Take that, stupid purple guy!
Natsume’s 1990 action-platformer Shadow of the Ninja gets something of a bad rap. Or at least it did for years. Also known as Yami no Shigotonin Kage (“The Darkness Worker Kage”) in Japan and Blue Shadow in Europe, Shadow was frequently dismissed as a poor man’s Ninja Gaiden clone in its day. It’s since won itself numerous defenders and is now cited by many NES devotees as one of the console’s premier “hidden gems.” To find out why, let’s delve into what exactly Shadow brings to the table and what really differentiates it from Tecmo’s better-known classic.
Right off the bat, one thing that Shadow of the Ninja doesn’t do is ape Ninja Gaiden’s groundbreaking cinematic storytelling. The setup for your adventure is as basic as they come. It’s the year 2029 and some evil jerkwad named Emperor Garuda has taken over the United States. Not being big Garuda fans, two ninja warriors named Hayate and Kaede have arrived at his stronghold in New York City to take the mad dictator down by hacking and slashing their way through a total of sixteen enemy-packed stages.
You can choose freely between the two protagonists at the start of a single player game, though both control identically, so there’s no real reason to go with one over the other unless you strongly prefer a blue or orange ninja outfit. The practical reason for the inclusion of two heroes is to allow for simultaneous two-player cooperative gameplay. This was an extremely rare and coveted feature in action games of this vintage. If you’ve ever wished that you and a friend could play a game that’s like Contra except with a focus on close range combat over gunplay, this is the title for you.
Hayate and Kaede’s default attack utilizes a katana for rapid short range slicing. You can opt to exchange the sword for a kusarigama (chain-sickle) if you happen across one in an item box. The chain-sickle offers improved range as well as the ability to attack upward, with the important caveat that it has a blind spot directly adjacent to your character where it will pass right through foes harmlessly, so you’ll need to maintain a minimum of a inch or so of distance from whatever it is you’re swinging at. Picking up multiple copies of the same weapon in a row will upgrade its range. Taking more than a couple hits of damage is enough to strip you of this upgrade, though, so make sure to use the extra range to its best effect if you want it to last.
Your character can also acquire limited supplies of shurikens and bombs for projectile attacks. Unfortunately, these replace your regular weapon completely until they’re exhausted, which makes it tricky to save them for boss fights. The ability to switch between projectiles and your main weapon with the select button would have been a nice addition.
Finally, holding down the attack button button charges up a sort of super lightning move that damages all enemies on these screen. Since this also costs you a whopping 50% of your maximum health, however, I never once found a good use for it. Looks cool, though.
The action does indeed resemble Ninja Gaiden superficially. Breaking down the rules reveals some very interesting differences, however. Ninja Gaiden’s mechanics are calculated to drive the player forward at a constant breakneck sprint: All stages are strictly timed and virtually all non-boss enemies can be dispatched with a single strike, but also have the potential to respawn instantly in order to punish player hesitation or backtracking. Shadow of the Ninja turns this formula on its head, and the result is a much less frantic gameplay experience. There are no time limits here and enemies don’t respawn at all, though the majority of them are tougher, requiring multiple hits to take out. Instead of clinging to walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden, Hayate and Kaede are able to grab onto the underside of certain platforms. Suspiciously, Ryu would later gain the same ability in 1991’s Ninja Gaiden III. Hmm.
There are five main bosses to defeat and a couple of mini-bosses. They all have fairly basic patterns and shouldn’t take you too long to come to grips with. I did like a couple of their designs quite a bit, like the animated suit of samurai armor that breaks into pieces and then re-forms itself periodically and the martial artist who starts out fighting you alongside his pet bird, only for the two of them to then merge into a weird man-bird hybrid thing as the battle progresses. That’s something you don’t see every day, at least. My only complaint is that several of the bosses have deceptive health meters. I struggled with the last boss in particular for quite a bit because I wasn’t actually sure if my attacks were having any effect or if there was some trick or hidden weak point that I was missing. I ended up taking a lot of unnecessary risks and damage experimenting. Joke’s on me, though. It turns out that 80% or so of his health is just invisible and the meter doesn’t start visibly racheting down until you reach that final 20%. I hate this sort of nonsense.
With the ability to play through stages slowly and methodically, you might expect Shadow of the Ninja to be a much easier game than Ninja Gaiden. It is…mostly. Your ninja has a generous health bar that can be replenished by killing bosses and grabbing healing items. There are also no one-hit kill hazards anywhere in the game. Even falling into a pit, the bane of Ninja Gaiden players everywhere, only results in a small amount of damage and your ninja reappearing at the pit’s edge. And here I thought that Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past invented that! The only thing preventing Shadow from being a total cakewalk is that you’re given just six lives with which to complete the whole game, with no possibility to earn more. Even with the limited lives, a couple hours of practice will likely be enough to see you through to the end of this one.
The game is very much a winner on the presentation front. Character sprites aren’t exceptionally large or detailed, but this works to the game’s benefit by insuring ample space on screen for two players at once. Backgrounds are more impressive and show off some slick animated effects for a NES game. The driving rainstorm in the first level and the burning cityscape in level five both struck me as particularly gorgeous. The tunes are prime examples of the sort of frenetic hard rock style numbers that NES action-platformers are famous for. They also sound eerily similar to the ones in another Natsume game from around this time, Shatterhand, due to both using the same in-house sound driver created by Iku Mizutani. I can’t get enough of the song that plays over the ending cut scene after you vanquish Emperor Garuda. It’s just so profoundly triumphant. I want to set it up to play every time I come home from work, right when I step through the door. Righteous.
Shadow of the Ninja absolutely deserves its latter day reputation as an overlooked classic. Like a lot of early Natsume games, it’s not the most original of creations. The Contra and Ninja Gaiden influences are obvious enough (even of the latter are overstated), but you can also spot level design elements and enemies taken from the Castlevania and Mega Man franchises, too, if you look closely. What actually matters at the end of the day, though, is how well all these disparate elements work together, not where each one came from, and Shadow of the Ninja is a game that just works. It’s a pity that it never got to become an ongoing series. A sequel was very nearly released for the Game Boy, only to be bought out and rebranded late in development by none other than Tecmo themselves, who hastily replaced Hayate and Kaede with Ryu Hayabusa and rebranded it Ninja Gaiden Shadow.
Dang. I guess the moral of the story here is: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.