Friday, 11 March 2011

Shinobi Series - Part 3

Shadow Dancer (1989)
By: Sega  Genre: Platform/Fighting  Players: 1  Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Arcade  First Day Score: 146,100
Also Available For: Master System, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum

Shinobi is still regarded as one of the all-time classic games from Sega's sizeable back-catalogue, and rightly so. It was a game perfectly suited to its time and still plays as well today as the day it was released. Rather than shamelessly cash-in on its popularity, however, Sega took its time with the sequel and released a fresh-feeling game with a few new ideas, and yet despite this it never even approached the success of it predecessor. Is that because it was crap? No, it's not, but considering I was one of the ones who paid the game so little attention upon its release I'm not really sure what the problem was! Thanks to the wonders of retro gaming, however, I've got the chance to make amends.

Not sure how so many armed thugs got into an airport...
Replacing our hero ninja from the first game, Joe Musashi, this time is actually his son, Hayate, who was raised in the US by a Japanese-American named Kato. As you might expect, the game is therefore set a few years after Joe's adventure, twenty to be precise. Perhaps in an effort to distance himself from his pop's ninja heroics however, Hayate has ditched the iconic black pyjamas for a white Keikogi (ninja costume thingy), and he's brought a friend! That's right, as well as looking cooler, Hayate has also brought his white Husky-like dog, Yamato, along for the ride. He's not just there to pee on lamp posts though. As before, Hayate is armed with an infinite supply of shurikens to take out the pesky goons that populate each stage but he can also send Yamato to munch on an enemy too, which can provide a very helpful break from gunfire!

The superb bonus round...
Besides the shuriken-flinging tomfoolery, the basic level structure here is probably the biggest reminder that you're playing a Shinobi game. There are fifteen stages spread over four missions in all, and for the most part they are again multi-tiered affairs with frequent opportunities to jump up and down levels. Rather than charging you with rescuing kidnapped children however, this time you have to defuse several time-bombs per stage which were planted by evil terrorist organisation, Asian Dawn, who also killed Kato, so for Hayate, this is not only a mission to save the world but one of revenge too! The bombs on each stage are of course guarded by many henchmen with numerous others patrolling nearby. They are armed with the usual assortment of guns, knives, swords, dynamite, and strange frisbee things, but most are felled by Hayate's trusty shurikens which can be significantly powered-up for the remainder of a stage once a certain number of bombs have been defused.

Please don't tell me they're trashed Ferrari F40's?
Some of the enemies are smarter than your usual expendable goons though and duck your shots while popping off a few of their own. This is where Yamato can come in handy. He is a loyal companion and always by your side. When he starts barking he's eager for some payback of his own and he can be sent to attack an enemy. As you might imagine, this causes something of a distraction for them giving you an opportunity to take them out. If you leave Yamato struggling with the enemy for too long though, he will be defeated and turned into a helpless puppy who only returns to full size after a certain number of enemies have been killed without his help. Some enemies also sneak up behind you while you're busy elsewhere. Hayate is also armed with a sword for close-quarters combat which is very useful for dealing with these foes in particular, and if all else fails he can summon one of his 'ninja arts'. He only gets one of these per stage but since they clear the screen of enemies, they can prove pretty useful.

Ninja Art - engage!
The enemies consist of the kinds you'd expect to find (various military types, ninjas, muscle dudes, etc) and some you might not (sewer crocs?!) and they all look pretty good but the biggest advancement since the last game, both graphical and gameplay-wise, is in the stages themselves. They are generally much more complex with many of them being just as large vertically as they are horizontally, and they are set in some pretty impressive locations such as an airport, a damaged bridge, a scrap yard, even a space shuttle launch bay! I can understand why Asian Dawn have chosen to bomb some of these slightly more grandiose locations (or attempt to, at least) but I'm not sure what benefit there is to bombing a scrap yard!

What's the point of bombing a broken bridge?
Nonetheless, some of these locations, as well as facilitating some creative and sizeable stages, also feature some lovely backdrops. The airport stage is great and really immerses you in the setting and there's a really nice waterfall later which was clearly the inspiration for the superb second stage of Revenge of Shinobi. Even underground caverns look good here! Unfortunately the sound isn't of the same quality. The effects are very average and barely noticeable (except for Yamato woofing away every few seconds) and the music is very disappointing which is a shame - the sequel on the MegaDrive showed how much a top-notch soundtrack can add to a Shinobi title. As previous and subsequent Shinobi games have taught us, however, it's the gameplay that matters the most, so how is it here?

This ninja has yet to learn the art of camouflage...
Well, the stage designs are pretty well thought out with your next move not always immediately obvious, and the difficulty curve is pretty fair except for one thing - the bosses! Yes, as you would expect, each mission ends in a boss fight and they are real tough sons of beyatches! They have energy bars too which is a little unfair considering Hayate himself dies from a single enemy weapon strike, much like the original game (although he can touch an enemy without injury). Suffice to say, they require a lot of practise! Fortunately there a superb between-stage bonus level. It's similar in principle to the one from the first game but instead sees ninjas jumping down at you from a high-rise building! Success here can earn you an extra life which can prove invaluable. Control over Hayate is a little sluggish at times (mainly with jump-related manoeuvres) but that's the only bad point really and it's far from a game-breaker.

Yamato munches on a frisbee dude...
As sequels go, Shadow Dancer is really good. It's easy to tell apart from its prequel, removes none of its good points, and adds a few ideas of its own. It's also very enjoyable to play, being atmospheric, addictive, and not hugely unfair, so it's strange that it wasn't more popular. I suppose the original Shinobi caused a deluge of similar games so this release didn't make such an impact despite being the only official sequel (at that time). It's just a shame Sega didn't polish it up a little more. If they'd toned down the boss fights and added a top soundtrack, I expect it would've been more successful and could've even been one of the greatest games in the series. As it stands, it's a good, slightly under-appreciated son of greater sires.

RKS Score: 7/10


  1. Good write up, RKS. The ST conversion that I owned was pretty sucky, so I will have to give this a go at some point. For me, the addition of Yamato makes this game.

  2. Cheers! Yeah, some reviews take the piss out of Yamato but he's actually pretty useful if you ask me! :)