Arguably one of the most eagerly-awaited entries in M2’s acclaimed Sega Ages series, Sega’s classic ninja side-scroller Shinobi has pounced from the trees like a sneaky ninja to finally hit the Switch in its glorious arcade form. However, is one of Sega’s most beloved games still as awesome as we remember it? We're about to find out.
While there’s no doubting the quality, passion and obsessive attention to detail that M2 pours into all of its releases, it’s fair to say that the choice of titles in the Sega Ages series so far has been somewhat puzzling. For every masterpiece like Virtua Racing, Sonic the Hedgehog and Out Run, there’s yet another Columns or Puyo Puyo game to add to the pile; titles that are nice to have, but surely can't be games people are crying out for.
While some of these decisions from the left-field can work out quite well (this reviewer was grateful to be introduced to the unknown delight that is Ichidant-R, for example), it's Sega’s renowned arcade classics that always seemed the more sensible choice. While we continue to wait in vain for Sega to stop ignoring its amazing 32-bit catalogue, Shinobi is the type of arcade classic that that feels like it should have been here a long time ago.
For the uninitiated, Shinobi is a seminal side-scrolling coin-op released in the middle of the ninja craze of the 1980s, and doesn’t try very hard to hide its similarities with Namco’s earlier Rolling Thunder. You play as Joe Musashi, and your job is to rescue the children dotted around each stage before dashing to the end. It’s a bit like Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, except with more shurikens and less concern about who the kids might be safer with.
It’s not the longest game in the world, but, in its original arcade guise, was sure to guzzle as many of your pennies as possible. Breaking things up is a rather nice first-person bonus stage where you have to take down incoming ninjas with your trusty shurikens. In addition to said shurikens, players also get the usual melee attacks, a katana and more – which Joe will use when appropriate – as well as a limited stock of special ninjutsu techniques that allow you to deal out extreme damage.
You knew all this, though – this is one of Sega’s most famous games, right? What you really want to know is what M2 has done with this Switch port, correct? Well, this is M2, so it goes without saying that the developer has gone the extra mile to give such an important game the treatment it truly deserves.
Of course, we get a pretty darn accurate port of the original System 16 arcade game, which can be played in its original form through the Arcade Mode. The new 'Ages' Mode, on the other hand, feels more like the main feature. Fundamentally, this mode is intended to make the game much more accessible to newcomers, as M2 was concerned that the game is too hard for many in its natural state. In this mode, Joe Musashi can take more hits rather than the single blow that would fell him in the original version. The game explains this somewhat by swapping out the iconic character's black ninja gear with the rather fetching white outfit from the later Revenge of Shinobi, the Genesis/Mega Drive sequel which famously did away with the punitive one-hit-kill mechanic. This white suit actually becomes red after taking a hit, giving a clear indicator as to whether your next blow may be your last, and is overall implemented extremely well.
Both the Arcade and Ages modes gain a rewind feature, cleverly framed by M2 as a new ninjutsu technique rather than a cheat. As the name suggests, this rewinds the gameplay by around 10 seconds so you can retry tough sections over and over again. It does make the game a bit too easy, but will probably be invaluable to speedrunners trying to perfect each portion of the game.
Regardless, the rewind feature can be disabled if you suspect that you may not be able to resist using it. Ba careful though, it is actually possible to rewind yourself into a dead-end since it will not rewind past that initial 10 seconds, even after starting from that point again, meaning you're stuck if you then subsequently die anyway. Less controversially, both modes also let you select which stage to start from, as long as you’ve reached that stage before already. In addition, the game also automatically saves a replay of your entire playthrough of the game, which can be viewed at any time. Not only that, but the replay displays exactly which buttons are being pressed at any moment; a nice touch which most other Sega Ages releases have, but feels a bit more relevant here to help speedrunners.
As far as ports go, it’s all here. Those who have experienced any of the other Sega Ages releases on the Switch will know pretty much what to expect in terms of presentation. The usual 4:3 mode is complemented by a stretched 16:9 option if you feel that Joe Musashi could do with gaining a few pounds, as well as a smoothing option utilising bilinear filtering for people looking for a cheaper alternative to smearing vaseline across the screen. More pleasing, however, is M2’s scanline implementation, which is really quite excellent. It’s a small thing, but so many retro ports get this wrong with awful, thick scanlines which darken the entire image, so it’s nice to see a developer get it so right. There are none of the extra home ports here, but this doesn't feel like as much of a loss as it does with the SEGA AGES: Fantasy Zone release.
Shinobi as a game has aged extremely well – it’s still an absolute blast to play today – and that goes a long way to making this a worthy download. The excellent variety of stages and enemies complement the tight gameplay which still feels spot-on even compared with later entries in the series, and its rather fanciful representation of ninjas is difficult to get too upset about when it’s just so much fun. We’d frankly like to see some later Sega games appearing in the Sega Ages range at some point, but it’s great to see a return to the company's heritage after some of the other more questionable releases.