There’s a common assumption that a console’s best titles come towards the end of its lifespan. This is mainly because developers take time to get to grips with a new machine’s power and as a result you have to wait a couple of years before you see what each console is truly capable of.
With this in mind, it’s rather ironic that some of the 16-bit era’s greatest games were actually released when their respective platforms were young. Super Mario World on the SNES is a good example, as is the Game Boy's pack-in title Tetris. An equally valid case in point is The Revenge of Shinobi on the Mega Drive / Genesis (also known as The Super Shinobi in its native Japan), a game which hardcore Sega fans hold especially dear in their hearts even after all this time.
Launched in 1989 (less than a year after the Mega Drive’s Japanese debut) the game is a sequel to Sega’s hugely popular 1987 Shinobi arcade title. The player once again assumes the role of Joe Musashi as he attempts to thwart the nefarious plans of the shadowy criminal organization known as Neo Zeed, the successors of the equally naughty Zeed gang that caused so much trouble in the prequel.
The game is divided into 8 stages which are each split into 3 individual levels. Gone are the hostages that required rescuing in Shinobi; to complete each section, Joe merely has to reach the exit. The action isn’t confined to typically Japanese locations; while Joe has to battle his way through his fair share of Japanese temples and bamboo forests, he also finds himself in other more unusual environs, including a military base, an ‘80s style disco and even a vehicle-strewn freeway. The sheer variety displayed in the level design is one of the many things that contributes to the game’s overall appeal; you really don’t know what’s coming next.
Being a ninja, Joe relies on his shuriken (which can be thrown in the general direction of nasty-type enemies) and his katana (which is reserved for close-quarters combat and for those times when Joe’s stock of shuriken is depleted). Joe is a pretty sprightly fellow; he’s capable of performing double-jumps in mid-air which come in very handy when avoiding enemy projectiles. Executing a double-jump is trickier than you might expect as you have to get your timing absolutely spot-on and press the button at the apex of Joe’s jump. During this manoeuvre it’s also possible to spray your foes with multiple shuriken by pressing the attack button.
As you progress through each stage you’ll encounter crates which can be smashed to reveal bonus items. These range from additional shuriken (you have limited number although a crafty cheat can be used to gain an endless supply of these lethal weapons) to health packs (unlike the original Shinobi – which featured one-hit kills - Joe has a health bar).
You can also pick up a power symbol to enhance Joe’s attack ability. Once collected, Joe’s shuriken will gain even more kinetic energy which enables them to break through the defences of enemies which would ordinarily block them. In his powered-up state, Joe is also able to deflect certain on-coming projectiles. When gleefully hacking away at bonus crates one should always err on the side of caution, however; as well as containing tasty goodies some are booby-trapped with time bombs.
As well as his trusty shuriken and deadly ninja blade our pyjama-wearing hero also has access to four unique ‘Ninjutsu’ arts: Ikazuchi envelopes Joe in a lightening shield which will absorbs four enemy attacks; Karyu showers the screen with columns of flame; Fushin ensures that Joe can jump higher than normal and finally there’s Mijin, which is the most powerful spell in the game and results in Joe exploding and sacrificing one of his lives. These arts can only be used once per level, although it’s possible to pick up additional Ninjutsu icons from bonus crates. Mijin is the one exception to this rule as using it automatically grants Joe an additional Ninjutsu usage.
It would be remiss to talk about this classic game without touching upon the zany use of well-known fictional characters from other media. The first version of the game released in Japan featured numerous tongue-in-cheek references to a wide range of famous comic-book and movie stars. For example, there's an Incredible Hulk-style muscle man who turns green as he takes damage, only to turn into a Terminator-style robot when he's close to death. There's also a Spider-Man villain who clings to the ceiling and transforms into Batman when you've dished out enough punishment. In addition to these not-so-subtle homages, there's a massive Godzilla-like end of level boss and enemy soldiers that bear more than a passing resemblance to Rambo.
Sega obviously got into a bit of hot water regarding these characters as it released several revised versions of the game which removed the offending sprites and switched them for different ones. By the time the final version came around, Batman had been replaced by a lookalike, Godzilla was nothing but a dino skeleton and the Rambo-soldiers had become generic grunts with bald heads. However, Spider-Man remained (thanks to the fact that Sega had licensed the character for Spider-Man Vs. The Kingpin, which was released shortly after on both the Mega Drive and Master System) and was even given a proper credit on the title screen. This Virtual Console offering is missing that all-important credit, but what has replaced Spidey as the level six boss? Ah, that would be telling!
Considering the age of this game and its status as a particular early release in the life of Sega’s 16-bit contender, the quality of the both the graphics and sound is nothing short of remarkable. Visually it’s a joy to behold, which well-animated sprites and superbly detailed levels. It could be argued that a little more colour wouldn’t have gone amiss but many fans prefer The Revenge of Shinobi’s grittier presentation to that of its sequel Shinobi III (Super Shinobi II in Japan), which adopted a more vibrant approach that didn’t please everyone.
Musically though, there can be no such misgivings. Yuzo Koshiro’s masterful soundtrack has gone down in history as a chip tune classic and is solid proof that the Mega Drive’s much-maligned sound hardware is capable of some truly breathtaking audio. Every single track is an instant classic; it’s a testament to their timeless quality that many of Koshiro’s Shinobi tunes have been performed in live concerts over the years.
Naturally all of these factors add up to an extraordinary game, but there’s one other reason for The Revenge of Shinobi’s high level of esteem: it’s actually a challenge to play. Many early Mega Drive / Genesis games were criticized for being far too easy and not offering convincing value for money. While The Revenge of Shinobi certainly isn’t frustrating, it does take some skill to complete it on the normal setting.
It may have taken quite some time to get here, but the Virtual Console release of The Revenge of Shinobi is an event which should be celebrated with considerable gusto. This is a game developed when Sega was firing on all cylinders both creatively and in gameplay terms, and is thoroughly deserving of being called a solid-gold classic. If you’ve experienced its charms previously then chances are you’ve already downloaded it; if you haven’t then you’re in a for a real treat.