This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
Newsflash, kids: there was a Sega before Sonic the Hedgehog. Of course, even that bygone era, before Sonic started to suck, isn’t even a memory to most gamers. I have two younger brothers, the older of which turns twenty-one this year. He was two months away from being born when Sonic the Hedgehog was released, so the pre-Sonic days are the kind of thing talked about only by the hardcore Genesis fans who are still fighting the long-ended 16-bit wars, or by hipsters who talk about Alex Kidd despite never playing any Alex Kidd games. Back in those days, Sega got by on a mix of B-list mascots like Kidd, home ports of arcade games like Golden Axe, and curious licenses like Tommy Lasorda Baseball.
Sega did still have one ace in the hole from their arcade days that they used to the hilt: Shinobi. The Revenge of Shinobi came out in 1989 and was one of the better pre-Sonic Genesis games. Shadow Dancer was styled more like the first Shinobi (one-hit kills) and had the gimmick of having a dog following the character. Then the series took a few years off and came back with Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, which was considered one of the greatest Genesis games of all time. Does it deserve that praise, and does it stand up in 2012?
HOW WAS IT THEN: Shinobi III took everything that was good about Revenge of Shinobi, cleaned it up, and made a game five times better than an all-time classic. The set pieces of the original game were brought back: the ninja arts, the life meter (meaning, no more one-hit kills like the original), and the stage layouts. However, they were made into a much smoother over all experience.
One key point was that Revenge of Shinobi, while hard, wasn’t as mind-numbingly difficult as its predecessor, and neither did it require the backtracking and mendacity that Revenge of Shinobi did. It took the classic Shinobi gameplay, smoothed it out, added some tricks like a way to do an air kick, and even broke up gameplay with parts where the main character rode a horse or even went water surfing like it was Turtles in Time or something.
Due to this, Shinobi III was one of the most popular games of the latter Genesis era and deserved the praise.
HOW IS IT NOW: It is astounding how well Shinobi III has aged. While the series has its roots in the arcade era, Shinobi III wasn’t cheap: everything that happens does so due to the skill, or the lack of it, of the player. One key thing to note is that, while the player has the ability to double jump, it has to be timed right or it won’t happen. This can get messy in some boss fights.
The beauty of this game’s level design shines even today. Some time ago, someone went over Super Mario Bros.‘ design and how it introduced everything you need to do in the game before moving on, then gradually increased the difficulty. Shinobi III does that almost flawlessly, and what’s amazing about this is that it doesn’t even introduce all of the things Joe Musashi (yes, that’s his name) can do. If you’re playing without the instruction manual like I did, chances are good you’ll find something completely by accident, and while not everything Joe can do is necessary, it’s definitely helpful.
The boss fights are also notable in how good they are. While every boss has a pattern, hitting that weak spot while avoiding attacks requires precision and foresight. The third stage boss gave me fits because whenever you hit him, he sent a hand out to attack. You can double jump away from the hand, but your feet sink into the ground just enough to be noticeable, so when you hit the boss, I recommend doing a small jump followed by a perfectly timed double jump—which, again, requires precision both at the jump and at the top of the jump—to avoid getting hit. When I finally beat the boss, I had one point of health left… and I had four more stages to go.
I didn’t play much of Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master when I was younger. As such, I figured that without the aid of nostalgia, I wouldn’t be as into it as I am now. Turns out, I was wrong. Not only is this one of the best Genesis games of all time, it’s still better than other games made in recent times that intend to ape the mechanics of the games of the 16-bit era, remains as enjoyable now as it was in the 1990s, and is arguably the best game in the classic Shinobi line.