Given the current trend of rebooting classic video game franchises it seems long overdue that SEGA should reinvent fan-favourite Shinobi, for both veteran ninja warriors and younger ninjitsu newcomers to enjoy. Entrusted with this great responsibility is developer Griptonite Games, no stranger to developing for the 3DS with Green Lantern and Marvel Super Hero Squad already under its belt.
Rather than playing as Joe Musashi, the ninja protagonist of the classic 1987 Shinobi arcade and its successors on the Mega Drive, this time you’ll step into the nimble shoes of his dad Jiro, who taught him everything he knows. Jiro’s adventure starts out in feudal Japan in 1256, as the leader of the honourable Oboro clan. It’s a typical day defending your burning village from the despicable Zeed clan, but before you know it you’ve been sucked into a vortex and propelled to 2056 where Zeed has amassed a futuristic army of soldiers and genetically modified fiends for you to overcome on your path to victory. Of course.
The 3DS incarnation has most in common with Shinobi III on the Mega Drive, which had a similar futuristic setting, but think of this as much more of a reimagining of Shinobi rather than a remake. In addition to the usual long range kunai attacks and melee katana slices for dispatching your enemies there's much more emphasis on parrying and combos: to parry you have to press the R button at just the right moment before an attack, then you can unleash your fury with some button-bashing sword slices mixed with some throwing knives for good measure. The timing has to be spot-on, so practice makes perfect. If you're playing for points you'll need to master these techniques, as taking even one hit will cancel out your bonus multiplier, but more on that later.
The double jump from The Revenge of Shinobi is present as well as the ability to spray your enemies with a shower of kunai from the air. You can also wall-jump, do a cheeky slide under obstacles and even use a grappling chain to pull yourself up to certain ceilings, or more satisfyingly take down an airborne bad guy. Perhaps the most fun addition is the ability to sneak up on certain unaware foes and do a stealth kill; this is what being a ninja is all about, after all. With all these moves at Jiro's disposal it's a wonder that Griptonite didn’t also manage to cram in the dog from Shadow Dancer for good measure.
Earlier levels are very enjoyable, with secret areas to find, lots of variety and chances to break out the grapple hook and wall bounce while taking out the bad guys. The levels are quite long too, taking around 15 minutes to complete. The game is littered with inspiration from other Shinobi games, such as the brains exploding out of test tubes full of a green solution as found in Shinobi III and the threat of being sucked out of open doors on a cargo plane a la The Revenge of Shinobi.
Given the encouraging start you might assume that Griptonite has cracked what makes a Shinobi game so much fun to play, but the problems start to show around halfway through the game when the level designs become much less inspired. You'll find yourself dealing with countless cheap pit-holes and unintuitive platforming sections, and after a while it all gets very repetitive, as if the developers just ran out of ideas and gave up. As Shinobi III is so obviously the inspiration behind this game, it's a shame that towards the end it lacks the balance and thought that went into the consistently good level design of the 16-bit classic.
No self-respecting ninja would be without ninja magic to confound his enemies, and there are four types on offer here: Fire kills weaker baddies on the screen and gives you increased firepower; Earth makes you invincible for a short time, but depletes your life bar; Lightning gives a shield that allows you to take a few hits, useful when lots of spikes are about; and finally Water lets you jump higher and gives you faster-reloading throwing knives, this is probably the most useful magic of all.
Each stage also has an over-the-shoulder 3D action scene, such as riding a horse while jumping over felled trees and battling other equestrian ninjas. These sections feel tacked on; they don't add anything to the game other than another homage to Musashi action of old. The surfing section further on in the game is particularly weak, requiring you to use gyro controls to pilot Jiro over ramps and avoid rocks, but other than the obvious Shinobi III references it just isn't very much fun to play. There's also an uninspired 3D version of the original arcade game's ninja-shooting bonus round, unlocked by finding a bonus coin in each stage.
Aside from some mini-bosses along the way, each level has an end boss that you'll need to master. There's plenty of variety here, with O-ren Ishii-style showdowns in the snow, a robotic shark and even a H-43 chopper (similar to the Black Turtle boss in Shinobi arcade) obstructing your path to victory. Each boss has a pattern you can learn to ensure success, but lesser ninjas should be able to muscle through with the use of ninpo and a lot of button bashing. In some boss fights you can trigger a QTE (quick-time event), such as reeling your foe in for a satisfying katana slash, which is a nice touch.
At the end of each level your performance is graded and rated: you'll be penalised for using ninja magic or dying, so try to keep that multiplier going and show some true ninja skills if you want to score big. If you're so inclined you can save your run and show it off to your friends later in the replay gallery.
To boost the longevity of the game there are some challenge maps which you can unlock with StreetPass. You get one map for free but can unlock others for 20 Play Coins each, or alternatively hit the streets and hope you chance upon someone else with StreetPass for Shinobi enabled so you can unlock them that way. These challenge maps require perfect skills to complete as it's one hit kills for you and enemies in a classic Shinobi style. Completionists will also be pleased to hear of the 60+ achievements to unlock throughout the game, opening up music and artwork.
The visuals are pretty decent and there are some nice 2.5D effects when going around corners. It would have been nice if sprite models were used in the game, but clearly polygons allow the developer much more flexibility. With the 3D slider cranked up, the stages really come to life with lots of nice background effects, especially on the early stages, and again Shinobi III was clearly the inspiration: action takes place on multiple levels, not just two planes like the classic Shinobi.
A special mention goes to the superb cut scenes which pop up throughout the game. The artwork is simply gorgeous, and although they have very few frames of animation they're very effective at telling the story. The music does the job nicely but never rivals the genius of Yuzo Koshiro’s compositions.
Griptonite has done a fine job of modernising the classic Shinobi franchise, making it enjoyable for seasoned retro gamers and newcomers alike. The emphasis on combos, parrying and high scores gives it depth and a reason to replay levels, but while it starts out strong with innovative level design it loses its way towards the end and becomes brutally punishing with cheap pit-falls.
If you take it for what it is, this isn't a bad game, and the fun of dashing through the earlier levels mostly outweighs the bad. Griptonite has certainly captured the spirit of Shinobi games in this release, but falls short of creating an all-time classic to revitalise the canon.