GENRE: Action platformer
RELEASE DATE: 12/02/89 – (JP, US), 10/90 – (EU)
Joe Musashi could not be more relaxed in Revenge of Shinobi. Despite the death of his master and the kidnapping of his lover, Naoko, Musashi strides toward danger at a near languid pace. Fidgety samurai do not sway him. Bouncing ninjas do not slow his stride. His leisurely gait is a far cry from his ninja brother Ryu Hayabusa, whose energetic running defines the Ninja Gaiden trilogy. Different temperaments, different men. Joe’s mission, though vital, does not make him anxious. Even with a limited amount of shuriken on hand – shuriken that, once depleted, will leave Joe weaponless – he breathes confidence.
Musashi is different than you remember him in Shinobi. He’s grown taller, more muscular; 16-bittier, if you will. He can somersault and unleash a shuriken spray at the same time. He can hop over walls and climb buildings. His main weapon, the shuriken, has been limited to fifty. While there are refills strewn throughout each stage in boxes, these too are limited. If you throw your shurikens recklessly to the wind, you’ll have to do without until you die or get to the next stage.
Musashi also packs four types of strong magic. Ikazuchi envelops him in a shield of lightning, which allows him to take 3-5 hits without damage. Kariu unleashes four flame dragons, killing many weaker enemies. Fushin gives you a double jump, all but essential for certain stages. Finally, Mijin is a self-sacrificial slaughter that takes one of your lives, while also killing whatever else is on screen; this is a no-brainer if you’re about to die anyway. You can use Mijin once per life, but you can only use Fushin, Kariu, or Ikazuchi once per district unless you have extra magic power-ups.
Alongside your standard ninjas and samurais, you’ll also fight WWII-era soldiers, female ninjas disguised as nuns, Rambos with flamethrowers, and Bruce Lee clones. These are just the commonplace enemies. The bosses are even crazier. They include: a disco-loving shadow ninja, a brain in a tube, an Arnold Schwarzenegger/Hulk combo (complete with endoskeleton), Batman, Spiderman, Godzilla. Some of these bosses and enemies were changed in later revisions of the game due to copyright (obviously, Sega!), but the fact that they made it over in the first place shows how little of a damn Sega gave.
The sixteen stages – broken up into eight “districts” with two stages and a boss fight each – only get more intense as you progress. Musashi climbs waterfalls, boards a biplane, destroys an engine factory, ascends a skyscraper, cleans up Chinatown, deactivates a missile base, and traverses an in-depth labyrinth set in a Japanese castle. The deeper you go into these dangerous set pieces, the more you’re expected to handle. The skyscraper has enemy ninjas, soldiers, and mounted laser cannons. The biplane has doors that open and suck Musashi right out of the plane. The labyrinth is a freaking labyrinth followed directly by the final boss battle, which is timed. No rest for the determined ninja
There are stages in Revenge that will seem impossible until you play them a fiftieth time and they click into place. For me, this was the Freeway. This stage has two routes you have to alternate between. The first is a freeway with a continuous stream of cars, while the second is a broken walkway with large gaps between platforms. Neither route is safe. The walkway has many areas where you’ll plummet to your death. The freeway is safer, but if you get hit by a car twice, you’re dead. Both sides have a plethora of enemies. While you watch your footing, you’ll also have to take care of the lady ninjas bouncing around your person or the bullet-spewing soldiers on the opposite side of the fence. I finally beat the stage, but not without a bruised controller and a lot of ninja-splatter.
Composer Yuzo Koshiro makes his Sega soundtrack debut with Revenge of Shinobi. The tracks feature the same propulsive drums and freewheeling synth work as the Streets of Rage series with some additional rock influences peppered in among the electronica bits. While not as memorable as the man’s future work, tracks like “The Shinobi,” “China Town” and “Ninja Step” extract better beats and melodies out of the Mega Drive’s Yamaha sound chip than any composer to this point.
Revenge of Shinobi looks, sounds, and plays like a 16-bit game where the possibilities are endless. The stages are ambitious and varied in scope. The character sprites are enormous. Enemies can block your attacks. Spiderman, Rambo, and other intellectual properties not owned by Sega are villains. The game’s rock/techno soundtrack sounded like few games before it; who even knew what techno was in 1989? Revenge of Shinobi is Sega coming into their own as developers, foreshadowing their dominance of the Western console market a mere two years later. It remains a masterwork of the early 16-bit era.