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Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (GEN, 1990)

Ninjas and dogs are a winning combination.

Musashi’s gonna get’chee!
That dance is gonna hurt in the morning.



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.

Ninjas danced while NYC burned.

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.

Lady Liberty’s got a few ninjas up her sleeve.

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.

“Go on, boy, you got this.”

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.

No hostage or canine was harmed in the making of this screenshot.

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.

Such chemistry! Do I hear wedding bells?

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.

“Truly Yamato is… a very good boy.”

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.

Mix Master Musashi and the Fire Squad.

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.


21 replies on “Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (GEN, 1990)”

That was a really entertaining review. Such a fun game. I’d forgotten how nice it looks too – the last version I tried was on SMS, and it didn’t fare so well.

Man such a good game. Now of course at the time I was misguided and disappointed it was not like the arcade. Because this is far better than the arcade. So the story, if I remember correctly on this , is this game started development around the same time as RoS. But this game was made by the arcade team. Thus the similarities to Shinobi 1 arcade roots. I think overall this is just a fantastic game. An A for me. But I love Shinobi games so I may be biased. Each enemy requires a calculated response and provides a unique threat. The colored ninjas get increasingly more crafty and difficult that you encounter. I’ve heard some people claim this is the best Genesis Shinobi game. It’s not my favorite. That would go to Shinobi 3. I think while the graphics are fine and there are some neat background effects, it’s overall darker than the other 2 Genesis Shinobi games. And also no great Yu Suzuki music. But this game Definetly plays great and is pretty hard. Damn that last boss. Took me months to beat him. I am impressed you beat the game (presumably). But the RoS team returns with a vengeance in Shinobi 3. (The Super Shinobi 2 in Japan I believe.) and is more in that style of play, with amazing Konami and Treasure style set pieces and effects.

Makes sense that the team that developed this is the same as Shinobi 1. Feels like the rightful successor to that one.

It’s not my favorite either, and the last couple areas aren’t as great as the first three (much like E-SWAT), but it’s much more of a great pick-up-and-play experience than Revenge of Shinobi. I have to be in the right frame of mind for that one.

Still looking forward to Shinobi 3, though!

I may have to play this one. I’ve played all the Shinobis on home consoles except for Shadow Dancer. I have also played Shadow Dancer on my MAME arcade and found it much easier and shorter than Shinobi.

Also would agree Shinobi 3, if there was a perfect game, would qualify. Absolutely greatness. Revenge of Shinobi, aside from its music, has not aged well. It was released before devs knew the hardware well enough and the graphics and effects show it. Also the tedious timings and memorization of patterns can bring a seasoned gamer to tears. I know because I almost beat the game a few months ago and then had a meltdown. Haven’t touched it since.

I think I like Revenge of Shinobi a bit more than you, but as I delve deeper into the Genesis’ library, I’m sure I will see better examples of what Sega was aiming for with that title.

Great review, completely agree with the comments and score too. I’d put Shadow Dancer along side ESWAT in that, it’s a great ‘second tier’ game. Not a ‘first tier’ game like Sonic, Streets of Rage 2 etc but certainly worth playing.

I prefer Shadow Dancer to the frustrating ROS. However I will admit that Shadow Dancer isn’t as memorable as ROS. It’s a solid game, but lacks the crazy cameos and set pieces of ROS. I’ve never played Shinobi III so I’m hoping it’s a good mixture of ROS structure and Shadow Dancer’s gameplay!

Shadow Dancer along with E-Swat showed Sega was finally understanding that Arcade in the home wasn’t enough. People wanted that arcade pick up and play but without the coin sucking aggravations that come with coin-op games.
Both this and E-Swat are superior to their somewhat middle of the road Arcade counterparts.

Enjoyable review Dylan.

Great review Dylan. This is a great game in its own right even though it’s much different that ROS and Shinobi 3. The dog is far from being a gimmick and adds a new layer to the gameplay. The last boss is oddly very tough but the rest of the game was fairly easy.
The SMS version of this game is atrocious even though it’s more faithful to the arcade version.

Seems I’m the only person on the planet who derives some enjoyment from the SMS version. It’s a major memorisation test, but once you have it down (the bosses are initially brutal) I can clear it in 12 minutes making it one of my ‘quick blast’ games.
Objectively I know it’s bad, but I revisit it often. It is has become something of a guilty pleasure. Although that’s a discussion for another review.
PS. I somewhat enjoy Cyber Shinobi as well…don’t hate me lol.

Good review. This is one I really need to go back to at some point, because I never got very far. I always appreciated the upgrade to the formula with the Shadow Dancer arcade sequel, but since I never had ready access to a Shadow Dancer cabinet, like I did with the original Shinobi, I didn’t get to play it much. SD on the Genesis is good, but I never invested much time into it, I think because I played Shinobi 3 before it, so it felt a bit empty by comparison. However, it’s still a good game, and one that I know I haven’t given enough time to.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with it, though I’d always been told SD was the “lesser” Shinobi on the Genesis. Every Shinobi game is pretty great, though, so even lesser is still worth experiencing.

I had to play this one again after seeing your review. It’s a fun, quirky game and I agree with your comments about the dog — a companion who actually does what he’s supposed to do.
(A perfect score in the bonus round gets you 3UP. . . and a profoundly achy thumb.)

I finished this one a couple months ago, so hard but with some practice it can be done. I am going for Revenge of shinobi now (IMO the hardest Shinobi on the Megadrive). I have already beaten Shinobi III as well.

“By the second stage, the helicopter boss flings minor enemies and bullets at you, and it’s all but impossible not to get hit.” If you jump you won’t get hit, I actually discovered this by myself, that’s so nice, cause bullets can only hit the ground… it’s weird

Regarding that bonus stage, I found that if you move all the way to the left (or was it the right?) and mash the shuriken button, you’ll take out all fifty pretty easily, and score an extra life.

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