GENRE: Arcade action
RELEASE DATE: 12/01/90 – (JP), 02/91 – (US), 05/91 – (EU)
Revenge of Shinobi was arguably the Genesis’ first stone-cold masterpiece, an over-the-top action tale that starred (in no particular order) ninjas disguised as nuns, Rambo, Spiderman, and Godzilla. Musashi carried shurikens, a sword, four types of magic, and swagger to spare. Sixteen stages, all of which were brutal, rewarding, and awesome, made it one of the lengthiest action titles of its day. Revenge looked and played like a then-modern arcade game – Sega’s bread and butter – but it was a console original, and one of the first to show that Sega could adapt their arcade style to the console format with little change.
Shadow Dancer – a brand new Shinobi title, despite sharing the same name as the arcade game – is a return to the stop-and-go beat downs found in the original Shinobi. This might seem like a regression for those who desire a bigger, bulkier Revenge of Shinobi sequel, but Shadow Dancer‘s lean, back-to-basics approach serves it well. An all-killer, no-filler complement to Revenge‘s buffet of riches.
As always, you play as Joe Musashi, the ninja who can’t catch a break. After exhausting his skills in Revenge, Musashi learns that his former martial arts student, Kato, has been killed by the evil New York City gang known as Union Lizard. In addition to killing Kato, Union Lizard has also overtaken NYC, holding many hostage in the process. Heartbroken and enraged, Musashi swears revenge and goes after the gang with the help of Kato’s faithful canine companion, Yamato.
When Musashi enters NYC, downtown is burning and the streets are literally tearing apart. Even as chaos surrounds him, he doesn’t sway from his purpose: rescue hostages, destroy the gang, make it out alive. His revenge carries him through five areas: the crumbling downtown streets, an abandoned railyard, into the Statue of Liberty, through a pitch black cavern, and finally, into the Lizard’s lair.
The Union Lizard gang is versatile, highly skilled, and employs a number of ne’er-do-wells that would like to see Musashi’s head on a katana. One doesn’t rush into combat with them. You must discern their particular skills and advance only when you see a weakness. In addition to the multi-colored ninjas that appear out of thin air, the gang is comprised of corrupt cops, strongmen with cowboy hats, and a plethora of bizarre bosses. The dominatrix that slings saw blades at you and the spinning fire wheel with multiple heads are my personal favorites.
Musashi’s skills are on full display here. He carries unlimited shurikens, an up-close sword slice, and high-powered kicks. Magic has returned as well, although he can only use it once per level. Depending on the level, the magic alternates between fire columns, dueling tornadoes, or a meteor strike, all of which clear the screen of enemies. Musashi’s a powerhouse, like usual. But because Shadow Dancer is easier than its predecessors, his life bar has been taken away. One hit from a stray enemy sword or bullet and he’s done.
Computer-controlled allies in games are generally more trouble than they’re worth, but Yamato is a gem. In addition to being an adorable, loyal dog, Yamato can latch onto enemies and distract them from attacking while you slice them. He can’t get hurt unless he rushes head-first into an enemy attack. Even then, he’ll shrink into a miniature version of himself and eventually regrow into full size. He’s a true companion, and the best addition to the traditional Shinobi gameplay.
Shadow Dancer has one of the strangest and best mandatory bonus stages I’ve seen in some time. After each area has been completed, Musashi will stand atop a high rise building, looking majestic while a goofy hip hop-esque vocal sample spits metaphorical fire around him. He jumps off the high rise and is told to “Shoot All Ninjas!!,” all meaning fifty. Scores of ninjas appear around him and bounce between buildings, while he slings shurikens at them. I’ve never personally killed all fifty – the buggers move fast and loose – so I’m not sure what your reward is for doing so. Personally, the absurd sight of a ninja falling several dozen stories, sans life-saving device, while slaying other ninjas is reward enough.
Shadow Dancer isn’t a particularly deep title, but it is the truest expression of the original Shinobi formula. As much as I enjoyed Shinobi on the Master System, the game relishes its destruction of player confidence. By the second stage, the helicopter boss flings minor enemies and bullets at you, and it’s all but impossible not to get hit. Shadow Dancer is by far the most accessible Shinobi game for newcomers, and while it might not be the deep, rewarding experience that Revenge of Shinobi was, it’s still a fantastic entry into one of Sega’s most underappreciated series.