It’s always challenging to breathe new life into a dormant, fan-favorite franchise. The Shinobi series was one of Sega’s pre-Sonic crown jewels, but aside from a brief revamp in the early aughts as a PS2 title (and a fairly awful and rightfully forgotten GBA outing), the series has been relegated to re-releases and compilation discs. Shinobi on 3DS marks the first effort in several years at a new title with the Shinobi name. While the character design looks similar to the PS2 version’s bescarved hero, the action is far more in line with the 2D sidescrollers of old.
The first thing you’ll realize about Shinobi is that it is tough. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you shouldn’t don your cowl expecting a lenient ride – your foes are utterly merciless from the very get-go, standing watch in sneaky locations and laying all manner of nasty traps around the landscape. Each enemy you slay skillfully yields points, and doing a string of awesome ninja activities gives you score multipliers, but taking damage actually subtracts points from your total, making the art of mastery into an interesting tug-of-war. There’s plenty of fodder for scoreaholics and speedrunners here, but be prepared to practice a lot if you want to ace these levels.
Fortunately, Jiro has a bunch of skills at his disposal: a massive variety of sword slashing attacks, wall climbs and dives, a ninja grappling hook, projectile attacks, and limited-use but amazingly powerful arcane ninja magicks. You can spend a lot of time just playing around with all of the different moves at Jiro’s disposal, and there’s a lot of satisfaction derived from using a more obscure maneuver to get past a tough situation. Unlike most action games, however, Jiro doesn’t have a hold-down-the-button guard skill – instead only an opponent-disarming parry that must be executed with precise timing. This skill takes some getting used to, and can be frustrating at first - we were holding down the parry button to guard instinctively, making it useless until we finally got the hang of it.
You’ll be making use of these skills quite a bit, too. Shinobi is surprisingly lengthy, with its eight stages composed of several different sections and set pieces. You won’t just be fighting generic ninja throughout, either: the series always had a penchant for a bit of weirdness (one of your opponents in the Genesis games was Spider-man!) and Shinobi 3DS plays on that with some wacky time-travelling shenanigans. Skillful play (or sometimes even not-so-skillful play) is rewarded with in-game achievements and unlockable extras, and when you’re done with all of those levels (it’ll be a while), you can use 3DS play coins to unlock additional challenge levels.
There’s plenty to love about Shinobi, but it’s not without issues. As welcome as the difficulty can be, sometimes it simply feels cheap, with enemies and traps placed offscreen in locations that are nearly impossible to deal with unless you’ve played the stage before and have memorized layouts and patterns. You’re going to encounter some very cheap hits and deaths, and even if you’re playing on the lowest difficulty setting (unlimited lives and continues, more checkpoints), you will get frustrated at certain points. The visual aspect of the game isn’t so hot, either. While the art direction is solid, the 3D implementation doesn’t add much of interest and the character models and backdrops often look downright poor. Low-res textures and crudely constructed character models had us wondering if this title began life as an original DS game only to be moved to the new platform in the middle of development.
The worst parts are the poorly designed mid-level minigames. In these sections you’re given a quasi-behind-the-back view while riding a horse or driving a vehicle of some sort, dodging things coming at you while trying to kill stuff. These sections did little except make us wish we were back hopping along platforms with ninja agility. At one point you’ll even be asked to use the 3DS’s gyro controls to maneuver, which turns what was already not very fun into an exercise in gimmick-driven rage.
When all’s said and done, Shinobi is a solid, old-fashioned 2D action game on a platform that has been surprisingly devoid of them so far. If you have the gaming fortitude to endure some incredibly challenging and downright devious level designs, you should by all means take up the sword. But if you’re easily angered, you may want to think twice before picking this up. A 3DS thrown out the window won’t be cheap to replace, y’know?