Review: Shinobi (Master System)

Shinobi was original released by Sega in arcades in 1987. A year later, a port was released on Sega's ill-fated Master System. Shinobi is often regarded as one of the best titles for the Master System so I decided this would be the perfect title to kick off my Sega Master System reviews.

You play the role of Joe Musashi, a martial arts instructor, who must defeat the "Ring of Five" terrorist network who have been kidnapping the children of the world's leaders. Thankfully, this bizarre plot plays little role in this title; Shinobi is all about action. The game is broken down into 5 levels. You first play through 3 action stages, and then face a boss. The levels themselves are the usual 8-bit generic levels featuring various warehouses and outdoor scenery. The 5 bosses do fit the theme well though:

  • Level 1 - Ken Oh: This is a large Samurai that shoots flames.
  • Level 2 - Black Turtle: This boss flies a helicopter that you must destroy, while being attacked by 3 ninjas
  • Level 3 - Mandara: I don't even know how to describe this... you must destroy a bunch of blocks and then battle a floating head that shoots balls at you.
  • Level 4 - Lobster: Another giant Samurai, this time wielding a sword
  • Level 5 - Masked Ninja: Normal sized boss with magical powers

The stages themselves are laid out well. You can jump between the upper and lower planes to free hostages and avoid enemies. Each hostage will give you an item, including upgraded weapons, bonus points, and health. You most make your way through the stages taking out various thugs that range from sword wielding ninjas to guards with guns.

You start Shinobi with 2 basic attacks, a long range attack (throwing stars) and a short range attack (punching and kicking). The hostages give you additional weapon upgrades (why weren't they frisked?) like guns and bombs. You can also obtain nun-chucks, swords, and a chain. The weapon upgrades allow you to kill enemies with fewer hits and the upgraded short range weapons have a longer reach. Overall, the weapons fit the theme and offer some variety to the levels.

My biggest problem with the game is it's extreme difficulty. Shinobi will kick your ass. In order to be successful, you have to memorize where everything is and time everything perfectly. Unlike most games, when you get hit, you don't have a moment of invincibility to regain your ground or take cover. One of the enemies throws a boomerang of sorts. If it hits you, you fall to the ground, and then it hits you again on the way back. Shinobi feels really cheap at times.

Additionally, when you get hit, you fall backwards a few spaces. During the latter stages, you fall into a pit  and die. Some stages have ninjas that can fly at you from any direction. You have no time to react and have to take damage until you memorize where they are coming from. Shinobi offers you 3 lives and no continues, that's it. While I appreciate this an arcade port, which is designed to suck your quarters, a few tweaks would have been nice during the console conversion.

Worse yet are the bosses. While it's usually obvious where you need to hit them, their fast and sporadic movements and weapons often leave you without anywhere to take cover. I found myself jumping around swinging my sword or throwing my stars hoping for the best. Again, they feel extremely cheap. After a couple hours of trial and error, I was able to make it through most of the game on the default 3 lives. Hardcore side scrolling action fans may appreciate the extreme difficulty, but I found it more tedious than fun.

Rounding out the problems I have with Shinobi are the bonus stages. These are your only opportunity to get extra lives and they are almost impossible. The action takes place from the first person perspective. You must move left and right and throw ninja stars at enemy ninjas before they reach you. The problem is the pace and quantity of enemies on the screen, and how slow you move. They bounce around frantically while you are stuck moving slowly to the left and right.  To this day, I have managed to beat the bonus stage one time.

After a LOT of trial and error, Shinobi can be fun. The controls are smooth and responsive, and thanks to the limited buttons on a Master System controller, very simple. I found the best way to enjoy Shinobi is to cheat. Hold down on the d-pad and press button II at the title screen to access the level select. This ultimately serves as a way to continue where you left off. After completing the game this way, playing through Shinobi (without cheating) can be fun. It just takes a couple hours of frustration.

Graphically speaking, Shinobi is adequate and matches most side scrolling action games of the time. I did appreciate how colorful the game was, which gives it it's own certain charm. The game does throw around a lot of pink though. Slowdown is never an issue, no matter how much is going on the screen.

Shinobi features a great soundtrack. Each level has it's own Asian inspired track and they are all catchy. Even after a 3 hour session, the tracks never get repetitive or annoying. Each weapon has it's own sound effect, which sound appropriate. The nun-chuck makes a solid thwack and the sword makes an appropriate woosh. Shinobi sounds pretty good for an 8-bit title.

Overall, Shinobi is a mixed bag, featuring excellent level design, decent graphics, smooth controls, and a good soundtrack. Sadly, the extreme difficulty, cheap AI, and awkward hit detection zap a lot of fun out of it. After a few hours of play, Shinobi can be fun. I'm just not certain this game is worthy of the praise it receives.

Graphics - 6/10 Great use of color
Sound - 7/10 Good soundtrack
Game play - 5/10 Flawed game play mixed with smooth controls
Overall - 6/10 Frustrating