There's a great moment early on in Shadow of the Ninja where an armoured trooper stands atop a ledge occasionally shooting at you. You can't simply wait for the firing to stop before attacking as the gun doubles as a shield against your slashing blade. As you contemplate jumping between bullets to dispatch this irritant, platforms circle a giant fan overhead, and what appears to be an orangutan rides one of the platforms before hopping off to run towards you.
There are a few ways of dealing with this situation, but the spectacular-looking option is to jump up and grab the underside of one of the platforms. Its movement pulls you out of the way of the charging ape and as you hang underneath you narrowly avoid the new barrage of bullets from the trooper. The platform continues its circle and you are taken up and over the enemies before jumping off to head for another set of platforms. By now the gunman has turned around and started firing in the correct direction whilst a second one fires from the other side of the gap. Bullets from two different directions now threaten to knock you from the platforms; getting across has now become tricky, but it makes it all the more satisfying when you manage it.
A lot of fun is to be found in Shadow of the Ninja, but there is disappointment too; for one thing it features just five stages. These stages are comprised of several levels, with 15 being spread across the game, but some contain just a boss battle whilst others are very short. The worst offender is probably level 2-2, which according to the Nintendo Life stopwatch can be cleared in under 30 seconds - and that includes an elevator ride. The game is a tough one, though, so you won't be blasting through the whole thing with ease; any attempts to do so will result in frequent death.
It looks a bit like the NES Ninja Gaiden games, and whilst not playing exactly the same it's not a completely dissimilar experience either. Interestingly a planned Game Boy Shadow of the Ninja title was ultimately released on the handheld as Ninja Gaiden Shadow. One obvious difference between this game and Ryu's NES trilogy is the presence of a simultaneous two-player mode; thanks to Download Play this option is available to 3DS gamers, allowing you and a friend to tackle the challenge together. One of you controls the blue-garbed Hayate whilst the other is given Kaede who opts for a not-at-all-stealthy red – although to be fair this not a game that involves any kind of sneaking around. The simultaneous play is a good addition that makes the tricky sections of the game a bit easier, too - this is partly due to you having help to take out the enemies but also, should you lose a life, you respawn onscreen rather than being thrown back to the start of the level as in solo play.
There's good use of sound throughout with catchy, adventurous music and a number of sound effects that are simple but add to the game greatly. There are various explosions, the swipe of your blade, the metal sound as you grab an overhead platform and the crunch as you drop to the ground.
This has a typically simple 8-bit look, but there's a range of different locations to keep things interesting; you can be running through the sewers, across rooftops or inside a factory as well as other places. There's rain lashing down in the opening level that adds to the atmosphere, whilst burning buildings seen in the background of a later level work well too. There are many enemy types; a variety of firearms are pointed (and shot) in your direction whilst others will try and push you off platforms. Mechanical menaces include rushing metal bugs, floating mechanical claws and some troublesome spiders that, not content with trying to jump on you, will fire shots as well. Each enemy type behaves differently, so you'll have to learn how best to deal with them if you are to make it to the end of the game. As well as these troubles you also have to contend with perilous drops, blades, gun turrets, some not particularly threatening looking steam and also proximity mines – a neat touch being the way a panel flashes rapidly before detonation.
Despite the small 3DS screen the action remains easy to follow, with sprites standing out well from the backgrounds. Sometimes sprites will flicker (usually when something is exploding) but whilst noticeable it doesn't really distract. Should a lot of enemies be onscreen the game can suffer slowdown, although you have to go out of your way to trigger this and a playthrough typically features smooth ninja action.
You begin, meanwhile, wielding a Katana, but other weapons can be acquired such as Shuriken and bombs - the latter are not thrown far by your ninja but it does look good as you casually toss one in to the path of an enemy. Your blade can be upgraded to give off a short energy wave, which helpfully puts some distance between you and your would-be-assassins, but another option is the Kusarigama. Unfortunately the weapon is useless in certain situations. Even when crouched the small metal bugs scurry underneath the extended chain and run into you; the bugs can be jumped over so it would be a small price to pay if you could attack everything else with it; yet that's not the case - at least not always. Often you will find your weapon passes straight through the enemy sprite without registering a hit. If you are full distance away it works OK, but the closer you get the less success you will have. This could be seen as adding a bit of challenge, as you must be sure to keep the correct distance when flinging the weapon, but really it's just annoying.
One final option for fighting the hordes of enemies is a lightning attack; hold the attack button down for a short time and your ninja will summon lightning bolts to destroy the nasties on screen (or knock off a chunk of energy in the case of bosses). This comes at the cost of your own health, as about half is removed from your energy meter, so it's not really recommended unless you are fighting one of the bosses and struggling to get the finishing blow in. The move can be difficult to pull off as should you get hit whilst charging it up, you must start again; if your energy falls bellow a certain point it is unavailable to you.
Learning the best way to work through the levels will take some doing, so there's certainly plenty to keep players occupied. The game is tricky but largely fair and clearing a difficult section feels rewarding. There's entertaining action throughout that sees you swinging up on to platforms, trying to outrun energy blasts, or just Stage 4 in general in which the developers seem to have decided that what they really wanted to do was make a Mega Man game. There are some rather bland sections, too, but the main problem is the brevity of the levels. Some are affected more than others by this, but often just as things seem to get going the level is over and you're onto the next one.
There's a lot to like here with plenty of fun moments, a decent two-player mode and a tough challenge that leaves you feeling a sense of accomplishment once you've conquered it. The Kusarigama is a problem, although if it's too troublesome you can always opt to not pick it up. The main (unavoidable) issue, however, is the length of the game with some stages being ridiculously short. There's some catchy music and the highlights ensure that it's fun to replay whenever the urge takes you. Shadow of the Ninja is a good game, but had it been lengthier it could have been a great one.