The Shinobi series has been sneaking about the gaming world for over two decades, and the 1987 original arcade entry remains a classic to this day. The 1991 Game Gear instalment — also called Shinobi — has now infiltrated the 3DS eShop, and we're happy to say that it's aged better than we would have expected.
You play as Joe Musashi, Red leader of the Oboro School of Shinobi, on a mission to bring down the corrupt Neo City. Before you can mount a siege, however, you must rescue four other conveniently colour-coded ninjas. That's no easy feat.
This edition of Shinobi takes an interesting approach in that it allows you to choose from any stage at any point, much like a Mega Man game. That's not where the similarities to that franchise end; when you rescue a ninja you can choose to control them instead of Joe, each one holding their own special weapons and abilities. Progression through these stages feels decidedly Mega Man-like in that regard, as each stage can be tackled differently — and more easily — depending upon which weapons you have in your arsenal at the time.
The four initial stages are relatively brief, but they're difficult. Players can expect to die, and die frequently. The enemy placement is almost comically devious, and a four-hit life bar means you can't afford to rest your reflexes often. Health extensions are available, but they're not easy to reach, and many are impossible without having the correct ninja in your party. Stages end in unique boss fights, and while they are each locked into a definite pattern, discovering how to do that is a good deal of the fun.
Each stage looks fantastic. The graphical work in this game is impressive for its time, and its enemies and obstacles are still clear and distinct from the backgrounds. The environments all feel unique, from a forest to a city to a building that crumbles beneath your feet as you ascend. There may not be a large number of levels, but what's here clearly had a lot of care put into its design. The music is also fantastic, if a little quiet.
The final stage in particular is quite interesting, as it's less combat heavy and more reliant on your ninjas' special abilities to overcome deadly obstacles. It's a long and difficult stage, peppered with rematch battles, and it's the perfect way to cap off the frantic mayhem of the previous enemy-packed levels.
Learning to use your five ninjas and their various weapons and special abilities is essential not only to completing Shinobi, but also to experiencing all it has to offer. Different routes through the game are indeed possible, and recommended. You might think you know how to make it through a particular level with a projectile weapon, but if you were limited to a short range attack, would you do as well? Self-imposed challenges like this turn Shinobi into a great playground for experimentation.
Shinobi for SEGA Game Gear offers a simplistic but very satisfying adventure. Its total of five stages suggest a brief experience, but clever traps and tricky enemy placement make for a lot of trial and error along the way. There's also a fair amount of replay value thanks to the different paths you can take through the game, accumulating abilities in a new order as you go. Some might be left behind by the difficulty, but those who stick with it will be glad they did.