Along with the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage and Golden Axe, Shinobi is a franchise that is often considered to be one of those which defined the Mega-Drive console during its reign as industry leader. It would be foolish to suggest that SEGA’s 16-bit wonder offered the diversity and technical complexity of the upper echelons of it’s closest rival’s catalogue, but while the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) could boast these advantages the Mega-Drive could do nothing shirt of outsell it at every turn. This lead to some of it’s most popular series’ having three outings before many SNES classics even got a sequel, and Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja is one such series to have benefited from the additional popularity of SEGA’s console.
Despite following the same pattern as many of the Mega-Drive’s trilogies – limited debut, exponentially improved sequel – Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja is undeniably the best release in its series. And remains so to this day in fact, as the numerous attempts to reboot the franchise have invariably fallen short of expectations. Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja however, is as pure a Shinobi experience as you could get: a series at the top of its game in the height of its success.
The videogame is a 2D platform experience as was the popular genre if it’s era. Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja boasts technical advancements that many of it’s peers simply couldn’t, with some of the most impressive parallax scrolling the Mega-Drive ever accomplished and a colour palette that was almost on par with many of the SNES’ biggest names. The fact that Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja arrived late in the Mega-Drive’s life cycle meant that the development team were able to capitalise on many of the techniques developed in order to draw the most out of the hardware, and they are evident in near-every aspect of the videogame.
Beginning with a rather subdued stroll through a forest and cave, Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja’s opening level teaches players about movement and attack abilities, about the limited use of special powers and the necessity to acquire shruikens on-the-go. Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja is a tough videogame, but not one that is unfairly challenging. There’s a rhythm to Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja’s platform and combat design, and one in which patient play is rewarded significantly.
That is, of course, until you encounter the rush stages. Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja couples it’s traditional platform action with stages that feature automatic movement, requiring the player to simply time attacks and jump to prevent taking damage. It’s a simple design that had been seen in dozens of titles prior and hundreds since, and yet it’s incorporated into Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja in such a way that it breaks the monotony: from start to finish Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja feels fresh and exciting.
Being more straight-laced in it’s gameplay design – though not it’s thematic content – than previous titles in the series, many gamers will lament the absence of Shinobi’s eccentric mini-games and the multi-tiered depth of The Revenge of Shinobi’s levels, but Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja makes up for all of these with precision design and carefully implemented abilities. Shinobi III: Return of the Master Ninja was famously sent back to the drawing board merely months before its final release, and given the resulting experience SEGA were mostly definitely right to do so.