents have mortally wounded Joe’s master and kidnapped his lover, Naoko. This calls for one thing and one thing only: Revenge. Can Joe take down Neo Zeed and save Naoko before it’s too late? With two possible endings, that depends entirely on you.
Clever? Hardly. It’s clear what kind of guilty pleasure ninja movie vibe Ohba and company were aiming for, however, and I can’t fault them on that account. This is a game that proudly wears its pop culture influences on its sleeve, often to an absurd degree. Joe’s in-game resemblance to martial arts star Sonny Chiba is undeniable, for example. He also squares off against such luminaries as Batman, Spiderman, The Terminator, John Rambo, and Godzilla! Shockingly, Sega had no legal right to use any of these famous characters. The very idea of one of the world’s largest game publishers including this much stolen intellectual property in a marquee release is unfathomable today. It’s truly a testament to the Wild West nature of the ’80s game biz. Most of this offending character art was altered in subsequent revisions, so be sure to seek out the original for the most brazen, over-the-top boss fights possible.
Joe’s journey has been streamlined somewhat this time. There are no kidnapped children, time bombs, or other secondary objectives strung along the way, just eight stages of rock hard action-platforming to survive and eight bosses to kill. You get a solid lineup of level themes, encompassing an old-fashioned Japanese village, an airship interior, a busy freeway, various urban and industrial locales, and more. Many of these areas have their own environmental hazards to negotiate, such as the freeway’s speeding sports cars and the airship’s doors, which have a bad habit of popping open as Joe draws near and sucking him out mid-flight for an instant death. The only stage I didn’t end up enjoying was the very last one, a trite trial-and-error maze composed of countless identical doors. I know sewer and water levels get a bad rap, but does anyone out there actually like door mazes? I can’t imagine so.
The flow of the action here should be familiar to fans of arcade Shinobi. Joe Musashi isn’t exactly the swiftest ninja around with his measured walk and floaty moon jump. In other words, the breakneck “dash-and-slash” approach of a Ninja Gaiden is right out. Instead, it’s all about adopting a precise, methodical approach to threats.
All attacks are mapped to a single context-sensitive button. If an enemy is in melee range, pressing it will prompt Joe to lash out with sword swipes and kicks. If not, he’ll toss one of his shuriken blades. Unlike in the arcade, his shuriken supply is finite. Running out of ammo when facing a boss is something to avoid at all costs. Try to kill as many regular enemies as possible with melee strikes and keep an eye out for breakable crates containing bonus shuriken and other goodies.
Another new twist is the double jump. If you’ve played other platforming games, you’re likely already acquainted with the concept. Tap the button a second time during a jump to miraculously rebound off thin air and gain some added hang time. Might as well hoist a middle finger or two at physics while you’re at it. This technique is absolutely vital for success in Revenge of Shinobi. Too bad it’s a pain to pull off. There’s seemingly only a split-second near the apex of Joe’s first jump during which the command to initiate the second one will be accepted. Many of the game’s most frustrating moments are the result of just barely missing this strict input window and having to watch Joe plummet to his doom. It would almost be funny if your opportunities to continue after game over weren’t limited. A welcome addition on the whole, this feature really should have been made more user-friendly.
Your saving grace against the finicky controls and overall steep challenge is Joe’s potent ninja magic. There are four spells to choose from, each useful in its own right. You’re encouraged to choose wisely, since magic can only be used once per life. Unless you’re lucky enough to stumble across the rare hidden pickups that grant extra charges, that is. Your options are a fiery blaze that damages all on-screen opponents, a lightning shield that temporarily nullifies damage and prevents knockback, a jump booster, and my personal favorite: A suicide attack. Yup, you can cause Joe to explode and lose a life. Why would you do such a thing? Well, it deals heavy damage to foes. More importantly, it allows Joe to start his next life on the spot with a full health bar. There’s no break in the action and no getting sent back to the last checkpoint like usual. If you’re at death’s door near the end of a tough section, the sacrifice can be worth it to seal the deal and guarantee progression. It’s not often you see such a grim idea molded into a compelling game mechanic. I approve.
In fact, I approve of The Revenge of Shinobi in general. Its final stage is a bit of a letdown and its double jump one of gaming’s roughest, but these missteps don’t come close to torpedoing this slick, stylish Sega classic. The later years of the Genesis would see it exceeded by faster, glitzier, more full-featured action-platformers, including its own direct sequel, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. Are those games going to let you huck shuriken at Batman and Godzilla, though? I think not.