Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Shinobi III: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made

It has been a while since a video game post. Strap yourselves in because this week I'm gonna talk about something cool. The originator of '80s cool: Ninjas.

Coming back to the subject of video games, I once again turn to the classics. This time I want to talk about the Shinobi series, particularly the best and most underrated entry in the franchise. This is about Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master.

Sega has dropped the ball on many of their classic series since leaving the hardware market, but few did they let down more than this one. Essentially huge in the arcades, Master System, and the Genesis/Mega Drive, this series was well known in the early '90s. Shinobi stars a mysterious ninja named Joe Musashi as he saves the world from demonic beasts and beings who threaten the innocent and hope to drag the world into Hell.

This is actually the last game in the series starring Joe as future entries would star different characters unrelated to the original protagonist (though one game starred his father) and they went on to have different focuses in gameplay and atmosphere. But the original series peaked with Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. And it was quite the peak.

What makes Shinobi III (Super Shinobi II in Japan) so different from the rest of the series, and in my opinion puts it far above the others, is a combination of factors from the atmosphere, controls, and level design. There isn't really another game like this one, and most Sega fans go for the much stiffer and overly difficult Revenge of Shinobi instead, so it isn't really given its due. But it deserves so much more.

The first is how good the atmosphere is. It captures the solitary feel of a lone man out to stop a malevolence just out of sight of the normal world. The story is essentially about Joe Musashi finally cornering the last of his ancient enemies all alone on an abandoned island that houses dilapidated military bases, buried experiments, and enemies hidden in plain sight. It feels like an endgame for a ninja. This entry is very quiet in its mood with ninjas flipping and jumping everywhere with sudden spurts of violence punctuating the empty spaces and culminating in a final battle that is out of this world.

I'm not sure how to describe how this game makes you feel like a ninja better than any other does. You're not out in the open like Ninja Gaiden. You're not anime edge cool like the 3D Shinobi games or Naruto. You're not immortal or overly powered like every other '90s action series. You're the embodiment of every cool 80s ninja piece of fiction: you have the tools but you're still not invincible.

Shinobi III comes together with its aesthetics to make you feel like a warrior, and a cool one, but not a ridiculously over the top one. Of course you still ride horses, wall jump, throw projectiles, and surf, like the best '90s games, but the context you do it in makes all the difference.

The controls too are really tight. The Sega Genesis had a disadvantage over the Super Nintendo in that it only had three face buttons (later six, but it was too late to make a difference for most gamers) to the SNES's select button, four face buttons, and two shoulder buttons. This meant a lot of games shared between the systems needed control adjustments for players. Sega's first party games rarely suffered from the problem and Shinobi III is one that excelled with only three face buttons.

For the most part.

Joe can jump, throw kunai, and use ninja magic (ninpo) as his base attacks. He can also run, jump kick, high jump, throw a wheel of kunai, slash his katana, wall jump, and block attacks. He does all this with only three buttons. The amount of variety is insane and allows you to deal with enemy encounters in a variety of ways--such as trying a no kunai run for extra points and a high score or learning how to use invincible frames with the running attack or attempting to combo enemies and juggle your position with jump kicks. There is a lot to do and far more than any previous Shinobi game or ninja game period.

Of course this also comes with a downside. Because of the limited button real estate you can't always do what you want without inputting the wrong command. For instance, the katana is short range and requires being close to use, but it deals FAR more damage than throwing a kunai does. Risk Vs. Reward. But they are mapped to the same button. You can only use the katana if you are right beside an enemy or out of kunai altogether which can sometimes lead to the wrong attack being used. And there is no option to change the controls to change the mapping. They are always tied to the same button.

Late ports like the 3DS version allowed players to remap throw kunai and katana to different buttons which makes accidentally using the wrong one impossible, but the base Genesis game gives no option. It's quite annoying to lose out on bonus points because the wrong attack came out.

The high jump is also finnicky, requiring precise timing to master and makes a late stage level much harder than you'd think at first, but that's true for a lot of old platformers. It's about skill and mastering the controls. Once you do you'll hardly notice the timing, and it will become like second nature. There is just a learning curve to using it.

Nonetheless, these controls are tight.

The level design is even better, taking the player from gorgeous forests and mountains through empty plains and hidden bases in the underground to dark mansions and flying airships, and the designers take full advantage of each setting. You jump and swing through small labyrinths of metal, you platform on falling boulders, and you battle with monsters and robots that have really inventive patterns and attacks to master. These levels are tight.

The designers take advantage of advanced tactics, too. You can frequently learn to jump kick combo into hanging on the ceiling, or figure out the best places to wall jump to get better time through the levels. You can take them slowly, or learn to use the run and time your way through enemy attacks like a real boss ninja. The game rewards you for learning by making you look cool. This is key for an action game.

About the only tricky spot is, as mentioned earlier, learning the high jump, but that only really becomes necessary in the late game. By the time you get there, it should almost be second nature to have it down. If not then you can replay earlier levels until you have it down. You have much space and time to learn.

Also, the final boss is incredibly difficult compared to everything else in the game. He's not Ninja Gaiden hard (nothing in this game is) but he is an obvious spike in challenge that can frustrate with multiple forms. It did not feel like he was as fine-tuned as the rest of the game was. He is quite the beast.

But you still have to make it to him to make any complaints, so this is a minor quibble at best.

All these pieces come together to make one of the best action games of the 16-bit era. And since we're talking about the era with the two best video game systems ever made that says a lot. Shinobi III is up there with the 16-bit Mario and Sonic games, Mega Man X, Super Metroid, Contra III and Hard Corps, Rocket Knight Adventures, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Gunstar Heroes, and the other greats. If you haven't played it you really missed a gem.

It is a shame that this series was buried by Sega's incompetence, because it does deserve to be one with higher fame than it currently has. After one entry on the Saturn (with Mortal Kombat style graphics), it was resurrected on the PS2 with a 3D action game that had little to do with the originals and more to do with jumping on the Devil May Cry edge bandwagon. The sense of scale and adventure of the original games was totally lost by focusing only on combat in small arenas. After a spin-off/sequel of that game and one more sidescroller years later on the 3DS, Shinobi just vanished. It never got a Dreamcast entry like it deserved. It never got so much as a mention outside of a cameo in the last Sega racing game with the likes of Ristar and Skies of Arcadia. It was as if it just disappeared.

And maybe that's how it should be. Ninjas come and move in the shadows, disappearing when the task is done. Joe Musashi came, thrilled us all, and left back where he came from. The man did his job and vanished. Isn't that just like a ninja?

But Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master remains one of the best games ever made released on one of the best systems ever put out at the peak era of console gaming. Not even the passage of time and the forgetful game press could rob it of its title, try as they might.

Play it, enjoy it, and beat it. Shinobi III is a masterpiece.

In other news, Silver Empire has a giveaway going on for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film. If you're into superheroes, I highly suggest checking it out. There are quite a few prizes involved! It's free so check it out.

And if you like action stories, I have one of my own. A distant planet. Dames. Gangs. Fist-fighting. Mud Men. What else could you want?


  1. I love this game though I have yet to beat it. Need to try again.

    That "hero standing on a cliff" motif is great, so many games did that in the 80s and 90s. I don't play enough new games to know if it's still a thing, but it should be.

    "And maybe that's how it should be. Ninjas come and move in the shadows, disappearing when the task is done. Joe Musashi came, thrilled us all, and left back where he came from. The man did his job and vanished. Isn't that just like a ninja?"

    Perhaps he needs to reappear under a new alias, in pulp form. But first I need to figure out how to write a plot and not just action.

    1. Good luck! We could definitely stand for more ninja stories. We've been missing them for decades now.

      The hero standing on a cliff stopped by the end of the 90s. I do miss it because it such a strong image of a hero standing tall over the villain. It probably coincides with the obsession of making the protag and antag "just as bad as the other" in a way to dilute the two. We definitely need to bring it back. Some day I hope to have a cover like it.

  2. A fair point, but NOTHING captures the feel of being ninja like the classic Tenchu series.

    But Shinobi 3 is a good runner up. ;)

    1. Tenchu is a great series. Would sure like to see a new entry.