Sunday, January 17, 2010

Videogame Classics - Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master

Shinobi is one of Sega's most celebrated heroes. The arcade original was a smashing success, building upon the foundation of Namco's Rolling Thunder (an early example of the long-running Sega/Namco rivalry), and adding in a ninja theme. Most of the home versions were pretty weak by comparison, but you didn't mind too terribly as long as there was a Shinobi down at the local arcade.

For the Genesis, Sega turned to its ninja master with one of the greatest videogame sequels ever made, Revenge of Shinobi. That game was arguably the first killer ap on the Genesis (although some would argue for Ghouls 'N Ghosts), and stands today as a masterpiece of the action-platform style. Another arcade sequel appeared, dubbed Shadow Dancer, but neither it nor the Genesis port (which was an almost entirely different game) managed to reach that earlier peak. So Sega turned back to their roots once more as the Genesis was winding down.

The result is Super Shinobi 2, or known in the West as Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master. In both cases, the title makes it clear that this is the follow-up to Revenge of Shinobi, and that's plainly obvious at the very start. Thankfully, Sega creates a masterful sequel that builds upon the gameplay conceits of the original Genesis classic, offering a brilliant example of gameplay and design, and pushing the console's graphics powers to their limit.

I think these two titles were the only time anyone came close to matching the brilliance Tecmo achieved with Ninja Gaiden on the NES. Amazing, then, that with so many ninja games in the early '90s, nobody could reach that high peak. No one except Sega.

One thing Shinobi 3 has in spades is a sense of speed. It's a much faster game. Joe Musashi, the series hero, has a variety of new moves, including a sprint dash, the ability to climb on ceilings, and an assortment of attacks, both with his sword and his shurikens. The exciting thing is that it's equally fun to play both ways; in fact, I really wish there were an option to remove shurikens from the game entirely, and just go it with sword slashes and kicks.

Level design, likewise, throws out all the stops. Playing through this game is like taking a sightseeing tour of the Genesis' finest moments. You have assaults through the forest, stealth through underground caves, an attack on a military base, a vertical climb over falling rocks in a valley, one chase on horseback, another chase on surfboard....yadda yadda. Add in a series of challenging, thrilling boss battles that show off every visual effect mastered by Genesis, and you have a platformer almost without peer.

If you asked me which Shinobi title was the better one, I don't know what I'd say. Most probably I'd still go with Revenge of Shinobi, if just because of its immense impact on the early Genesis scene, and its towering stature at the time. Shinobi 3 is more of a 1993 refinement of that standard, albeit with all the bells and whistles you can ask for. Oh, and there is the music. Yuzo Koshiro's music for Revenge is among the finest you'll ever hear. Shinobi 3's music is standard action fare, probably the game's only letdown.

Sadly, Shinobi became another casualty of Sega's tragic fall at the close of the 16-bit era. The name was revivied a few years ago, instead as a 3D polygon series. But the Playstation 2 incarnation was a different beast entirely, and nowhere near as compelling. Like most 3D platformers, the tight structure and skillful design of the 2D sprite-graphics era is mostly lost. For these kind of fast-paced action games, you just can't beat the old school.

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