SEGA’s Shinobi series has had a turbulent time since the 16-bit era. While Shinobi Legions for the Saturn was criticised for failing to advance the series, while the intended reboot of the franchise on PlayStation 2 – under the guise of two titles: Shinobi and Nightshade – slipped by largely unnoticed by the mainstream gaming audience. With the advent of the Nintendo 3DS however, SEGA have the opportunity to capitalise on a new market as yet to receive any similarly themed products. And it’s a market that is largely populated by gamers that would have experienced the original home console Shinobi titles firsthand.
Developed by Griptonite Games, a studio that has made its name on portable titles – mostly on Nintendo systems – the fans eagerly awaiting the release of Shinobi on Nintendo 3DS may well have allowed their expectations to build. Sadly, the final product bears the hallmarks of a confused, rushed development cycle. The tutorial is presented as a series of static text-based screens before the player has even moved their avatar a millimetre, yet once having started on the first level it repeats these exact same commands. Animated sequences delivering the plot are oddly not presented in stereoscopic 3D, and the analog control isn’t exactly perfect for videogames which demand such precision in the platform gameplay.
While fans might argue that this Nintendo 3DS release provides the evolution of the Shinobi franchise, in truth the newest title in the critically acclaimed platform videogame series plays more like Tecmo Koei’s Ninja Gaiden. Taking the principles of today’s most popular ninja action series and adapting them to a 2D platform experience is effectively the greatest portrayal of the skill-based combat you could hope for, which wasn’t ever the point of Shinobi. It was a platform videogame with a unique aesthetic: a love letter to the occult and the surreal in Japanese fantasy lore, not a realistic interpretation of the difficulties a ninja faces.
Shinobi does offer many distractions from the platforming and combat action, the first of which is experienced on the second level of the videogame. Players take to their steed, riding along a straight road while fending off enemies on horseback, jumping and dodging logs and trees and collecting power-ups throughout.
There are two additional gameplay modes, labelled ‘Extras’ and ‘StreetPass’. Extras mode simply allows you to replay previously unlocked levels one the difficulty setting they had previously been completed on. StreetPass mode allows you to play new levels which are unlocked in a viral fashion. When activated a random level will be unlocked, and players must exchange data with other Nintendo 3DS gamers to exchange an unlocked level. These levels can also be unlocked through the expenditure of earned Play Coins.
Despite the bizarre decision to restrict the animated sequences to 2D display, the in-game visuals are respectable. The character models are well drawn that the environments are surprisingly varied, especially when taking into account the StreetPass levels. The animation is also of a high quality, and the brushstroke of effects of the player’s magic abilities is as dramatic as one would hope for such a limited ability.
While Shinobi is a flawed experience, it remains enjoyable for the most part. The difficulty in both combat and platform action picks up pretty quickly, meaning that Shinobi is not a title suitable for younger or less experienced gamers. For those who do persevere however, an enjoyable and understated challenge lies within Shinobi’s cover. It’s not the highlight of the Nintendo 3DS release schedule that many had hoped for, but it might have done just about enough to get the Shinobi series noticed once again.