Teaching an old ninja new tricks.
Have you ever dreamt that there was more to your past than you thought you knew? That you were, in truth, really the heir to a distant country or a descendant of some great hero? In my case, the dream has come true, for I am not what I seem to be. You see, while many of you know me as Brian Gee, Game Revolution geek, I am actually Brian Gee, Super Ninja!
As a child I was raised by a small yet rabid pack of ninjas who instilled in me lethal skills that no mortal man could comprehend. I could sneak undetected into the most heavily guarded areas, leap through treetops as if I was walking through a park, even kill a man with a grain of rice. Sadly, however, all these skills came crashing to a halt at the tender age of four after a freak accident during a game of Dodge the Burning Shuriken. These days, I simply master the arts of the whirling control pad and live the life of what-could-have-been on a TV screen.
Lucky for me, Sega has revived a classic ninja game through which I can relive my glory days. Shinobi, Sega's ninja game for the next generation, pits players against legions of hell-spawned adversaries in a quest to stop an evil sorcerer from unleashing eternal darkness upon the world. It's got a lot of the classic ninja action we've come to expect from the Shinobi series, but like me, that old ninja magic has lost a bit of its luster.
You're Hotsuma, the leader of the ancient Oboro clan of ninja. One day a massive earthquake hits and reawakens an extremely powerful (and pissed off) sorcerer whose scrawny butt was kicked by your ancestors. This time, though, the bad guy wins and takes revenge by slaughtering your entire clan - minus you, of course. Things get even worse when he reanimates your fallen comrades and send them all out to kill you. What a bummer. Hope none of them owed you money.
So off you go on a nice little third-person action romp to stop the mad magician from unleashing hell on Earth. You'll hack, you'll slash and you'll bounce all over the place like a little ninja gummi-bear on speed. Eventually, you'll meet up with some boss and hack and slash his butt, too. It's a little disappointing that the gameplay hasn't changed at all over these many years, as this basic formula has been applied to a ton of games before. Still, Shinobi does have enough tidbits of ninja goodness to hold your attention.
The first thing you'll probably notice is the awesome FMV that populates the areas between levels. In-game visuals aren't too shabby either, thanks to a solid framerate and nice textures. Players are able to choose from the original Japanese dialogue and a surprisingly good English dub. Not a bad presentation at all...so what's the game like?
Shinobi vaguely reminds me of what Capcom's Onimusha Warlords would look like if it starred Todd McFarlane's Spawn with a big sack o' shuriken. Hotsuma looks a lot like Spawn in his 26-foot long red cape (how the hell does he get his ninja on in that thing?) and his cursed blade is cut from the same mold that gave Samanosuke his Ogre power. Instead of sucking souls, the cursed blade Akujiki draws power from enemies' deaths and becomes temporarily more powerful. But of course, if you neglect to feed little Akujiki, it will start to gnaw on the soul of the one who wields it. This makes it vital to move quickly through a level, for a slow ninja is a dead ninja.
That's pretty much what Shinobi's gameplay boils down to - speed. As you progress through each level you'll be challenged to stay ahead of both enemies and your sword by killing often and quickly. A cool ninja dash is one of the abilities you'll rely on to get places fast and avoid those unseemly death chops from adversaries. Using this dash not only speeds you around to the backsides of your enemies, it will also trick the bad guys into following the shadow that you leave behind. It's definitely a handy little ability for those claustrophobic situations.
And speaking of handy abilities, who can forget the ninja magic that was a staple of classic Shinobi? Uh, the developers, that's who, because the ninja magic has taken a nosedive toward the abyss of uselessness. Three powers are available for use, but only one of them is worth executing. Since such a large part of the game is speed, you'll constantly be avoiding enemies, making the Shield power near useless. It only lasts a few seconds and won't save you much time even if you are low on life. The Projectile magic is also pretty useless, since Hotsuma is already equipped with plenty of shuriken. The only magic you'll ever need is the Explosive magic that unleashes a powerful blast on enemies. Best saved for boss battles, this magic can mean the difference between victory and yet another retry.
Another ninja ability you'll need to perfect is the ability to hop from wall to wall. Like Spider-man, Hotsuma can run along smooth vertical surfaces with no trouble. Some levels are almost exclusively a wall crawl and the slightest mistake will send you plunging into the mysterious depths.
Consiering the fast action, tight control is a necessity for a good experience. While Shinobi's control does most of the work it needs to, there is definitely one aspect that you'll wish you could cut out with your sword. For some reason, Hotsuma's momentum factor is inconsistent. On many occasions, I would run and jump toward a flying opponent, only to have Hotsuma pop straight up into the air. On other occasions, I would double-flip, ninja dash over a gap only to stop suddenly and take the plunge mere inches from safety. And sometimes, things would work out just like they were supposed to. Inconsistency at its finest.
The camera also has trouble keeping up with the speed and you'll find yourself constantly hitting the 'center view' button. It gets really hairy with multiple enemies or in close quarters, so you'll just have to hack, slash and speed your way out of it.
Some of you may be thinking that you'll just speed through the entire game. This isn't the case, as Shinobi's high level of difficulty will make sure your ninja skills are appropriately challenged. Some levels come down to trial and error and some of the repetition can be frustrating, but for the most part you'll be greatly challenged to become a master of all ninja abilities. Finding the secret crests of the Oboro clan that are hidden throughout the game will lead to a few unlockables and a little more replay value, but there's nothing to get excited over.
And that's pretty much what Shinobi is like - nothing to get excited over. Classic gameplay appears in a flash with great presentation to beef it out, but its appeal can disappear in a puff of smoke with numerous annoying issues and ramped up difficulty. This ninja needs a little more training before he becomes the perfect weapon.