Shadow of the Ninja
  • Genre:
    • Platformer
  • Platform:
    • NES
  • Developer:
    • Natsume
  • Publisher:
    • JP Natsume
    • US Natsume
    • UK Taito
  • Released:
    • JP 08/10/1990
    • US December 1990
    • UK 07/25/1991
Score: 80%

This review was published on 11/21/2016.

Shadow of the Ninja is a side-scrolling platform video game developed by Natsume for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Famicom. It was originally released in Japan on August 10, 1990, North America in December 1990, and Europe on July 25, 1991. Natsume published the game in Japan and North America, but the Taito Corporation published it in Europe. The game went by a different name in every region, being called Kage in Japan and Blue Shadow in Europe and Australia. At the time, Europe had a thing against having the word "ninja" in its game titles, as exampled by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being renamed Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles over there. Anyway, this game completely rips off the Ninja Gaiden series made by Tecmo for the NES in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Don't hold that against it, though, because it's still pretty darn good. And being darn good is what it's all about, baby.

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In the year 2029 A.D., an evil emperor by the name of Garuda has conquered the United States of America. His first executive order was to build a gargantuan fortress in the heart of the nation's largest metropolis, New York City, where he currently resides. Garuda's dictatorial reign resulted in the loss of many human lives, plunging the whole world into despair. Conventional forces have been unable to stop the emperor's malevolent plans for total control, but there is hope. Reports have reached Garuda that two shadowy figures have infiltrated the outskirts of his city defenses. For the first time in his life, Garuda is afraid, because he knows that the invaders are deadly assassins referred to as ninjas. Lord Hayate and Lady Kaede are ninja masters from the Iga clan, and their mission is to assassinate Garuda in order to topple his wicked empire. Their success depends on your skill with an NES controller.

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Natsume rarely disappoints in the graphics and music departments, and this game is a good testament to that. This game has great sprites, great backgrounds, great foregrounds, great animations, and a great color palette. In other words, it looks great. Plenty of sophisticated visual trickery is used, too, like rotating gears in the background reminiscent of the ones from Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse for the NES. The music is also great, with lots of fast paced 8-bit tracks that'll make you want to run track. Speaking of sound, this game does some technologically impressive feats with regards to its sound effects. One of those technological feats is the presence of voice samples. Whenever your character swings his or her weapon, or gets hurt, they'll make an audible grunting noise. It's a bit underwhelming by today's standards, but digitized voices like these were a big deal for the NES at the time. Regardless, everything looks and sounds good.

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Prior to starting the game, you can choose to play as either Hayate or Kaede. Both characters play identically, so the differences are purely visual. To control either character, you press left or right on the d-pad to move in those directions, down to duck, A to jump, and B to attack. Holding the B button down for a few seconds will do a powerful attack that hits everything on the screen, but this drains some of your life bar. Unlike Ninja Gaiden, you can't climb walls, but you can cling onto overhangs, like horizontal bars, poles, and beneath certain thin platforms. You can climb left or right while hanging from an overhang, attack, drop down by pressing A, and get on top of it by pressing up. When standing on top of an overhang, you can press down and A to go downwards and hang off it again. This simple, yet genius technique is utilized all throughout the game in many cool and interesting ways, so it's quite neat.

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Your standard weapon is a katana blade, but you can switch to other instruments of death through the acquisition of power-ups. Power-ups are typically found within item boxes and include stuff like healing potions, shurikens, and bombs. Shurikens and bombs replace your main weapon until you run out of ammo, at which point, you'll revert back to your standard melee attack. The biggest thing is the kusarigama, which replaces the katana when picked up, and unlike the shurikens and bombs, it doesn't have limited ammo, so you can keep it. It's basically a sickle attached to a long chain, meaning it has far greater range than the katana, and it can also be swung diagonally upwards and straight up. However, it's much slower than the katana, and is unable to hit things at close range. However, it's possible to trade the kusarigama back in for the katana. Both the katana and kusarigama can be upgraded twice by picking up more of the same weapon, though there's also a scroll that upgrades whatever you've got to its maximum level. These upgrades also strengthen the projectile weapons, resulting in things like homing shurikens, but you lose all upgrades if you take too much damage. At any rate, the kusarigama is really fun to use.

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There are five stages to this game, but most of them are broken into three or four smaller sections. The general game play is fairly straightforward, as you're simply running through linear stages, slicing through anything that dares to cross you. Each stage will often take you on a tour of many different kinds of environments. For example, there's a harbor that turns into a facility with spinning gears, a sewer area that eventually leads to an underground base, and a city that transitions into the interior of a ruined building. Due to that, you'll never get bored of any one setting, as none of them ever overstay their welcome. The stage design features a wide range of environmental hazards to keep you busy, like pipes that blow searing hot steam, walls that shoot beams at you, conveyer belts, buzzsaws, and all other manner of devilry. And as mentioned earlier, you'll be clinging onto plenty of overhangs. This gives some stages an excellent sense of verticality, like the tower you scale in stage four. Basically, the stage design is good.

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A big part of what makes the stages fun is the large variety of enemies. The enemy design is rather creative, like snorkeling ninjas, dudes with boomerangs, robots that break into a flying torso and dismembered legs when struck, football player-like guys that attempt to tackle you into pits, and much more. There's even a spry guy that turns into a tornado, and another one that shoots his fist and head at you! And as with most video games, there are also bosses and mini-bosses. Most bosses are mechanical in design, like robotic worms and such. One interesting boss is a giant tank that causes fire to rain down from above, and you can hide beneath a piece of metal near its treads to avoid being hit. Another inventive boss consists of animated samurai armor that falls apart whenever you hit it, only to reassemble a brief moment later to continue the fight. You really got to hand it to whoever came up with this stuff.

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One big feature this game has over Ninja Gaiden is its two player co-op mode. Either player can elect to be Hayate or Kaede, not that there's much of a difference. Each player has their own separate life bar and power-ups, making it possible to delegate tasks, such as having one person use the kusarigama while the remaining player sticks to the katana. Both players must be on the same screen at all times, which can prove to be a hindrance in many situations if there isn't careful teamwork. Speaking of hindrances, both players also share continues. On the bright side, if one of the players is still alive, the dead player can jump right back into the action, preventing you from having to start back at the checkpoint. Even so, the game is ridiculously hard, especially on the last few stages. Still, co-op is always a treat.

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Before creating Harvest Moon, the prolific farming simulator series, Natsume made lots of cool 8-bit games on the NES, like Abadox: The Deadly Inner War, S.C.A.T.: Special Cybernetic Attack Team, Shatterhand, and finally, Shadow of the Ninja. Of these, Shatterhand is indisputably the best, but Shadow of the Ninja is easily the second best. The graphics, music, and controls are all top notch for an NES game, plus the stages are varied and the baddies are delightfully unique. The game even has co-op! This is easily one of the best games in the NES' massive library. It certainly gives Ninja Gaiden a run for its money.

Word Count: 1,466

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