Shadow Dancer started out life in 1989 in the arcades as the sequel to the ever-popular Shinobi, which was a sizable hit for creator Sega. In the same year the company also released the rather excellent Revenge of Shinobi as an early title for the fledgling Mega Drive/Genesis. It strayed from the classic arcade formula by introducing an energy bar to allow the player to take several hits. The Mega Drive version of Shadow Dancer released a year later as the follow-up to Revenge of Shinobi sought to take things back to basics with more the challenging one-hit-you're-dead rule.
The home console release of Shadow Dancer is a very different game to the arcade version; some might argue it is actually a lot more enjoyable. Some common themes are kept intact, but the levels as well as enemies are completely different. The action takes place in a post-apocalyptic New York City in 1997, where a gang of overgrown reptiles have taken over and it’s down to you to restore law and order with your unrivalled ninja skills.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this chapter of the Shinobi series is the introduction of Shinobi Joe’s trustworthy pooch Yamato, who is all too happy to help him take out troublesome foes. It’s a simple matter of holding down the attack button for a second to give the order for Yamato to attack. While the enemy is struggling with your canine pal you can get in close like a sneaky ninja for a slash of your sword. Be sure to release Yamato at the right time however, as one hit from a bad guy will shrink him into a harmless puppy for a while!
The levels themselves are fairly short like the original arcade Shinobi and allow the player to jump up and down between platforms to perform stealthy attacks, or avoid instant death. Aside from the goal of making it to the end of the each stage unscathed you will also have to rescue the hostages scattered throughout the level too. Joe is armed with an unlimited supply of shurikens to dispatch of all who block his path to victory, but of course true ninja masters will want to get in close for a devastating melee attack.
At the end of each set of levels you will encounter a fiendish boss who will prove quite tricky until you learn their attack patterns. If you are successful in beating them then you enter the bonus round which sees Joe jumping from a skyscraper and taking out as many flying ninjas as possible in his descent.
Graphically, Shadow Dancer impresses with large sprites and vibrant colours throughout. Some of the backgrounds are a bit repetitive but there’s plenty of detail and special effects, especially in the opening ‘Burning Downtown’ and later ‘Statue of Liberty’ levels. It all moves effortlessly with no sign of slowdown. The music is decent too, despite the legendary Yuzo Koshiro not being involved and fits the tone of the game perfectly. The sound effects do the job but are a little lacking in places - when you use your ninja magic it sounds like a broken vacuum cleaner!
What makes Shadow Dancer so much fun to play is the responsive controls. Collision detection is pixel-perfect so if you die at the hands of the arcade style one-hit mechanics you have no one to blame but yourself. The gameplay is arguably less deep than Revenge of Shinobi, but it works really well with the uncompromisingly tight level designs and on the whole this particular ninja adventure feels a little more boisterous and fun than the dark and brooding prequel.
Novices will find the game reasonably challenging on the easiest difficulty setting, but there are on the other two difficulty settings even a gamer with ninja reflexes will be tested. You can even try playing through the game with the option to use shurikens switched off if you think you are tough enough! Challenge is the one area where Shadow Dancer definitely loses out to Revenge of Shinobi; it’s probably a little too easy, although it’s certainly much as much of a walkover as many other Mega Drive releases of the period.
If you enjoyed Shinobi III or Revenge of Shinobi – both of which have already released on the Virtual Console - then it’s likely that you will get a kick out of Shadow Dancer too. It’s not quite as difficult and lacks some of the original ideas and glorious set-pieces that made the two aforementioned games so appealing, but the “one-hit” deaths ensure that it’s a slightly tenser and often more exciting experience. Many Shinobi fans have argued that Shadow Dancer does not stand up to the quality of the other two Mega Drive entries, but in many ways it is a lot more fun due to the simpler arcade-like style of play. Regardless of what has been said in the past, you can take it from us that this title comes highly recommended to all ninja fans.