Shinobi
  • Genre:
    • Platformer
  • Developers:
    • Sega (ARC/SMS)
    • Sales Curve (C64/AMI/ST/CPC/ZX/MSX)
    • Micromosaics (IBM)
    • Tengen (NES)
    • Dual (PCE)
  • Publishers:
    • Sega (ARC/SMS/C64/AMI/ST/IBM)
    • UK Virgin Mastertronic (C64/AMI/ST/CPC/ZX/MSX)
    • Tengen (NES)
    • Asmik (PCE)
  • Released:
    ARC
    • 1987
    SMS
    • 06/19/1988
    C64/AMI/ST/CPC/ZX/MSX
    • 1989
    NES/IBM
    • US 1989
    PCE
    • JP 12/08/1989
Score: 75%

This review was published on 08/22/2017.

Shinobi is a side-scrolling action video game developed by Sega. It was originally released as a coin operated arcade game in 1987, but got ported to many home platforms shortly after that. The first and most popular port was published and developed by Sega for its very own Sega Master System on June 19, 1988. In 1989, The Sales Curve Interactive developed ports for the Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, and MSX. These computer ports were mostly published by Virgin Mastertronic in Europe, though Sega published the Commodore 64, Amiga, and Atari ST versions in North America. Also in 1989, Micromosaics Incorporated developed a port for IBM PCs that was published by Sega in North America. Tengen also released an unlicensed port for the Nintendo Entertainment System exclusively in North America in 1989. On December 8, 1989, Dual developed a port for the PC Engine that was published by Asmik Ace Entertainment Incorporated. All these ports are a testament to Shinobi's success.

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For most of the 1980s, ninjas were an extremely popular worldwide phenomenon. You can tell from the sheer quantity of badly dubbed karate flicks that were being imported into many countries. Almost anything that had "ninja" in the title was a big hit, like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. This popularity permeated all aspects of culture, eventually finding its way into video games. While Shinobi was far from the first ninja centric game ever made, it was one of the most popular and successful. Its success paved the way for countless other imitators, the most notable of which is the Ninja Gaiden series by Tecmo. Like Ninja Gaiden, Shinobi likely owes a fair amount of its success to the prevalence of ninjas in culture at the time. Not all of its success is due to being at the right place and time, though. On top of opportunistically exploiting cultural trends, Shinobi also happened to be pretty good.

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The title of the game, Shinobi, is a Japanese word that's basically synonymous with ninja. That's fitting, because the protagonist of this tale is a ninja named Joe Musashi. A criminal organization known as "Zeed" is kidnapping the children of Joe's ninja clan. Thus, it falls upon the heavy shoulders of Joe to save all the children. The story slightly differs between the different versions of the game, but they all involve a ninja. Despite the focus on ninjas, the world of Shinobi is set in contemporary times with some sci-fi elements thrown in for good measure. This results in sprawling cities, gun totting criminals, terrorists, mutants, and robots. There are also some fantastical elements in the form of ninjutsu, which is essentially ninja magic, and demons from Japanese mythology. While the story of Shinobi is secondary to the game play, it does set up a nice backdrop for the action.

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You control Joe Musashi as he valiantly vaults around evil environments. His basic capabilities are pretty simple. The man can walk left or right, crouch, and jump. He can even walk and attack while crouching! Speaking of, Joe primarily attacks by throwing shurikens from a distance, which he has an unlimited supply of. However, he executes a karate punch or kick if the shuriken button is pressed while he's close to an enemy. He does have to be extra careful, though, because all attacks kill him in a single hit. Luckily, simply touching enemies doesn't hurt him; only their actual attacks do. If things ever get too tough, Joe is able to use ninjutsu to clear the whole screen of normal enemies and greatly damage bosses, but this can only be done once per stage. He uses a different ninjutsu depending on the current stage, though they all do the same thing. All of this is quite easy to do thanks to the intuitive and precise controls.

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Similar to an arcade game created by Namco called Rolling Thunder, you can switch between planes in this game, and I don't mean airplanes. In other words, you're able to jump between the background and foreground, usually going behind fences and the like. This is also often used to go from a lower section of the stage to a higher one. For example, you may jump up from the city streets to the balconies and rooftops of buildings. This is done by pressing the jump button while holding either up or down. On top of getting around, this maneuver is useful for avoiding enemy attacks. It's a neat feature that adds some depth to the game, both figuratively and literally.

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There aren't very many types of power-ups in the original Shinobi, but they do exist. Generally, you'll acquire power-ups by saving certain children, giving you an even greater incentive to rescue them. Through power-ups, Joe's punches and kicks get replaced with a katana blade that he swings at close range. Likewise, his shurikens are replaced with a gun, which seems like an odd weapon for a ninja, but it's certainly effective. Most enemies die in one hit, but a few take more. With the katana and gun, you'll be able to kill these resilient foes in fewer attacks. You do lose all power-ups in between stages and whenever you die, so you'll always need more of them. It's a fairly simple system.

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In the arcade incarnation of the original Shinobi, the goal of each stage is to save all the kids and reach the end. If you reach the end of the stage without saving all the kids within it, you'll have to turn back. This isn't as annoying as it sounds, though, because the whole process is quite expedient. All captive children are tied up with ropes, and you free them by simply making contact. Once freed of their bondage, the kids immediately return on their own, and you're rewarded with points or power-ups. You don't have to manually escort them out or anything. Finding them is also extremely easy, because captive kids are always placed directly in your path and all the stages are completely linear. Rescued kids remain rescued even if you die, so you don't have to save the same ones again. Due to all of that, rescuing children doesn't detract at all from the game's fast pace.

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All of the stage layouts in Shinobi are rather straightforward, so the focus is on the enemies. Every stage is filled to the brim with bad guys that will assault you every step of the way. Like you, most enemies will attack with projectiles, such as bullets, knives, and so on. Enemies often duck behind cover, like boxes, in between attacks. Some guys even have shields that block your projectiles, forcing you to either resort to melee attacks or wait until they drop their guard. You have to be very meticulous when playing the game, killing as many foes as possble while advancing slowly, constantly ducking and jumping to avoid enemy projectiles. Every stage does have a tight time limit, however, so you can't be too defensive. You'll face a boss after every couple of stages, and they're all decent enough. There are also bonus stages where you throw shurikens in a first-person perspective akin to a shooting gallery, and extra lives are awarded if you win. As with most of the game, they're fun, but hard.

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The original arcade version of Shinobi utilized the Sega System 16 board, which was very advanced for the time due to its 16-bit capabilities. Back then, most home platforms were strictly 8-bit, so the majority of Shinobi ports had to be downgraded in some way. However, the Master System version compensated for that by making some good changes, such as adding a life bar and a few new weapon power-ups, plus rescuing kids is no longer necessary. Even with its downgraded 8-bit visuals and sound effects, the Master System port of Shinobi isn't half bad, and it's one of the best games on the console. The PC Engine port is the closest to the arcade original in terms of graphics and sound, but it removes all melee attacks, bonus stages, and some other stuff. The NES version of the game is based on the Master System port, but it's much worse. Most of the computer ports are also pretty bad, though some less so than others.

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This game is where the Shinobi series began, and it's a fairly competent first effort. Even though it's an action game, Shinobi is more about strategy than quick reflexes, though the latter certainly helps. This methodical approach to action is an interesting take on the side-scrolling arcade game genre. There's also something refreshingly elegant about its simplistic design. Additionally, the graphics and sound were quite good for 1987, and while they're a bit plain now, they still look decent. The game has voice samples, too, which sound surprisingly good given the time. While it's far from the best game in the series, the original Shinobi isn't bad at all.

Word Count: 1,542

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