In many ways, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master represents Sega at its very best. It boasts lush visuals, excellent music and a surprisingly versatile lead character, all wrapped up in a game which practically screams action and excitement. Launched at a time when the Mega Drive was really beginning to hit its stride, this action platformer is rightly considered to be one of the most engaging and entertaining games of its generation — even if many feel it sits in the shadow of the earlier Revenge of Shinobi.
Assuming the role of Joe Musashi — a skilled ninja who is the world's only hope of stopping the sinister organisation Neo Zeed — you must fight your way through seven levels of enemies using a combination of shuriken projectiles (these are finite in number and can be replenished by cracking open crates), close-quarters katana bladework and magical ninjutsu powers. These are all carried over from Revenge of Shinobi, but Musashi hasn't been idle since his last fight with Zeo Need. He can now sprint — a double tap on the directional pad executes this skill, which can be linked with a dashing sword attack — and perform an airborne kick to dispatch enemies directly below him. Another new talent is the ability to block incoming projectiles by holding down the attack button, and Musashi has clearly been playing some Ninja Gaiden as he can now wall-jump to gain access to high places.
Shinobi III may force you to run the gamut of genre clichés such as factories, top-secret military bases and urban cityscapes, but it still has its fair share of unique ideas. Round 2 begins with you riding a horse and fighting ninjas which emerge from a kite-like base in the distance, while Round 4 goes one better and puts Musashi's surfing skills to the test. Throughout all of the game's levels you're fighting against a wide selection of enemies which include robotic soldiers, mutant brains and hovering attack craft. It's as if Sega simply cracked open the bottle marked "common action game bad guys" and poured the entire contents into Shinobi III. No stone is left unturned — there's even a robot Godzilla in there, a knowing nod to a similar monster witnessed in Revenge of Shinobi.
The game's penchant for multiple layers of parallax scrolling means that it converts especially well to the 3DS. Almost every stage has a striking impression of depth to it, and M2 — the super-talented team which handled the conversion process — has done a typically fantastic job of porting the game to Nintendo's handheld. Shinobi III is such a fast-paced title that any discrepancies in the emulation would be immediately noticeable, but this plays just as well on the 3DS as it did on the Mega Drive / Genesis all those years ago.
Armed with a wider array of moves, our white-clad hero feels much more dynamic than he did in Revenge of Shinobi, but this has ramifications on the game's challenge. Shinobi III is slightly easier than its forerunner, which will either come as welcome news or a bitter blow, depending on your personal preference. At times, Revenge of Shinobi was almost sadistically tricky, so newcomers may well appreciate the fact that this sequel is a little less taxing.
Those of you who still crave a stern test can always make use of the Expert Ninja mode which has been added to the 3DS version. This feature makes use of the 3DS console's additional buttons, mapping shuriken to the right shoulder button and the guard to the left. Your standard attack therefore becomes the katana, and while this takes some getting used to, it means you can conserve your limited stock of projectiles more effectively. It's a shame that you're not allowed to map the guard command to the shoulder button when not using Expert Mode, however — this would have come in very handy, as having to hold the attack button down to execute the posture takes time and usually means you've been hit by something before the stance is achieved.
M2 has also included the usual raft of options here, such as picking between the International or Japanese editions of the game (Shinobi III is called The Super Shinobi II in Japan, just to confuse matters), applying a CRT-style filter to the screen to simulate playing it on an old-fashioned TV and remapping the buttons. You can also pick between the sound hardware of the Mark I Mega Drive or the Mark II — the former sounds better, but if you grew up with the newer model of the console, your nostalgia bone might appreciate the latter.
Speaking of which, Shinobi III's soundtrack is often unfairly overlooked due to the absence of Yuzo Koshiro, the man behind Revenge of Shinobi's ground-breaking music, as well as the tunes heard in the Streets of Rage series and Actraiser. The songs here certainly aren't as consistent, but there are some stand-out tunes — including Round 2's opening theme, which was recently used in the Seasonal Shrines course on Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
It may be slightly easier than Revenge of Shinobi and its soundtrack isn't quite as toe-tappingly brilliant, but Shinobi III is at least on par with Joe Musashi's previous adventure. In some respects it's arguably superior, offering better visuals and more variety thanks to its horse-riding and surfing stages. This is one of Sega's best 16-bit action titles and a very solid addition to M2's fantastic 3D Classics line, which is fast becoming a goldmine of vintage gaming on Nintendo's portable system.