Arcade Blog Games Master System Sega

Shinobi (Master System, 1988)

Go get ’em, Joe.

This one’s for all the kids who just wanted to learn karate.
So close, and yet, so far.



GENRE: Action

RELEASE DATE: 06/19/88 – (JP), 09/88 – (US), 1988 – (EU)

As I played Shinobi, I realized a startling truth about myself: over the last year or so, I’ve gotten significantly worse at video games. Maybe not all video games, but certainly older ones that have sharp difficulty spikes as Shinobi does. This is not limited to Shinobi either. My recent playthrough of Yoshi’s Island confirmed that I’m not nearly as adept at platforming as I was six years ago when I last beat it (and got 100% – never again). This probably has to do with me a) not playing games as often anymore, Sega blog aside; and b) just plain ol’ getting older and losing some of my once sharp reflexes. Perhaps the start of a review seems like an odd place for such a confession, but it’s necessary for Shinobi‘s sake. Despite not destroying the Black Turtle helicopter at the end of level 2*, I acknowledge that Shinobi‘s subtle refinements of the arcade action genre make it a small masterpiece.

Shinobi (UE) [!]001
What other ninja game has Warhol references?

In Shinobi, you play as martial-arts-instructor-turned-renegade-ninja, Joe Musashi. A group of terrorists has stolen your students from you and spread them across five dangerous missions. The missions consist of about four stages a piece, with the end stage resulting in a boss fight with one of the terrorists (naturally, the terrorists have great random names like Lobster, Ken Oh, and Masked Ninja). Joe begins the game with an infinite supply of shurikens and a mighty kick for enemies who get too close for comfort, but as he progresses and rescues his students (who look like adorable clones in red gis), he acquires different power-ups, both for close combat and long-range. The sword is best for close combat, while the knife, shuriken or pistol are all great for long-range.

Shinobi (UE) [!]002
Are you sure that’s a student and not a baby in a red jumpsuit?

Systematic pacing and above-average enemies distinguish Shinobi from similar arcade action games. There is no time limit or flashing index finger pointing you forward, nor are there infinite amounts of stupid enemies flying toward you (ninjas and other mindless thugs rush at you occasionally, but they are not being constantly created off-screen a la Sega’s earlier Black Belt). The smarter enemies crouch and shoot you from behind cover, lay on the ground so it’s harder to reach them, or can only be killed on higher planes that require Musashi’s patented ninja leap. Their intentional placement gives them more intelligence and personality. You feel like you’re killing a terrorist who’s considered his enemy’s approach versus instantly forgettable kamikaze clones. Once you get to the boss battle, the pace increases, as does the difficulty. Staying alive becomes more about bouncing around the screen and shooting projectiles than considering how to approach the enemy. These anxious duels aside, Shinobi‘s otherwise standard action benefits greatly from the game’s deliberate pace and thoughtful enemy positions.

Shinobi (UE) [!]000
The bonus game is really hard. If you beat it, you get ninja magic. But if you see this screen – and you will – you’ve already lost.

If only Shinobi looked as good as it played. The sharp colors and distinct environments of the arcade port have been replaced with unsettling purples, reds and blues that only give a vague hint as to where you might be. Questions I had during my playthroughs included: what’s with the red intestine wall in the background? Is this level supposed to take place at night or is the sky just dark blue? Why is pink in this stage when it clearly doesn’t match the rest of the stage’s color scheme? I’ve seen the Master System generate better graphics with lesser games, and considering Shinobi‘s status as a highly regarded arcade game, one assumes that Sega would have tried harder to make the port look as pretty as possible.

Shinobi (UE) [!]003
Musashi is swimming around a Cannibal Corpse cover.

I know there will be harder games than Shinobi to come. I also know that not all of them will be as good as Shinobi, and thus, I will have to force myself to play the game for the sake of the review. Shinobi‘s difficulty is the best kind of difficulty, though: the kind that makes you want to get better and weather the repeated game overs because the game is so fun. I say this with all humility: it is my fault that I did not defeat the Black Turtle helicopter, not Shinobi‘s. But it is Shinobi‘s “fault” that I want to return for more Black Turtle punishment. Go get ’em, Joe.


*I am aware that there is a level select code, but I could never get it to work properly. And anyway, playing the game sans cheats was a brutal reminder that I’m not the spry young gamer I once was.

26 replies on “Shinobi (Master System, 1988)”

Great review.
This game is rock hard in my opinion.
I didn’t really get to play it too much when I was little but have managed to play it a fair deal courtesy of the Megadrives ultimate collection on the 360 -as a bonus unlockable.
Rescuing those students/toddlers reminds me of the babalities from Mortal Kombat.
The bonus game is way too difficult though well rewarded if you beat it.
Good game but no match for what came next for Joe.

This was a tough game for me to beat as a kid, but I was able to achieve it. The level select wasn’t that helpful because you needed to get the life bar extenders and weapon power ups in the earlier levels to beat the harder last stages and bosses. This game is very close to the arcade version even though technically inferior.

I really love this game. But I realize the faults of this home console port. Yet I still greatly enjoyed it. Arcade Shinobi is one of my favorite arcade games of all time. I love the music, the setting, the strategy and enemy patterns, and the bosses. If I were to rank all Shinobi games I’d have to say the arcade is my favorite. The home port while still good, falls down the list to maybe 4 or 5. I do love the concessions they made to make the game more palatable to the home audience, like a life bar and different weapons, but at the time I was upset it wasn’t a straight arcade port. I have beaten this game in the past, and it was extremely tough. I believe I literally spent months figuring out how to beat the last boss. He is a near impossible ninja running back and forth across the screen with a lightening shield at high speed. But I enjoyed every minute of it. Sure the graphics are a massive step down from the arcade. But the game plays all there. And for an 8-bit home console I thought it looked fine.

I’d much rather it be this way than looking extremely nice but having boring gameplay. (See Shinobi Legions on Saturn) Every level I love the new challenges they throw at you. The enemies are always changing. I just love the later levels where your fighting in a bamboo forest against the advance ninjas that teleport in and attack with with parabolic jumps that require a lot of strategy to beat, while having flying spinning ninjas rain down on you from the trees. It’s extremely hard. But if you have the skill it’s so fun to beat. The game has great level design where it places you in situations with enemies and the environment to make you figure out how to navigate it. Something that the SMB games dies great. For instance you have to jump up a level into a dude throwing a sword and a gunman. Where if you duck your getting hit by the sword or if you jump your catching a bullet. Or being trapped between two stone pillars and having 4 ninjas appear around you with limited maneuvering space. This game makes you think quickly on your feet,

“The game has great level design where it places you in situations with enemies and the environment to make you figure out how to navigate it.”

Yes. This is what I really appreciate about Shinobi. How deliberate everything is. When you first play the game, you might think, It’s fun, but it’s nothing special. But the more you play, the more you realize how methodical Sega was with every inch of the game. This might sound silly, but Shinobi, more than any other game up to this point, really makes you feel like a ninja.

I was looking for some comparison videos. There are a few . But I think this one by Kimble Justice is pretty good showing the difference between the various version. And why the Tengen NES port sucks. It’s worth a watch , if you can handle listening to Kimble Justice. He’s a little obnoxious. But video shows a lot of examples of the insane situations you get put in and have to get out of and how the level design deviously limits your escape path in some situations.

Great review Dylan. Shinobi is truly one of the Master Systems gems. Unfortunately it’s two 8-bit sequels (Cyber Shinobi and Shadow Dancer) aren’t as good, but the series picks up again with the Mega Drive instalments.
I think the music deserves a mention, good ninja style music suits the game well and it’s not as ‘beepy’ as some Master System music can be.
Agree on the difficulty though I can’t beat the third boss for the life of me, but the game makes me want to keep trying as it’s just so much fun.

Thanks Sut. I knew about Shadow Dancer, but not Cyber Shinobi?! That sounds interesting, even if it’s not as good.

The music is catchy and got stuck in my head as I traversed back to the helicopter time and time again.

I guess there are two SMS Shinobi games coming up. Both of which I’ve never played. Cyber Shinobi. Which by all accounts I’ve heard is bad. And Alex Kidd and Shinobi World. Is it an Alex Kidd game? A Shinobi game? Both? I think it plays like a cute Shinobi. I’ve heard it’s actually good. Came out after I upgraded to Genesis so I never played it. But you can fight against the first boss who throws fireballs and and has a mustache, Mari-Oh.

There’s also a third SMS Shinobi Game, “Shadow Dancer”. And apparently it’s different to it’s MegaDrive namesake.

As always, a great review!

” I knew about Shadow Dancer, but not Cyber Shinobi?! ”

There are even 2 unique Shinobi Gamegear games. I haven’t played the first one, but the second one, is one of my all time favorite GG games. GG Shinobi 2 could well be considered a “metroidvania” type of game. There’s no level 1, 2, 3, …. so you pick a level. In every level there’s a ninja buddy you have to rescue. Once freed, they become available as playable characters. At any moment you can switch between ninja’s. They all have their own special abilities. You need to figure out wich one to apply in certain spots, to be able to progress. So it involves quite a bit of backtracking and some levels are rather maze like. Once you get to it, I’m sure you will love it!

Great review.
I remember renting this game when it first came out and really liked it. When I was finally able to get my own copy I played this game for months and still never completed it. I think I was able to get to the last level but just could not defeat the game.

At the time I was amazed my the graphics and loved the music.

I still love the game and I will always have great memory’s playing it!

I forgot about the Alex Kidd Shinobi game. It’s one I haven’t played but I’ve heard good things about.
Agree about the Game Gear Shinobi games they are awesome.
Cyber Shinobi is a disappointment and is definitely the black sheep of the series, but I don’t think it’s as awful as is commonly viewed.

This port is not that hard at all. Try playing the arcade original with one hit deaths. Revenge of Shinobi is no cakewalk either.

I think they did a pretty good job considering the hardware they were working with. The closest port you’re going to find is the PC Engine game, but even that has missing levels and whatnot.

Whoever mentioned Kimble Justice gets a thumbs up. One of the best youtubers out there.

The arcade was made to bilk quarters out of kids. I think we can all agree on that much. Not so much a “challenge,” as a means to make as much money as possible.

As for this port not being hard, nah man. It’s hard.

I remember this being THE game that every boy in my school had to have (me included). Anyone who could master it became a legend (or a liar) but I was terrible at it. I mean really bad. Like you the helicopter used to gun me down like a hip-hop drive-by shooting. I think for me this was more of a case of I loved the idea of the game but not actually playing the game if you know what I mean.

One more thing – that is the first time I ever heard the backstory. Even when I had the game I never read any of it and just killed ninjas

Regarding the helicopter ‘Black Turtle’ you have to get to him (or her) with the gun upgrade equipped, if you’ve got that you’ll nail him in seconds. Much more difficult with throwing stars.
Now just need to figure out that damn third boss.

Aargh! This is what I get for not checking your site more frequently, I don’t get to comment until AFTER the podcast comes out 🙁

This is actually one of the Master System games I have a fair bit of experience with, both as a kid (a school friend had an SMS and we played this some), but also because I bought this years ago and have played it a bunch with the Power Base Converter. I quite like this conversion, and it stands head and shoulders over (as you already mentioned), the TERRIBLE Tengen NES conversion. I stand by Tengen’s conversion of Fantasy Zone, because it’s still fun and playable, but Shinobi was crap. THIS version, however, was pretty well done. It captured the levels of the arcade version, and for the most part, the flow, albeit slightly slower for the console. But I agree that it was wise of SEGA to include a lifebar and the weapon upgrades the way they did, though the “rolling grenade” upgrade is a bit dubious. You’re absolutely right about it being one of the gems of the SMS library. It’s absolutely a must have for any SMS or Power Base Converter owner who enjoys action games and arcade conversions.

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