It's not a ninja game unless you're swearing at your TV until veins bulge out of your neck and the neighbors think a double homicide/suicide is going down. As far as ninja games go everyone knows Ninja Gaiden, whether it's the NES games or the more recent Xbox games. The first Ninja Gaiden (for Xbox) is an absolutely excellent game, one of my favorites. It's hard as hell and once you've beat it, the muscle memory is so ingrained that you can effortlessly do it again. I actually broke an Xbox 360 controller playing that game not long after I had first gotten my 360. I was playing it on 360 since I didn't have a dislike of emulation yet and, well, HD is pretty nice. If you ever find yourself in this situation, don't worry. Xbox and Xbox 360 controllers actually use the exact same joysticks. You can cannibalize an OG Xbox controller to fix your 360 controller.
Anyways, Shinobi. Shinobi is a long running franchise, actually starting before Ninja Gaiden. The series went pretty quiet for most of the 90s (as did Ninja Gaiden), before seeing a return in the 2000s (as did Ninja Gaiden). Ninja Gaiden's revival was a smashing success, and the game was re-released in a tweaked form as Ninja Gaiden Black, ported to PlayStation 3 as Ninja Gaiden Sigma, and then ported to PlayStation Vita as Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus. It went on to get a sequel for Xbox 360 (which was different, but still awesome), which had the same series of ports for Sony consoles. Recently, a Tomonobu Itagaki-less third sequel was released to jeers. I tried a demo. It was bad.
You can't take this guy out of the equation and make a good Ninja Gaiden game.
Shinobi has had a much more muted response. It got above-average reviews, with most of the bitching directed at the uninspired levels and the difficulty. I don't think it's really fair to knock a game for the reason of difficulty unless it's really truly absurd. I wouldn't say Shinobi is that. There are some incredibly infuriating parts, but it never feels as though it just can't be beaten. If Ninja Gaiden wasn't knocked for it in reviews (it was definitely mentioned), then Shinobi shouldn't have been.
Shinobi is the story of Hotsuma, who is the last of the Oboro clan. Some dude who looks like a Japanese version of Crusty the Clown wearing a kimono has summoned a golden palace in the center of Tokyo and has generally unleashed havoc. That dude's name is Hiruko and he has used some sort of Talismans to control the dead of the Oboro clan to fight Hotsuma. It's the sort of general madness that you'd expect of a game of this sort, and it's nothing of note. There's some betrayals, some twists that are telegraphed days before they happen and some bad voice acting for some cool cutscenes. In other words, Japan 101. Moving on.
The most immediately striking thing about this game is the music. Holy fuck, the music. Usually I'm not terribly impressed with game soundtracks (Óscar Araujo's beautiful Castlevania: Lords of Shadow soundtrack aside), but goddammit this game has awesome music. Check this shit out:
It's perfect for the play style. It's clearly a game borne of arcade roots, and it immediately evokes that feeling. Most of the stages have similarly excellent music, though there's a few duds in there.
The games' graphics reflect its Dreamcast origins. Even for an earlier PS2 title, it's not quite up to scratch. There is one very striking visual feature, and that's Hotsuma's scarf. It's always flowing and stretched out behind him. It's a nice visual touch for a game that can otherwise be rather bland.
The gameplay is what matters for this kind of game, so let's dig into that. This game really could have used a tutorial level to explain all of the different shit that's going on and how it effects enemies/you. I'm not talking about some bullshit like every modern game where a window pops up to tell you what to do every 30 seconds; just a level to let you play around in to understand the mechanics. Most importantly, the targeting feature. This is a horribly clumsy game if you're not locking on to your enemies, and it was clearly put there because they expected you to use it. Through the first two levels, I wasn't too pleased with the game. Then I realized you're supposed to lock on. That changed my experience considerably.
You don't have a wide range of attacks at your disposal. You've got a sword to cut up enemies, kunai to paralyze your enemies in place, and a few different kinds of magic that you can use if you find the power up that lets you use them. These are relatively rare. The key to chaining all of this together is using a dash move, which will create a shadow image of Hotsuma that can distract enemies for a second. There's no block, so this is your way to evade attacks as well. Once you understand how all of these elements work together, the gameplay is excellent and just what you'd hope it would be. I don't really have any complaints about the gameplay itself; it's well designed and limited in the correct ways to create a challenge while not feeling unfair.
There's also a time limit to the game, but it's not really presented as one. Your sword, the Akujiki, feeds on souls. You get these souls by killing enemies. Haven't killed an enemy for a while? Being a bitch and running past them? Well you fucked up, because Akujiki will just go ahead and suck your life away until you die. It adds a slight sense of urgency to the game that keeps you moving, but it never really becomes enough of a risk that it's killing you constantly. It works well as a way to keep the game moving. There's an interesting combo system to get more souls as well. If you kill four or more enemies quickly enough, the game will pause for a second and show a few of the enemies, and then Hotsuma turns or sheaths his sword, and they all fall apart into little pieces. It's pretty cool, but a lot of the time the camera angles don't work well. The combo can also be used to immediately kill bosses, but it's a risky tactic as waiting long enough for enough enemies to spawn usually results in Akujiki treating you like a buffet.
If I have one complaint with this game, it's the fact that Hotsuma cannot swim. There's water in a lot of the levels. You're a ninja. A deadly killer. You move so fucking fast that you can create a ghost image of yourself. You defy gravity and jump twice. You dash in mid-air. You can't fucking swim though. What the fuck? He doesn't even float or try to swim. You just hit the water and immediately disappear. Did the head ninja or whoever the fuck trains ninjas not know how to swim? Hotsuma's parents couldn't send him to a fucking YMCA to supplement his ninja lessons with some swimming and awkward showers?
You surfed in Shinobi III. That was Joe Hayabusa though, and not..Hotsuma. He's like Seal, he just has one name.
Moving on, the level design is sort of bland as I mentioned earlier. Later levels blatantly re-use areas in the same level. A large part of the final level is just square rooms connected to a hallway. It's not a major complaint, but some variety would've been nice due to Hotsuma being able to wall run and all. They definitely made sure to put water in at least half of the levels though. Which reminds me of something else. One level has lava. I figured, this motherfucker can't swim so I definitely don't want any of that lava business. Nope, he walks on it fine. It takes some health but other than that it's not a big deal at all. I suppose I should also mention why the fact that Hotsuma sinks like a fucking lead brick is so agitating. If you die anywhere in a level in this game, you go back to the start. This game does not fuck with checkpoints. You fucked up? Go the fuck back. It's usually not too bad, as the levels aren't long. It just makes the fact that Hotsuma couldn't go to a YMCA that much more frustrating.
The difficulty aside from there not being checkpoints? It's not bad. You have to stay on your game, but that's not a bad thing. What I mean by that is if you fuck up, you're probably going to get your ass kicked fast. Miss a dodge, and you open yourself up to a few hits. The other weird thing about the difficulty is that I never figured out the approximate health of enemies. Sometimes it feels like you're hacking away on a basic enemy forever and he just won't drop. Other times, it's one hit and he's down. I have no idea how the game figures out how strong an enemy is.
Overall, I really enjoyed this game. It's fun, the music is good, and the challenge is just right. It's not a perfect game, but it's worth playing through at least once. It has a sequel called Nightshade that I'll certainly be getting at some point.
The Score: 8/10