Game of the Month: September 2017
The Revenge of Shinobi - Mega Drive
In the video game world everybody and their mum has an opinion on what the best ever game is. The same can also be said for the best game on a specific console, the best game in a genre or the best game from a developer. Of course, no one person can be correct and even a majority percentage in agreement are still not going to convince the others of their pick. There is no one answer, the same for anything because as complex and unique individuals (apart from COD players, they go 'bah' like sheep) it all comes down to personal preference, likes and loves. With that in mind and before any Youtuber or website came along to try and marshal everyone into pigeon holes the first generation of gamers self-regulated themselves to define something truly special as a 'classic'.
For those out there who drift towards the games of yesteryear that term 'classic' means something. It's not a casual, off the cuff remark thrown out to ever 4th game you play, no no, it's reserved for those games that did more than just turn your head or rock your world. For fans of videogames it refers to titles that stood apart from their peers that everyone in a room will do that subtle head nod in agreement with. Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Asteroids, Donkey Kong are classic games. Pole Position, Gauntlet, Paperboy & International Track & Field equally so. In truth the list is enormous. Working on the principal that what I'm writing resonates with those reading it, it's often a correct assumption that the reason these games are considered 'classic' is because they were the benchmark for a genre or a franchise that nobody ever got near again. Thing is though that there are exceptions.
One such 'classic' game is the 1987 action hack 'n' slash platformer from Sega called 'Shinobi'. A truly remarkable arcade game that completely transfixed and entire generation of kids to a cabinet and along with others games from the same developer was the reason that the arcade loving countries of Europe and South America flocked to the Sega Master System. Playing the role of a Ninja you had to take on a terrorist organisation and free the children of your Ninja clan. Addictive, stylised, beautiful to look at, hard to complete and with the perfect combination of a cool idea mixed with faultless execution Shinobi is absolutely not just a Sega arcade classic but a classic videogame. Here's the thing though, it's not the benchmark for the series is. It's arcade sequel, Shadow Dancer isn't either.
For the month of September 2017 RGG wants to take a long overdue look at the moment when home console owners took a look at arcade games and announced that they no longer needed coins or a trip to their local arcade hall. When a company having its second proper crack at the home console gaming industry took inspiration from what had already worked so well... and then blew said original out of the water. Ladies and gentlemen and everyone waiting in a queue online for concert tickets for some band it's time for The Revenge Of Shinobi for the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis.
Designed from the ground up for the new 16-Bit console from Sega, the Mega Drive (Genesis for all you in North America), The Revenge Of Shinobi, or as it was originally known, The Super Shinobi was released in Japan on December 2nd 1989. A home console only sequel to the 1987 arcade game it hit just 1 month after the arcade sequel, Shadow Dancer was released internationally in the arcade halls. Just over a year after the Mega Drive had been released in Japan this was one of the main games in the second wave of titles from Sega for the machine. In truth a lot of the very early games for Sega's 16-Bit system were not as good as many had hoped and so this was an adrenaline shot to the arm in serious style. Also released on the same day in North America it was amongst the games for the systems launch window in that region and for many was the real highlight. European Sega fans however had a lovely long wait until October 1990 to get their hands on it, just after the machines launch a month earlier in September of the same year.
Being a sequel to the arcade original this game sees you once again playing the role of Joe Musashi. Taking place roughly 3 years after the events of the first adventure the story is that of the return of the criminal organisation known as Zeed. This time however they have reformed after their defeat from the first game and are now calling themselves Neo Zeed. In order to gain revenge on Joe they have killed his master and kidnapped his fiancée, Naoko. Upon returning to his clan to find out the devastating news from his dying master Joe Musashi sets out to exact his vengeance on this evil organisation, rescue his lady love and basically rid the world of this mob once and for all. Let's be fair, what else are you gonna do on a Sunday afternoon, eh?
Playing in a traditional scrolling platformer manner, Revenge Of Shinobi takes our hero through 8 levels (rounds as the game calls them) which are each split into 3 separate areas or districts and culminate in a boss battle at the end of each level/round. Levels are a lovely mixture of locations with some of them showing off the consoles serious power underneath it's hood. From a bamboo filled village area in rural Japan to a rocky canyon and military base to Detroit, Chinatown and New York each round is superbly unique in its stylings and direction. On release very few games on any system out there looked like Revenge Of Shinobi or moved as fast and as smooth. This was without a shadow of any doubt a moment when fans of arcade gaming could look at a home console and correctly announce that home gaming had caught up.
Controlling Joe was a delight and as well as direction movement he also had the ability to jump, double jump (via a summersault) throw shuriken and also swing a sword. Shuriken were however limited so careful usage of these were important in order to effectively traverse the level and dispatch Neo Zeed's minions. Numerous Power Ups were also present in the form of crates that you had to destroy to reveal the contents. Not all power-ups were positive though with some crates containing time bombs that required the player to quickly move out of the blast radius before it detonated.
Joe Musashi's best move however was his application of several Ninjutsu techniques that gave him special abilities or helped deal out maximum damage to enemies on screen. One technique envelopes Joe in a shield to absorb any damage for 4 hits. Another of the power-ups allow you to summon four Dragons column shapes that engulf all enemies on screen in fire. A technique to allow you to perform super jumps is also present and Ninjutsu Mijin which deals huge damage to anything on screen at the cost of using one of Joe Musashi's lives. Along with the combination of the summersault jump and 8 shuriken throw move using these techniques correctly and wisely is the only way to beat this game. Revenge Of Shinobi is hard, brutally hard at times.
The combination of looking stunning and moving superbly gets its hattrick quota with the games audio component, which is, quite simply, incredible! A full soundtrack from the now legendary composer, Yuzo Koshiro it's a mixture of deep beats and fast paced electro synth styles. Yuzo would also go on to provide the music for Streets Of Rage and a couple of tunes here sound very familiar. Sound samples for the games actions are wonderful with chimes and swoosh noises all working with the songs to really provide an audio experience to rival any arcade cabinet. With intro screens and an animated title screen that blew everyone's minds on its release The Revenge Of Shinobi is everything it's arcade predecessor was but bigger, better, cooler and absolutely more awesome.
All of these points would be more than enough to both convey its quality and explain its inclusion in our prestigious Game Of The Month section on this website but this game has even more reasons to love it and to help make it stand out from everything else around it. If you take a look around at the screenshots on this feature some of you may not recognize some of the things that you see. The reason for this is simple. Revenge Of Shinobi actually has 4 distinct revisions of the game itself in both Europe and North America.
Due to copyright issues surrounding several boss encounters a whole host of changes were made at different times. In Japan only 1 version was released and is now referred to as 'Final Version' or 'V1.00'. In this game 5 characters resemble famous cultural characters from Comics, Cinema and TV. Bosses that are obviously intended to resemble Godzilla, Spider-Man, the Terminator and Batman are in this version. Both Spider-Man (dressed in red and black, not red and blue) and Batman are impersonations by the boss of Chinatown, who upon defeat reverts to a small bat-like creature and flies away. Furthermore, enemies with flamethrowers resemble the movie character John Rambo.
In Version 1.01 (1989) the Batman lookalike becomes anime character, Devilman. Spider-Man is recoloured into his correct marvel colours. The enemies using flamethrowers had their heads shaved to become bald men with headbands to not look like Rambo. The Godzilla boss remained unchanged. Version 1.02 (1990) saw Spider-Man now actually be recognised and acknowledged in the game's credits as the Marvel Spider-man as Sega at this point owned the rights to use his likeness (along with the Spider-Man Vs. The Kingpin game). Version 1.03 (1990) Godzilla is finally replaced by a skeleton Dinosaur and everything else remains the same as version 1.02.
One final version occurred in 2009 when the game was re-released on Nintendo's Wii Virtual network. At this point the use of the Spider-Man license had expired and instead gamers got a pink version of the same character. they also had an altered title screen Ninja image to make sure any likeness to the inspiration for the original version (Sonny Chiba) didn't occur. Regardless of whichever version of the game cart you have or whichever version of the ROM you download to play the core game is the exact same. Only minor differences to how some boss characters act or react is different across the 4 revisions but it's subtle and 99% won't even notice.
Selling very well indeed and gaining huge critical acclaim at the time and since, thanks in part to the gaming community continuing to agree on accepted classics across every format and from all developers, Revenge Of Shinobi is a real WOW moment. Considering its competing consoles and computers of the time of release it quite simply has no graphical and audio competitor. In 1989 the 8-Bit consoles, the NES and the Master System and the 16-Bit computers, the Atari ST and Amiga 500 had literally nothing that could touch it. Even the mighty PC Engine doesn't have a game in this genre that looks, moves, sounds and plays like this. I cannot and will not underestimate or short sell its quality, impact and resulting legacy.
For many, this was the game that made you take a seriously long look at Sega's new console and decide that you needed it in your life. In every single possible way, it was the flagship game for a fledgling system that was struggling to get off the ground in North America and after an initial strong start in Japan was starting to flounder. Whilst it may have been Sonic The Hedgehog that lit the fuse on the juggernaut that was the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis it was games like this that kept the lights on in the first place.
Revenge Of Shinobi isn't just a sequel to a classic game, it's a classic itself that manages to surpass its predecessor in every way. Supremely playable, incredible to look at and a joy to control it's the perfect videogame. It takes your skill level at games and raises them through applying an unspoken necessity to see the next round and the next epic boss battle. Beyond addictive, beyond cool, it's everything Sega did in the 1980's and 1990's in one small plastic cartridge that sits in a games console that sometimes was just far too good to be true. Sega didn't just deliver a great follow-up, they nailed it! They didn't make a new console look like a nice idea, they made it essential. Sega didn't finally match the quality of their arcade games, they made going to the arcade no longer necessary.
With a unique home version of Shadow Dancer and Shinobi III the MegaDrive really was the home for Ninja fans and for many people, this writer included, it was always a shame to not see a 16-Bit Sega console version of the original Shinobi. I suppose Sega took one look at the finished version of The Revenge Of Shinobi and realised there was no point. Why go backwards when you can take one giant leap forwards. I guess there's a little bit of Neil Armstrong in us all. Thanks Sega.
The 1980's was the decade when Ninja's became uber cool. Four Teenage Mutant ones once coined the phrase 'Man I love being a Turtle'. After seeing The Revenge Of Shinobi as my very first Mega Drive experience I remembered thinking 'Man I need that Mega Drive'.