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Review: SEGA AGES Shinobi

23 Jan 2020

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to core Switch players how convenient it is to track down and fire up an increasing number of classic/classic-styled titles that have and continue to flood the plucky little handheld. I’m no angel in this scenario either, as I have downloaded my fair amount of classic titles to help kill time on flights and such.

Have a few minutes to take down a Maverick in Mega Man X on the train? Sure. Think you can polish your Sonic Mania speedrun while you wait on friends or family to get ready to go on some function you barely want to go to? Go for it. Assume the ninja identity of Joe Musashi and toss some shurikens at waves of enemy ninja? You’ll be able to do that on January 23rd via the Switch’s eShop. Developed by M2 and published by SEGA, SEGA AGES: Shinobi will set you back a reasonable $7.99.

Not Your Average Joe

Let’s be real here. Back in the 80s, the depth of stories in games were about as complex as “you’re doing X because you want to best Y to accomplish Z” unless you were playing some sort of JRPG or a point and click adventure from Sierra. The original Shinobi is no exception to this rule. Assuming the role of the aforementioned Joe Musashi, your mission is to rescue the children of the Oboro clan from the clutches of the evil ZEED syndicate and defeat their powerful ninja leader.

The thing about the lack of a deep plot here is that this sort of thing was commonplace at the time, since the gaming landscape back then was so much different. While home consoles and arcades were able to coexist in a more prominent manner then, more focus was placed on the gameplay so as not to disturb the quick pace that was standard at the time. The hardware in question could only do so much, so developers had to keep things simple. The closest thing you get in terms of any sort of significant story development is the end-game text crawl. That’s just how it was.

Like with many other AGES releases, it’s standard to enhance the features list so as to make it a more robust release. If you prefer to play the game as it was originally intended, there’s nothing stopping you from doing that. Fire up Arcade Mode, memorize the stages and enemy/boss patterns, and let your old-school skills shine through the assault of one hit kills and skillful platforming.

However, the wide base of new and casual players may also be turned off by the high difficulty of this classic quarter muncher. Because of this, there’s some additions to this release that can help make the pain tolerable. There is an option to decrease difficulty, but the door also swings in a much more difficult direction if you’d prefer to do that instead. The inclusion of AGES Mode gives the player much more health (with a white uniform signifying that) as well as upgrading Joe’s arsenal from the standard shurikens to an Uzi (!) with explosive rounds (!!). There is also an option to change the speed of projectiles as well. A surprising addition, but it’s there. There is a flashy screen nuke you can use once per stage dubbed “ninjitsu” or “ninja magic” to clear foes or help kneecap a boss if you dub it necessary to use. A rewind feature is also included to help players that aren’t as skilled nail that trouble spot, but this can be toggled from the main menu.

The gameplay itself, however, is relatively straightforward. You navigate your way through each stage of the given level before time expires, rescuing your clan students, using attack/defense, and platforming along the way in order to exit the stage. While you will be dispatching foes from a distance with shurikens, you’ll also be able to quell them up close with a melee attack as well. Dodging is crucial, and the tight controls are usually helpful here. Considering that this game lifts the “jump between floors” mechanic from Namco’s Rolling Thunder, it’s good that these controls are as precise as they are. More often than not, deaths will be on you because of poor execution or whatever else, with a few design exceptions. Namely, the handful of stages with bottomless pits and cheap enemy placement in the stages leading up to the final boss. If anything, difficulty is pretty high given that it’s an arcade game from its era, though skilled players will be able to adjust despite that, and new players can work up to that skill if they desire to do so.

Boss fights are somewhat creative, yet relatively easy to figure out once you crack the patterns and execute properly. Unsurprisingly, the final boss is the most complex and will require a bit of keen reflexes and strong attention to detail to win the day. Though I was able to use a mix of the former with a touch of dumb luck and brute force to do so.

One other convenience that AGES releases give the player is the ability to save anywhere. When you’re just trying to get some quick ninja action in short bursts on the go, this is a welcome addition. Even though the game can be bested in a sitting, the replay value is high thanks to how inviting it is to roll in and perfect your skills. Not only that, but changing difficulty and even regional versions (Japan/International) of the game also give you more of a reason to do more than one run.

The Aesthetic of Ninja

When you approach a classic title of any sort in the modern day, trying to compare the presentation against it is never going to be fair. The arcade version of Shinobi was designed graphically to stand above the likes of the NES and Master System, and in that aspect it succeeds fully. Eagle-eyed-and-eared gamers will notice graphical similarities to the Genesis/Mega Drive thanks to SEGA’s System 16B hardware used for this game, but that console didn’t see a proper Shinobi game until 1989/1990’s Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III a few years later.

Given the similar hardware, that’s the best way to describe this Shinobi from a graphical and audio perspective, for the most part. Environments are somewhat muted and kind of varied, but do show an appropriate amount of detail given the hardware they had to work with here. Sprite work can be relatively stiff, but you can see there was effort placed in making the action on-screen eye catching and exciting. You do get some splashes of brightness here and there, but for the most part it’s unassuming and occasionally bland.

Insofar as audio is concerned, it also reeks of working within given hardware limitations. Music tracks are repeated, but aren’t grating on the ears when heard constantly. Sound effects are generally appropriate for the situation, though you will find certain voice clips will grate on you after a while during gameplay. This sort of thing was considered to be a treat at the time and a way to attract players, but it’s just annoying now.

Retaining the Magic

The biggest takeaway from any remaster or remake usually falls on whether or not the game in question is worth replaying in any form or fashion. Personally, I have dabbled into some of the other work that M2 has done through the AGES series of remakes and usually walk away feeling pretty good with what they do in the realm of the “faithful to the original, but enhance it for new players” approach that they use each time they crack into each new classic game.

That being said, classic games like Shinobi wouldn’t keep getting rereleases like this if they didn’t stand on their own in some way. Does it show its age? Yup. Will some balk at the difficulty that was commonplace at the time? No question, and that’s why AGES Mode exists. M2 has proven time and again that they know what they’re doing with the games that they rework, and this port of Shinobi is no different. This is a solid version of the game that is appropriately priced and fits right in with the Switch’s library and on-the-go nature. Picking up this slice of nostalgia won’t be a waste of money or time.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by SEGA for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.