Programmers, they always forget. They invariably make the same mistake. They forget what it was that got them to where they are, they forget the essence of their famous franchises and golden games and they try to follow these class acts up with soulless sequels and empty tributes. The Shinobi series has not escaped this unfortunate pitfall.
Yes, Sega’s favourite ninja saga has lost its way. And to add insult to injury, the game doesn’t have any kind of subtitle to differentiate between it, and the original arcade side-scroller. It’s as if some genius at Sega figured this game could make the older obsolete, eclipse it, supplant it. And this could not be further from the truth.
It’s not that Shinobi circa 2004 is a bad game. It’s that it’s not Shinobi. Joe Musashi is gone, reduced to ‘unlockable’ status. Enter Hotsuma, who can’t possibly live up to super Joe based on the quality of name alone. And surely Hotsuma attended a different ninja summer camp: The series has been about timing Joe’s crouching and leaping carefully, slipping slicing shurikens just over barrels, just between the eyes of giants. And it’s been about thudding streams of throwing stars into the chests of gunmen, ruining the ankles of green ninja, rending the faces of menacing musclemen bearing throwing blades of their own.
Now Shinobi is about bashing the attack button in bland lifeless environments, the only moments when you feel alive and in tune offered by the coolness factor of Hotsuma in motion. He runs along walls, he STEALTH DASHES around foes, leaving a trail of blue shadow ephemeral in his wake. Then he performs tates, which means to us that if he can stealth dash from one enemy to the other and hack them to pieces with his sword quickly enough, a certain dual purpose will be served. First, each successive strike will be surer and more potent; and second, by the final instant kill strike, an ultra-cool animation will play.
The system is incredibly limited. Dashing from foe to foe, building up on tate intensity in order to keep alive your streak of murderous efficiency sounds a lot more fun than it actually is. It gets repetitive, even as you strategize to build tate off weak enemies to make short work of bosses, and it gets frustrating, as a single block from a single lame clone ninja interrupts the flow and cancels the combo’s efficacy. Of note is the fact that Hotsuma can perform tates in midair, but not of much note.
What of the game design we thrilled to in Shinobi III, the game most widely considered to epitomize Shinobi? What of double jumps and rainbow shuriken showers? Oh, they’re still here. They just don’t matter. Shurikens only stun, and rainbow shots are a negligible asset mostly neutralized by a limited shuriken stock in the first place. So now Shinobi is solely a hack-and-slasher, and a weak one at that. It’s not the jump-and-shoot nail biter set against wonderfully immersive hand drawn environs that you may relate to. In fact, if the name, and not the stylish box cover, drew you to this game, then you will find little of anything to relate to.
Not the slim, young swordsman with gymnast’s lithe physique, not his flowing scarf, which whips like a sentient wind, half-tamed in Hotsuma’s service. I miss the seasoned killer who only eviscerated with his sword those whom he could not tear to shreds at a distance with his limitless shurikens. I miss making jumps that matter, miss enjoying the scenery the killer stalked through with crossed guard at the ready, miss the incredibly varied and stirring soundtracks to kill by.
Much of this essence has been replaced with something that is new. But what’s new is too different for this game to even feel like any sort of tribute, and even if we are to accept the wobbly tangent it decided to set forth on: it’s too weak in its execution to be worthwhile. Shinobi is a fair hack-and-slash action game, and a poor, poor sequel.
Style in abundance can certainly captivate, as the new Shinobi is keen on proving. We are captivated, taken by Hotsuma’s grace of movement, the clarity of his sword’s simplistic song, the will of the wind that fills his scarf. But far too soon, much like the programmers responsible: we’ll forget.