#61: Shinobi (1988 Sega)


We now enter the fall of 1988, which can be described as the peak of the Master System’s run in the U.S. since it saw the release of many of the console’s best-known titles, including the cart we’re covering today. During the mid-to-late 1980s Sega in the arcades was mostly known for their “Super Scaler” cabinets but they also put out a few more traditional coin-ops that got some attention as well. One of the more successful examples is Shinobi (another word for ninja), Sega’s action platformer that debuted in 1987 during the brief pop culture ninja craze and spawned a long-running series, even becoming one of the few pre-Sonic franchises that continued well into the Genesis era and beyond. A home version for the SMS was a no-brainer and, unlike Sega’s attempts at ports of their Super Scaler machines, could easily be translated to the console and it certainly shows here.

Shinobi, Shinob-ah!

Shinobi, Shinob-ah!

This debut entry of the series introduces us to Sega’s resident ninja Joe Musashi, who’s on a mission to take down a terrorist group known as the Ring of Five. This motley crew has apparently taken the children of the world’s leaders hostage so it’s up to Joe to liberate the captives and defeat the foes through five areas (each of which are divided into three or four parts for a total of 19 stages). Joe treks through each stage mowing down the thugs, ninjas and other foes in his path and is armed with shuriken he can toss for long-distance attacks, but can also bust out a melee attack for up-close fighting. The captured kids are strewn throughout the level (in plain view, no less) and rescuing each one rewards you with a power-up, such as life bar extensions, health refills and weapons upgrades including nunchucks, swords and even a pistol. Joe can also leap up to high ledges and back down again to take care of foes and reach the kids. Rescuing a certain kid can also allow you to enter a first-person bonus stage that made it over from the original where you shoot shuriken at ninjas shooting-gallery style. Passing the stage will give you “ninja magic” that will allow you to unleash special attacks such as lighting, freezing time, summoning a bunch of clones and others. Eventually you’ll come to one of the five bosses that must be bested in one-on-one combat before you can proceed to the next area, including a pair of giant-sized samurai, a helicopter you must bring down, a Mandara statue and the leader of the gang himself, The Masked Ninja.

Here's your first target, and the path to get there.

You get an idea of what lies ahead before each stage, including the boss.

The home version of Shinobi does a good job mimicking its arcade parent and plays very well thanks to the responsive, easy-to-use controls that mimic the standard NES setup. Plus the game unfolds at a nice methodical pace since it doesn’t rely entirely on you cutting down endless waves of thugs mindlessly rushing at you. Some enemies actually crouch and shoot at you from behind cover or lay on the ground so it’s harder to reach them, requiring a bit of strategy to dispatch them. This port also features a few new additions such as a life bar which allows you to take a few hits unlike the one-hit deaths in the coin-op. The graphics are a noticeable downgrade from the original but the characters still show some good detail and animation for the most part. Too bad Joe doesn’t actually wear the ninja mask as shown on the box cover. The backgrounds also take a hit compared to the arcade but do their job. However the scenery in Stage 2-2 is confusing as it makes you think your in some creature’s belly instead of the interior of a ship. Audiowise only one of the arcade’s main stage tunes made it into this port and is used for every stage (except boss fights), but it is pretty catchy and adds a nice Oriental flavor to the gameplay without getting repetitive. The sound effects are actually decent in a SMS cart for a change, especially the clash of metal on metal.

Here a ninja, there a ninja, everywhere a ninja.

Here’s my answer for all your swords.

But as great as the game is, a few issues get in the way, especially with its difficulty level. When you die, you begin your next life without any of your power-ups, not even your life extensions, which can leave you helpless against the tougher parts of the game. The boss fights aren’t too bad except for the Mandara boss which can get really frustrating unless you know how to handle it. Also a couple of stages require precision jumping across bottomless pits but Joe can’t leap very far, forcing you jump right at the edge of the ledges to make it across. The bonus stages are also more difficult than they should be, but can be handed with some practice. Finally you don’t get any continues once you lose your last life, but thankfully a level select code is available. Also on a side note, the ending sequence from the coin-op has been cut, but nothing replaces it; once you defeat the final Masked Ninja boss you just get the usual GAME OVER screen then it’s back to the title screen.

Like shooting ninjas in a ... never mind.

Like shooting ninjas in a … never mind.

Yet even with its issues Shinobi still ends up being a first-class cart for the Master System, and one of the few arcade ports Sega managed to pull off for their console. The game is tough with some stuff that might annoy you but its fun old-school arcade action manages to keep you hooked, even if you’ve never played the arcade original. Definitely check this game out.

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