Ninjas really were a hot ticket back in the '90s. The Turtles were making TV and toy executives money hand over fist, and children became so caught up in the craze they had the sheer gall to drag their parents into the cinema to watch dreck like Surf Ninjas. Yep, it was a great time to be a kid.
The trend bled into gaming and resulted in the likes of Tecmo's savage yet brilliant Ninja Gaiden on NES, along with the lesser-known Natsume title Shadow of the Ninja. It's a shame that retro gamers seem to talk about the former more often, but it's understandable given the popularity of Team Ninja's modern reboot and sequels.
Natsume's game is no slouch, packing a brutal difficulty curve and pacing that's comparable to Contra and Mega Man. We're talking serious attack pattern memorisation, gruelling platform sections and ruthless bosses that take patience and discipline to best. If these things make you feel a bit sick in the mouth, then this might not be the game for you.
Shadow of the Ninja supports up to two players simultaneously, which gives it a much greater shelf life than many solo efforts on Nintendo's console. It's a zippy platformer, and although it might be tempting to run and bound over pitfalls with the same momentum as Mario, you need to take a laboured approach to survive.
The key is to edge forward with your sword while cutting through the various samurais, gun-toting soldiers and enemy ninjas that tear into view. Other foes include mortar-bombing cyborg troops, heat-seeking drones and what appear to be bounding monkeys, for some reason. Either way, you need to move smart and consider every single movement or you're toast.
Both playable ninjas Hayate and Kaede move identically and boast a neat wall hang move that sees you shimmying along ceilings, while a tap of up on the d-pad will see your chosen ninja flip up a level. This comes in handy when bypassing enemies on higher planes or flipping up and down to avoid incoming gunfire.
While the platforming is sound, the ceiling crawl is underused in many segments throughout each of the five worlds, and the stage design leaves much to be desired at points. One classic retro gripe rears its head a few times – namely, when short enemies are tricky or impossible to hit with certain weapon types. Not only can this result in your ninja taking several cheap hits, it's frustrating as all hell.
Additional weapons can help ease the pain little, and are found in white crates dotted around each stage. Throwing stars also stun opponents at range but are severely limited, while bombs are devastating but suffer from a pitiful throwing range. These projectiles are both superb, but the Kusarigama – a scythe blade attached to a long chain – is really helpful when used correctly, and can be hurled diagonally to take out enemies from below.
We say 'used correctly' because only the blade does damage. However, the chain is so long it has a habit of simply passing through enemies stood right in front of you. You'll stand there taking punches to the nose while wondering why your weapon is doing bugger all. Still, it is good when used at the correct range, and can help you clear several tricky sections.
You can also pick up two of the same weapon to bag an upgrade. The sword's second state produces a short burst of energy that doubles your attack range, and you will need this to defeat Shadow of the Ninja's punishing boss encounters. These tough sods require a degree of pattern-watching, but after several defeats you should work them out.
They're quite epic too. From the big bomb-spewing eyeball on wings and the strange metal bird man, to a giant rumbling tank and possessed suit of samurai armour, Natsume's boss design is varied if not a tad sadistic. Once you die you take a trip back to the start of the segment, and once all five continues are used up it's game over.
Five continues may sound generous, but it's really not — utilising a restore point is entirely optional, of course. This wouldn't be so bad if the weapons were consistent when facing tough odds. The Kusarigama's jarring attack can be a pain and we actually had enemies pass clean through our sword swipes despite standing right in front of them. It's issues like these that restrain Natsume's effort from achieving true excellence.
All said and done, as uncompromising as Shadow of the Ninja can be, it's still an enjoyable, challenging title that benefits from a dark setting, sneaky enemies and hulking boss encounters. You'll breathe a sigh of relief after passing each tricky stretch of hazards, and there's a real sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a stage. Expect to put some serious hours into memorising and mastering its demands, and this game will stand proud in your collection as a criminally-overlooked gem.