If you're old enough to have been there, or young and full of investigative vigor, screenshots of Cyber Shadow will give you pause, am I looking at a game released in 2021, or am I looking at the hottest rental from Blockbuster in 1991? Developer Mechanical Head Studios have pulled from the greatest releases of the 8-Bit action platformer genre; a bit of Mega Man, some Battletoads, and the clearest voices are Ninja Gaiden and Shadow of The Ninja.
This is not the first authentic recreation of the genre, in recent years we've been treated to Sabotage Studio's The Messenger, Thomas Happ's Axiom Verge, and Yacht Club's Shovel Knight have all recreated the experience with joyful accuracy.
Serious swag (blades)
Despite all the imposed limitations of an authentic experience, playing Cyber Shadow still manages to feel like a game from 2021; the action is tight and immediate, with inventive and varied encounters. We're blessed with a handful of modern quality of life improvements, most notably checkpoints and infinite lives. A game that 30 years ago would have had you waking up from your cryo-sleep back at stage one after losing a small stock of lives now allows restarts wherever you last triggered a checkpoint.
Also unlocked at the checkpoints are secondary and special weapons, limited use for as long as you remain unharmed. A floating canister to administer ability points, a shield to deflect oncoming, and a spinning blade on the end of a slinky, you're only allowed one, and each checkpoint has a fixed upgrade. The Swag Blade, that spinning blade I mentioned, is far and away the most satisfying, constantly orbiting, moving with the momentum of player movement. Nailing an enemy on a far-away platform by judging the path of the blade just right is an instant hit of dopamine, and I'd happily play a game that was no frills 100% Swag Blade.
Through the game, you'll also unlock permanent movement skills and attacks. These impressive traversal attacks can pump you up with bravado, inflate your confidence in your own ability alongside that of Shadow. You believe that this is it, this is the game you're going to speed run through, look, I just dashed through two enemies without hitting the ground, and your brain makes plans to hit the share button. Then the stage will throw some spikes at you, present a gap too big for the dash alone to manage, and back to the checkpoint you go. What were you thinking?
By the end of the game, you will have earned those skills and that bravado, but it takes a little time, and a few visits to the checkpoints to get there, some of the areas in the late game are built for that kind of breathless play, for bounding atop enemies rather than the platforms, but it'll take patience to plot those routes.
All of the various skills you unlock throughout the campaign can be executed with a D-Pad and two buttons, so playing with a retro-style controller with the CRT filter on will get you pretty close to an authentic 1990's experience; all you'll need to complete the mood is for your mum to occasionally demand you stop playing to come downstairs for dinner.
Best sewers in the business
In its efforts for authenticity, Cyber Shadow hits all the key metrics. The pixel art is dark and gritty, the music is a moody chiptune odyssey, and you get the bare bones story required to propel Shadow on his quest. However there are a few areas where the game falters, some spikes in difficulty so vertical to temporarily remove all momentum from play, and some checkpoints placed at obscene distances. You have the option to travel to previous stages on select checkpoints, however beyond health pickups and easter eggs, there's no impetus to do so.
These issues can't take away from the experience as a whole, frequent thrilling set-pieces and bosses that manage to fit into a stereotype yet still feel inventive. Stages set in the traditional factories, sewers, and facilities, just as you'd expect them to be, but executed as best in class, these are top tier examples of factories, sewers, and facilities, they come highly recommended.
Cyber Shadow is a 1990s action-adventure platformer, it just happened to be made and released 30 years later. Three decades of video game history sit between us and the genre that inspired the game, yet there is still something uniquely joyful in a ninja running side-on at a bunch of evil robots, katana, and a handful of shuriken ready to go.
Cyber Shadow is out now on PC.