Ninjas: fabled shadow warriors, or guys called Joe who fire missiles at terrorists? Why can't they be both? That's what Sega dared to dream, and the result was the 1987 arcade classic Shinobi.
Pictured here: Joe Musashi, a ninjutsu master with the bright red face of an overweight marathon runner. Don't worry, his crimson mug is just an aesthetic flourish for the title screen. You don't spend the game with your head glowing like a hazard triangle, although I doubt it'd make much difference because while Joe might be into the whole "killing people with pointy bits of metal" part of being a ninja, he's not so hot on the stealth aspect.
By the way, cecause the world of the hired killer is a grim one, I've decided to place a few ninja-related jokes throughout this article in order to lighten the mood. Ninja joke number one:
Definitely not a ninja, because as masters of silent assassination they would not knock.
Joe has a problem: his youthful ninja students have been kidnapped by a terrorist organisation called Zeed. Naturally Joe is furious about this, because it really highlights his deficiencies as a teacher of the ninja arts if every single one of his pupils are abducted, and so he sets out to rescue them and foil whatever evil scheme Zeed has put into motion.
Your first mission is to travel through the city and defeat the gigantic (and possibly zombified, if that portrait is anything to go by) samurai Ken-Oh. Really? Am I going to have to start including a "Things Inspired By Fist of the North Star" column in every article I write? Shinobi already has Zeed and Ken-Oh and I haven't even started playing the bloody game yet.
Now I've started the game, and I'm throwing a shuriken at a villain so top marks to Sega for getting the player straight into the ninja action. One quick throwing star to the neck and that enemy will be out for the count. That enemy with the mohawk, sleeveless leather jacket, wristguards and shoulderpads, I mean. Yeah. I do sometimes wonder if I'm overstating these Fist of the North Star comparisons, but come on, I don't think this one is much of a reach.
A quick prance over a wooden crate and I've found my first kidnapped junior ninja. He wasn't hard to spot. The pink outfit definitely helped me pick him out of the crowd.
The ninja children are the key to Joe's success, and each stage has the same goal: find all the ninja kids and release them from their bonds by walking into them. Joe can undo rope knots with his feet, it seems. Once you've rescued all the kids - and you shouldn't have any trouble finding them, because Zeed just left them out in the open and, y'know, pink outfits - you can exit the stage and move on to the next.
All while under the watchful gaze of Marilyn Monroe, too. One of those six pictures is different from the others. See if you can spot which one it is.
Shinobi is side-scrolling action game, of course, and it's strongly reminiscent of Namco's Rolling Thunder series but with shurikens and ninjas instead of guns and brightly-coloured sub-Bond-villain goons. You attack by throwing shurikens, unless you're right next to an enemy - then you switch to a melee attack. Unlike many games, Shinobi dodges the problem of explaining why a ninja (or indeed any normal person) would be hurt by someone walking into them by making collisions with enemies non-fatal - walk into a bad guy and you just bounce off with a pained grunt. You can only be killed by actual attacks, which is so pleasing to see in an eighties arcade game that I would have pumped my fist in gratitude if this was my first time playing Shinobi.
Also taken directly from Rolling Thunder is the ability to jump between two different gameplay planes. In the picture above, you can see that Joe has hopped onto the upper walkway, where a man is firing bullets at him. Joe has crouched beneath the bullets. The Zeed soldier, overwhelmed by the raw terror of seeing a squatting ninja slowly crab-walk towards him, forgets how to aim his gun downwards slightly. Joe kicks the man in the groin, and Zeed's criminal empire is now one man weaker.
Oh, hey, Spider-Man. Lookin' good!
Even in these early stages, you can tell that Shinobi is a quality product. It's so often the case that side-scrolling arcade action games fall into the same pit of woes, but Shinobi has so far avoided all of these traps - the controls are precise and responsive, enemies are the perfect balance of threatening and disposable and the pace of the action has achieved a very pleasing equilibrium - fast but not overwhelming, tough but fair.
Each stage is split into three or four areas, with the last one being reserved for the stage's boss fight. Joe has caught up with Ken-Oh, who it turns out is ten feet tall and can shoot fire out of his hands. Well, it's nice to see that at least someone is getting the most out of their ninja training. Ken-Oh is only vulnerable to attacks that strike his head, which seems odd given that he's wearing a massive helmet. You'd think his exposed upper arms would be the target - chopping them off would both stop him launching fireballs and also hurt like a sunnuvabitch - but no, it's the metal box he's wearing over his face. The ways of the ninja are indeed mysterious.
It's all simple enough to figure out. You can mostly avoid his fireballs by walking to the left, because they're lazy and they won't follow you far, and the most difficult part proves to be timing your jumps and throws correctly in order for the shuriken to actually hit his head. Once you've got that down, though, he's a piece of cake.
After all that hard work, Joe likes nothing better than to relax with a between-stages minigame. It's a first person shooter, essentially - move your hands left and right, flinging shurikens at the approaching bad guys. Kill them all and you get an extra life, but that's a big ask and more than likely one of the ninjas will get through and throttle you.
I'm a little confused about how being in this position results in my immediate death. You'll notice that ninja's not actually touching me, and I have a hand full of shurikens, sooo... you know what, never mind, it's probably just ninja etiquette to fall over dead when a fellow ninja waves his hands at you. No extra life for me as I enter stage two, then.
Here we are in the ninja's natural habitat - the shipyards, and for once Joe's outfit just about works as camoflague against the grey backgrounds.
Well, that didn't last long. Forget about Joe, though, because another ninja has appeared and he's green. Really, really green. Greener than the valleys of Wales, greener than a Ninja Turtle's ballsack, green enough to make me think the poor sod might actually be colourblind. And yet, despite their aggressively viridian hue, these guys are much better ninjas than Joe Mushashi because they're completely invisible until you get close to them and they have two swords.
These ninjas come in several equally bold colours, and from now on they'll be appearing in almost every stage. That's something else I appreciate about Shinobi: it's a short game, but it does a good job of introducing new enemy types gradually and in a sensible order, and there are plenty of categories of goon to pummel.
I've already faced men who charge in with their fists, gunslingers with a more restrained, hang-back-and-shoot approach, fat men with shields who can throw their swords like boomerangs and day-glo ninjas. Oh, and now there are frog-men who leap out of the water and jam a diving knife into your ribs quicker than you can say "jumping scuba bastards."
I feel I should point out that the "sea" in the screenshot above is more of a puddle. Joe can stand in it comfortably. The water level barely tickles his ankles. Where, then, were these frogmen hiding? Were they pressed into the mud like some humanoid flatfish, staring upwards with their freakish sideways eyes until the shadow of Joe Musashi passed over them and they thought "oi oi, here's my chance for a bit of stabbing"? Yes, I think that's exactly what happened.
I was struggling a little with the bouncing scuba-divers, until I remembered that Joe is a wizard. No, really, he can do magic. Once per stage, you can activate your "ninja magic" to clear the screen of enemies. Here, I have summoned a small tornado that launches deadly croissants about the place, killing anyone they touch. I suppose I'll have to cut Joe some slack on the "he's a crappy ninja" front. It's difficult to argue with sorcery.
The boss, naturally, is a helicopter. The helicopter contains an endless swarm of yellow-suited ninjas, and it's being flown by a ninja (or a shadowy man in a crash helmet). I think we can safely say that this is a ninja helicopter.
You could have been more subtle about it, though.
This fight is a lot like the battle against Ken-Oh, if Ken-Oh had been filled with yellow ninjas. Simply jump up and hit the clear bubble on the helicopter's nose enough times and you'll win. I'm glad there was a weak point on the front of this boss, for the sake of Joe's self-confidence if nothing else. Otherwise throwing small pieces of sharpened metal at a military aircraft could have gotten demoralizing.
Ninja joke number 2:
Q: How many ninjas does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: No man can say, because their methods are cloaked in secrecy.
The next area starts in the mountains, and Zeed have stepped up their game by hiring the Terminator to fire rockets at me. The rockets are slow, and easily dodged, and Joe can even collect rockets of his own. When rescued, one of the hostages in each stage will power up your attacks, replacing your punches with a sword and swapping your shurikens with a miniature grenade launcher. As you can imagine, that's pretty goddamn helpful, although I do feel a bit sorry for those Zeed troopers with the shields. Good protection against shurikens, not so useful against high explosive rounds.
Yeah, Arnie with Rocket-Launching Action(TM) didn't really cut it, so Zeed are back to the ninjas. Lots and lots of ninjas, cartwheeling and cavorting through this military base like a troupe of ninja clowns. No, wait, not like ninja clowns. There's nothing like ninja clowns, thank god.
This screenshot illustrates one of the key elements of Shinobi's gameplay, and that's choosing the right spot in each stage to activate your ninja magic. This seemed like a good place. I took out six ninjas at once, anyway.
This is Mandara, stage three's boss, and full credit to Zeed for not just sticking with the same plan and having the courage to try something new in the field of global domination tactics. Pyrokinetic samurai? That didn't work. Attack helicopter stuffed with ninjas? A non-starter. Well, how about a wall of statues that slowly advances towards Joe until they knock him into the deadly electric fence at the edge of the arena? Sure, let's give that a go.
That's all the statues do - they move forward. If you don't destroy them all quickly enough, they crush Joe against the electrified left hand wall. Your plan of attack is simple: destroy all the statues. So I tried that, hurling shurikens at them as fast as possible and almost giving my thumb the equivalent of a hernia in the process. I attacked and attacked and attacked, and I destroyed most of the statues... but I couldn't get them all. Each time, I just couldn't attack fast enough to remove every single statue and I was eventually zapped to death. No matter how fast I attacked, I just couldn't seem to clear a path and I was on the verge of giving up altogether when a
Well, that was a spot of luck. The real boss is the decorative robot wall hanging, but all that thing does is lazily spit fireballs at you so go ahead and throw some shurikens at it and the stage is over.
That was a rough patch. I didn't think I was going to get past Mandara, and I hope this fight was not merely a taste of boss battles to come, with the next opponent being even more fiendish and powerful.
That's not a lobster. Why must you lie to me, Shinobi?
Stage four is where it all comes together, or at least that's how I felt about it. The difficulty level is high but deftly handled, with Sega creating areas that are trickier because of their layout and topography rather than by simply flooding the screen with enemies. Tactics now play a much bigger part in your success than they did at the beginning of the game - finding the right place to use your ninja magic is important, as is taking advantage of the non-fatal contact to bump into certain enemies and momentarily stun them. The backgrounds have a bit more character, now that we've moved from industrial complexes to the mystic east, and there are still new enemies types being introduced: check out the undead, bone-hurling ninja at the left of the screen.
I'm not so crazy about the appearance of bottomless pits you can fall into and the Flea-Men-like enemies who exist solely to knock you, Castlevania-style, into said pits, but hey, nothing's perfect. At least they allowed me the pleasure of seeing Joe activate his ninja magic in mid-air, only for him to plummet like a rock into the hole the moment his magic wore off.
Again - not a lobster. Lobsters can't use swords. Has the Japanese arm of McDonald's ever run a samurai-themed promotion? Because I think this guy might have stolen the costume from it and become a fast-food bushido warrior.
Cold steel, moonlit blade.
All we serve here is your death.
You want fries with that?
This battle is a test of precision, because once again you can only hurt the boss' head. Lobster bears down on you quickly and only accurate shuriken shots will slow him down. You can see how accurate I was by the way Joe is cowering in the corner, but after Mandara this fight is nicely straightforward.
Sega saved the best-looking areas for the final stage, like this bamboo forest. I know I gave those brighly-coloured ninjas some stick for being about as discreet as an airhorn orchestra, but at least they're acrobatic. If this whole Zeed thing doesn't work out then at least they'll be able to get jobs at the Cirque du Soleil. The one on the right even looks like he's doing a Neo-in-The-Matrix-style limbo dodge under that rocket. He's not, though. He's dying. Not so funny now, huh?
Ninja joke number 3:
Q: What's a ninja' favourite food?
A: I dunno, rice balls or something?
As I reach the end of Shinobi, there's a nice feeling of completeness. Not just about the game itself, but of the Shinobi series as a whole. I'm sure I'm not the only one for whom Joe Musashi is primarily a Megadrive star, known much more widely for his 16-bit titles like Shinobi III, and as a kid I don't think it ever registered that Joe Musashi began his adventures in the arcade. So, it's nice to feel like I've finally gone full circle and experienced where it all began, and maybe one day I'll get hold of a 3DS and play the latest entry in the Shinobi series.
Okay, final boss time. Your opponent is the Masked Ninja, (I assume) the leader of Zeed and described in-games as "the behind-the-scene ninja." Well, he's definitely centre stage now, squatting so hard that lightning flies from his body because that's something ninjas can do.
Yeah, I'd go with the "shadow clones" move, too. Far more appropriate to the milieu, and you don't look so much like you're about to take a massive ninja dump.
The Masked Ninja has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, from turning into a tornado to jumping about the screen in a manner I can only describe as "frolicsome," and it all comes together to create a pretty good final fight. It's not easy, and it's certainly tense because Joe is as fragile as any videogame ninja and one hit will kill him, but it's not overwhelming, and it's yet another example of the balance Sega managed to impart into the game.
No matter how frolicsome you are, in the end a shuriken to the throat is going to slow you down. Joe Musashi has saved the day, Zeed is destroyed and our hero can get back to training his army of identical, mop-topped proteges. Only one thing remains, and that's to unmask the Masked Ninja.
Gasp! Nakahara - who we have never heard of before - is revealed to be the behind-the-scene ninja! Nakahara was, apparently, the guy who trained Joe. I'm not surprised. That's always how these things work out, because it gives the hero a chance to prove himself as the greatest yadda yadda yadda.
Nakahara had a motive for setting up Zeed, even beyond the obvious one of winding Joe up. Would you like to know what that motive is?
He wants to recreate feudal Japan, because no-one is hiring ninjas in these advanced modern times. That's it. He's a ninja neo-Luddite who has spat his dummy out because the world no longer has a need for clans of hired assassins. Good god that's a pathetic reason for starting a terrorist organisation. What next? Zeed II, an organisation of disgruntled farriers who plot to destroy all the cars in the word and recreate the golden age of horse travel? Zeed-X, AKA the Legion of Unemployed Fax Repairmen? All I can say is that Nakahara must have had one hell of a way with words to convince all those goons to join his cause.
Well, that was fun, and Shinobi is impressive in just how well it's retained its playability. Years of advancements in gaming technology may have left it feeling a little basic (and if you'd played Rolling Thunder before this then Shinobi would have seemed very familiar) but it's so solidly constructed and so expertly put-together that you'll barely even notice. Yes it's short, and the graphics might be a tiny bit bland, but I'm struggling to come up with bad things to say about Shinobi and when your heart is as withered and grey as mine is then that has to be the mark of a quality game. Even the soundtrack is good.
Consider this a wholehearted recommendation for Shinobi, then. Unless you're a historian specialising in ninjas and their role in feudal Japan. There are some inaccuracies here. That said, if you're a ninja historian then anything depicting ninjas ever probably leaves you in floods of bitter, rage-spawned tears anyway so, uh, you might as well play Shinobi!