a review of Shinobi
a videogame developed by overworks
and published by sega
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by Ario Barzan
We at Action Button Dot Net are unabashedly in love with games that have the will and the smarts to surge through the world via several hot mechanics, structured under the overarching Will of Design. Shinobi is one such game. Released in the earlier lifespan of the Playstation 2, during a brief period where it became fashionable to revive older titles or series that had gone M.I.A. — like Contra and Rygar — the game had a charm all its own. That it was more or less ignored could, perhaps, be attributed to things like the terrible American cover, depicting a blocky (read: in-game) model of Hotsuma, protagonist, against a moon. As conditions are met in-game, unlocking more artwork, it becomes readily apparent that Shinobi’s concept art was pretty great, and should’ve held a spot on the cover instead, as it did in Japan –- or that it should’ve just shown the moon, and had Hotsuma’s red scarf floating behind the logo. Partner this quietly vital point with a few other things: that the game wasn’t necessarily “filling a gap” (one may assume that Devil May Cry was still doing this, whatever this was) — that no large, or medium-sized, crowd was necessarily pining for a new Shinobi — that many reviewers and players had long been into the swing of behavior that was antagonistically foreign to the idea of challenge.
To add another reason: Contra: Shattered Soldier, a game that still vaguely scares the living shit out of me, seemed to get by pretty well, thanks largely to the ball-twisting precedent set by its forbearers. As proof of this, note how apathetic the welcoming party was for Neo Contra, the “easiest” (but most Awesome) Contra. Shinobi was, more or less, an anomaly, both within the context of contemporary game design and its own series. It is probably the most difficult Shinobi title, and it was criticized in a way inverse to that of Neo Contra, for, “in this day and age,” having the nerve to make you restart a stage after falling into a pit with the end of a stage in sight, et-cetera, et-cetera. Shinobi does not have a problem with its challenge. Throughout its entire running course, the game dashes a few steps away from the side of “frustration.” That it metaphorically dashes might not be so metaphoric, since, beginning at the second stage, the game locks itself and you under the pressure of momentum. Basically, you must DESTROY THEM ALL, or be destroyed yourself.
The explanation is thus: Hotsuma’s sword, Akujiki, is a “living sword,” and, being “alive,” it requires sustenance. This comes by way of the consumption of souls. Each time an enemy dies, it yields red, comma-like soul-blobs, designated as “yin.” The trick, however, is that the sword – merely being alive — cannot distinguish between Good or Bad. It just wants to eat. And if players don’t kill enemies to feed their weapon, it’s content to start consuming Hotsuma’s own soul, indicated by a nautilus-like spiral of red shards. Once these run out, Hotsuma’s life — a circle of wavering will-o-wisps — begins to burn out, flame by flame. This is already interesting: that the symbiotic object you must wield is the thing maintaining so much of the game’s constant sense of dread and anticipation. To anyone already questioning the logic of this situation, and saying aloud to themselves, “Well, why doesn’t Hotsuma just use another sword?” — I don’t know! Who cares? I mean, there’s an early cutscene where the sword suddenly flies away from Hotsuma, and then dives back at him. There — we may assume that, if Hotsuma were to try to discard the sword, it would keep flying back to hunt him down before being subdued. This is, actually, kind of a hilarious mental image. Taken up, it could lead to an anti-ninja ninja game, where the objective is to outrun your ravenous, aerial sword. We could also assume that Akujiki is the only sword in the world capable of performing on the level required. This sounds more plausible and “noble,” so let us go with this idea.
In any case, this is the game — a rush against the hunger of your weapon, set next to each battle against a level’s enemies. This might already be satisfactory. That a little, tight set of extensions are slipped in to cause the mechanics’ dynamics to violently blossom makes a case for it probably not being enough, on its own. We come to the “Tate,” which might actually mean something legitimate in Japanese, or might not. When any enemy is killed by way of sword, they will freeze for a few seconds before slipping into several diced chunks (think: innumerable anime where a person cuts through a building; five seconds later, the structure is shown to have a diagonal cut through its entire foundation, and it begins to slide apart; et-cetera). When you kill another enemy in a pack, the invisible counter resets itself. Kill four or more enemies in this time-frame, and there will be a four-second pause where the screen goes letterbox, the camera selects a random angle, and everything unfortunate enough to have got caught up in the mix literally falls to pieces.
Performing a Tate multiplies the amount of souls you would acquire if you had killed each enemy individually. And, each time you freeze-kill an enemy, your sword gets a little stronger, moving from a light blue to purple to a burning, neon-pink. What we end up with is something that is tactically advantageous, “stylistically” ideal, and, more often than not, challenging to pull off. It’s a great feature. As you’re in the thickest part of a Tate, where it half-seems like it’s the hardest part, it’s paired with the feeling that you are at the easiest point in things — that you could take on the world, maybe. As you and the game progress, almost-ridiculous, patterned strings of enemies start emerging. There’s a wild, cacophonous asymmetry to tackling these crowds — zig-zagging across a pit of lava by systematically slashing at a host of flaming moths, and then shooting down to the ground to rip open two tanks with your thrumming sword, milliseconds before the Tate ends (side note: again, no actual counter ticks the seconds away; play this game enough, and you develop an internal clock; we applaud this choice on the part of the developers, as it simply feels better to keep oneself under a mental check). Or circling an industrial room’s walls for mechanical drones, and returning to the center walkway to vertically separate that ten-foot-tall demon.
This extends into the design of Shinobi’s bosses, interesting not necessarily because they are hard (they are hard), but because the challenge lies mostly in actually getting to them in time, sword ripe, and landing a hit after tearing through the crowd of minions the boss has summoned. In their own way, the bosses are puzzles. You observe their mannerisms and reactions — you choose the ideal frame at which to strike — you prioritize the dispatching of mini-enemies to charge up the sword — and then you go in for the kill. One boss fight starts you off at one end of a narrow corridor. At the other end is a rag-tag man with a sword. You think it’s going to be a one-on-one duel — and then a storm of hovering robots appears above, shooting lasers all over. It’s just crazy enough to work. Watching someone — or, even better, being someone — who knows what they are doing, chaining everything together for victory, carries an acrobatic sensibility that is lost to most games that should have that sensibility. There are better 3D games than Shinobi, but there are few to none that provide its brand of taut joy in the physics, controls, whatever you want to call them. Hotsuma feels like a marginally overdosed Metrovania character, what with his pin-point swipes, instantaneous dash maneuver, and light double jump — except he’s in a world where the things have so much more spatial value.
Jump with the circle button and hold R1 to target an aerial (or tall) enemy. Press the X button to do a dash in the air. Press the square button to hit the enemy with your sword. Press the X button again to stay airborne (and to allow another single jump). Hit the enemy again. Repeat the last two commands. After the enemy dies — if you’re still holding R1 — you’ll lock onto the next enemy. Interesting. On the ground, wait for an enemy to run up to you, while targeting it. Before it can hit you, press left or right on the joystick to circularly dash behind the enemy. Attack them from this position to deal greater damage. Neat. Hold forward on the left stick when attacking with your sword to do a sweeping attack that pushes exposed enemies away. Don’t hold forward on the left stick, and Hotsuma will stick to his default, comparatively contained moves. Attack, quickly dash, and immediately attack again to keep Hotsuma in his sword-combo while covering a greater area. This is all the combat in Shinobi is – microscopic, brisk commands stemming from a minimal base to deal with everything as fast as possible. It’s simple and difficult. It’s thrilling. There are even several techniques which the game, manual included, never mentions. While this can be detrimental for certain games, the shady features here aren’t so vital that their obscurity agitates the overall result. We can say that their secretive nature makes them all the more exciting to discover and use.
If Shinobi does not have a problem with its challenge, what it does have trouble with is visual landmarks. For all the unassuming minor flourishes to be found, like soda dispensers flickeringly collapsing from hits in the first stage as they would in a 90s action-brawler, the game’s settings need more of a face, and the architecture more quirks. There are points where you will finish a Tate and resume business, only to find that the four-second pause has somehow robbed you of the direction in which to go. You forge ahead after a second of deliberation, and round a corner to encounter a dark, fizzling barrier. You realize: “Okay. I . . . guess I came from here.” The dark barriers are an all right way to progressively close up the stage and prevent retreat; they are a bad, lazy method for re-orienting the player’s compass. This doesn’t dissolve any basic foundations, but it’s a bother when it’s there (example being the final stage; a bummer, as it’s the stage among stages that demands the speediest run-though). We also like being continually surprised by what there is to see in a game’s world; denying this to ourselves is unimaginative, claustrophobic thinking. Let’s be picky: the wall climbing could’ve also been a little more gracefully handled. Hotsuma automatically attaches to walls when he jumps against them, and holds on for a set period before falling off. The fifth level has you navigating a flooded portion of the city mostly via jumping from wall to wall. The water below rushes and roars; sometimes it rises and lowers. It’s a fine idea for a stage, and I can deal with Hotsuma somehow dying the instant his body goes under water — still, though: the combat with enemies that also cling to the wall, or are near the walls, feels sort of awkward and cramped.
And the story isn’t very good. I mean, it’s awful nonsense without an ounce of humor, is what it is. Right before you fight the final boss (whose resilience is probably the largest lasting legacy Shinobi has had), he lays some quickie-philosophy on you about, “Technology has made advances — but has the heart of man?!” Oh, shit! Cover the kids’ ears, mom! We’re getting in too deep! That the game would do this is at once expected — as a byproduct of a place that seems suicidally dedicated to injecting any product’s plot with weirdly inappropriate self-importance — and dully shocking, especially when the rest of the content is about throwing shurikens at the underbellies of helicopters and cutting sentient, toothed missiles in half.
Two years after Shinobi, Nightshade was released as an immediate sequel, replacing Hotsuma with a female avatar. That any good or great video game is ultimately “unnecessary” is an infinitely regressing, boring notion: entertainment is absolutely essential to human experience. Taking this into account, Nightshade was unnecessary, and inferior. We played the game and realized that everything in it was a plain, self-defeating toning-down of what had made Shinobi a success, without improving Shinobi’s wrinkles. Observed as whatever you please — a late entry in a series, a three-dimensional game, an action game, a video game, an advertisement for gratuitous neck-clothing — Shinobi is worth it. I say this as someone with close to a hundred hours logged in, and with an “S” ranking on each stage (I say this also as someone who initially “borrowed” the game from a “friend,” before said “friend” “got it back” a year later; who knew that I would’ve had to buy the thing?!). Besides that, there’s a fabulous soundtrack, here; the opener song, with its slightly cheesy fusion of traditional instrumentation and electronic synthesizers, is one of the catchiest, most recognizable openers to come from the lungs of a game in a couple decades.
And with that, I think we’re done.