Developer: Griptonite Games
Available on: Nintendo 3DS Only
I am not going to beat around the bush, I have a lot of love for the Shinobi series. If you remove the likes of The Cyber Shinobi and the terrible Revenge of Shinobi that surfaced on the Gameboy Advance, I have always been able to rely on my boy Joe Musashi to deliver the goods each time he goes after his nemesis Zeed, or whichever terrorist happens to be bothering him at the time. The original 1987 arcade game remains a classic, and holds the honour of being the first coin op that I successfully managed to beat using one credit, a testament to the proximity and 10p-a-go price of the cabinet that was housed in a takeaway just a short BMX ride away from my childhood home. I went on to enjoy many precious ninja memories over the years, Shadow Dancer, in both its arcade and stellar Megadrive incarnations provided tons of platform thrills, along with a ninja dog that you could actually send to attack people. Shinobi X had some utterly hilarious FMV sequences and there were a clutch of terrific Shinobi cartridges for the underrated, but battery-devouring, Game Gear. Even a move to 3D on the couple of PlayStation 2 exclusives provided some atmospheric, and highly violent action.
There hasn’t been any sign of Shinobi now for the best part of a decade, save for the downloadable versions available of some of the classic earlier games, but that hasn’t stopped movie and comic book tie-in and handheld specialists Griptonite Games from resurrecting the franchise for the 3DS. What can gamers expect from this 2k11 reboot and return to 2D-style platforming?
STORY: Not for the first time in the series, you play as someone other than O.G protagonist Joe Musashi. This time things go back to the essence as you take control of Joe’s father Jiro, the leader of the Oboro Clan back in c1200 Japan. Even back in the day, that dastardly Zeed was up to no good as the story begins with Musashi’s arch nemeses the Zeed Clan torching his village. If that wasn’t bad enough, Jiro then gets sucked into some sort of crazy time warp, which places him in the year 2056, where Zeed has got himself fully tooled up with a personal army featuring all manner of baddasses from the future.
GRAPHICS: Shinobi is not the most incredible graphical tour de force you are ever going to see, but it does get by on its angular charm, some fluid animation and the nice level designs; early on at least. There is good use of depth, and the 3D is employed to create some nifty looking backdrops; the opening level is gorgeous. The warm ochre and burnt amber of the trees in the sunset are complimented beautifully by the twisting flames that dance around in the mess of houses that is Hiro’s village. There are some fantastic cutscenes throughout, too, offering a unique art style and some dazzling images. My main gripe is that about half way through the game, the level design seems to drop off completely, with bland, futuristic settings and barely an iota of the imagination of the proceeding levels. This is a poor show given that when I think of Shinobi, I can remember nothing but increasingly excellent, imaginative levels as you progress through the game.
SOUND: There are some very Shinobi-esque tunes to be enjoyed. You aren’t going to hear anything quite as brilliant as the now-legendary Yuzo Koshiro tunes from days past, but the soundtrack is of high quality and makes perfect sense. There are some good sword clinking, shuriken throwing, enemy slashing effects, too.
GAMEPLAY: Shinobi is hard. Real old-school. Tougher than shoe leather. You traverse the 2.5D platform levels, putting to use the various ninjitsu techniques that you would come to expect over the course of the series. There is a sterling tutorial at the start which shows you how to carry out the many swish moves in Musashi Sr’s repertoire. You can slice using your trusty katana, or fling kunai blades to dispatch your foes. There is a useful grappling hook, and you can pull off slides, somersaults, double jumps and climbing techniques. Magic, a series staple, returns, and there are four different types you can access. The main difference to proceedings this time around is the way you can parry enemy attacks and are rewarded for building up combos and not being hit. This is easier said than done, much like kung fu fighting, parrying requires expert timing, and there are plenty of baddies looking to attack you with projectile attacks along the way. Of course you can simply go gung ho and run through the levels without paying much attention to your score, but racking up a tasty score multiplier and going for big points is a hardcore gaming challenge and one that fans of proper games are going to relish.
Shinobi die-hards know that any good Musashi adventure worth its salt will have a bonus round and this new version of Shinobi has a few non-platforming diversions to contend with. There are isometric 3D horse racing battle scenes, a section where you have to leap precariously between the roofs of cars, and even a surfing section. Also hidden away is the chance to take on a brand new version of the classic ninja throwing star fun from the very first ever Shinobi game. This is just one of the many nods to previous games in the series, and I am guessing that old school gamers are going to enjoy picking up on the little references to Shinobi’s past.
Sadly, the gameplay suffers in line with the deterioration in level design. The first few levels are terrific fun, but the further you progress, the more you find yourself cursing to your ninja God as you repeatedly fall down another irksome pit, or onto some unfairly placed spikes. It is a shame that Griptonite could not give Shinobi the full 100% across the proverbial ninety minutes.
LONGEVITY: One thing I can’t accuse Shinobi of is short changing the player. There are several extremely long levels, a bunch of achievements and unlockable content (some of which is accessed or purchased using 3DS play coins) and some tough sections that will take you a couple of practises to conquer. There is fun to be had in bettering your scores for each level, which involves mastering the parrying technique, and attempting to clear each stage without being hit or resorting to the use of the magical arts at your disposal; no mean feat.
VERDICT: Shinobi is an honourably retro title, that begins extremely well, yet lags considerably toward the end. The flashy polygons and 3D of the graphics do not hide what is a real old-school romp, one which will be a real challenge to most gamers if they really want to squeeze everything out that it has to offer. With more refinement and careful level design later on in proceedings this could have been top drawer. As it stands, it is merely just above average.