Ninjas are so cool. Usually, people can only choose between being stealthy and secretive or being loudmouthed muscleheads with big guns that do the talking for them, but the ninja gets the best of both worlds. Ninjas can move like lightning and hide in the shadows, but they can also kill a guy six or seven times over before the poor victim even starts feeling the pain from that first hit. And to top it all off, they don't use fancy schmancy high-tech James Bond gear to do it, either. They use all the traditional weapons from ancient fuedal times-shurikens, katanas, daggers, and they can use magic, too. Even if they find themselves depleted of their weapons, they can still throw a mean left hook to your gut and kill you on the spot.
So is it any wonder that ninjas are the main characters of so many video games? Their acrobatic abilities, martial arts styles and old-school weapons just scream "make a video game out of me!". And seemingly every video game developer on the planet has been more than happy to oblige. Look at all the ninja-themed games that exist! From popular titles like Tenchu, Ninja Gaiden and Onimusha Warlords to unknown or forgotten goodies like the TG-16's Ninja Spirit and the old NES's Wrath of the Black Manta (was that right? It's been a long time), the ninja game almost falls into a class of it's own. Even non-ninja themed games have had ninjas appear in them, most notably in Final Fantasy.
And the king of the ninja game is, has been and always will be Shinobi. Ninja boy Shinobi has been the longest runner and biggest star synonamous with ninjas. He's been there for the loyal gamers of every generation from his 8-bit beginnings to his 16-bit golden age to his forgotten 32-bit effort to his impending and inevitable comeback slated for fall release on the PS2. And he's evolved through every game he's ever stared in, from just jumping, shooting and using magic to flipping, using a sword and just about everything else ninjas are supposed to do.
Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master is Shinobi's most complex and evolved effort on the Sega Genesis. No, the story won't win any points for originality. It's the same old ninja rehash: Bad guy runs worldwide crime ring that tries to take over. Said crime ring in this case is a ring of ninjas called Neo Zeed, and they've cloned a super ninja from Shinobi's own bloodline, a nasty fella who goes by the catchy nickname "Shadow Master". So Shinobi casually sets out, katana and shurikens in hand, to destroy the high-tech ninja Neo Zeed army. So simple Tarzan could have said it all in his limited vocabulary: Ninja go save world.
Oh, but how he goes about it! The Neo Zeed army is pretty big, so it's only appropriate that Shinobi should have an equally large repotoire of ninja moves to annihilate them. Yes, he still carries his sword and shurikens because those are standard and the fanboys would kick and scream if Sega ever did away with them. And he retained his flip and shuriken spray from Revenge of Shinobi. But new to Shinobi 3 are a dashing swipe, a wall-climbing move, a hand-over-hand ceiling walk and a flying kick. With such a large number of moves, Shinobi could have been placed in a fighting game and beat Ryu or Liu Kang to a bloody pulp. But, thank God, they kept him in an action game and, better yet, they kept the gameplay to a level so simple that the standard three-button Genesis layout is all you need to use all of them. Every move is very basic and can be learned in just a few minutes of practice. By the end of the first level, you'll know how everything works and possibly have an idea of how to use your four-spell repotoire of ninja magic. Just don't use Mijin too often-it eats up your lives.
Which is good, cause your gonna need every last move in your arsenal to get through the very challenging levels, which range marvelously in their size and scope-just about everything is covered. There are chase levels that take place on a horse and a jet ski, straight through blast-right-to-the-finish action levels, some levels that have very minor puzzles and require the slightest hint of thinking and some levels are platformers. The sixth level requires you to jump up falling boulders in the beginning and takes you through a very large, twisting and confusing ninja house in the end. The second level is a scrolling elevator level, and level seven has you riding on platforms trying to dodge electrical currents. And in the end, some of the biggest, baddest bosses in video game history await. At the end of the fifth level, you fight Mecha Godzilla's underachieving kid brother, the sixth has you facing off with an oversized kabuki dancer and the final showdown with the Shadow Master is one of the most challenging and memorable battles in all of the action genre. Set against a wavy, Matrix-like glowing background that changes colors, Shinobi goes one-on-one with the Shadow Master, his ninja skills and acrobatics taking on the Shadow Master's powerful ninja laser attacks.
Such impressive scenes would require impressive graphics, and so impressive graphics we are served! These are plain, ordinary little sprites, nothing different than anything else available on the market back then, but it's the shading that makes all the difference. The shading is done so that certain areas of the sprites are highlighted over ther areas, and animation lines are nonexistant. The sprites may not be rendered a la Donkey Kong Country, but the shading gives them a very impressive-looking, detailed and realistic 3d look. And although most bad guys only have a few animations, their movement looks very fluid and real.
Backgrounds are also very nice. They are very panoramic and colorfull, and they accent the levels very nicely. You thought only the Xbox was capable of producing graphics of this caliber? Well, don't discount the Genesis just yet. Alright, that may be an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
Baby, the musical score is unbelievable! Sega wanted to get your pulse pounding with Shinobi 3, and they pulled out all the stops to make sure they succeded. If the gameplay doesn't strike you like lightning (and if it doesn't, you were never alive to begin with), the original score will pick up the gameplay's slack. The music is packed with fast-paced ninja drums and flutes and is accented with the slightest touch of techno. When you hear it, you just know there's gonna be action! Action, danger, suspence, all those things that make games like this worth playing!
Would you believe that Shinobi has over ten moves? Okay, in this day and age of ten-button controllers, you would easily say yes. But back then, ten moves in an action game was absolutly unheard of. Especially on a on a system with a primary controller that only has three buttons. What were the programmers at Sega thinking? Well, novelty gamers, back then three buttons was all we needed for action games. Everything we did, we did by using combinations and multiple button presses. And in Shinobi 3, you have a ton of those combinations to press to use your moves. They're all very easy to learn, and once you learn them, they're programmed in your head for life. Even the pesky wall climb, which took me ten minutes to learn, was of no problem after that initial first attempt.
The best part of Shinobi 3 is learning of the various way you can dispose of multiple enemies in one jump after learning those moves! That's right-if this was a fighting game, these would officially be called combos! The flying kick and the dashing strike make particularly effective launching moves. After you use the flying kick, you double back quickly before landing, and you could use that time to launch another kick or shuriken. And the shuriken spray is always useful in knocking off those enemies in hard-to-reach areas.
Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master is quite possibly the most fully realised action game ever made for the Genesis, and possibly even the 16-bit Golden Era in general. It's difficult and mind-numbing, yet deep at the same time-not something a lot of programmers have successfully tried. With Shinobi slated to make his grand return in full-out 3d on the PS-2 (and in 2d on the Game Boy Advance, now that I think about it... Hey! Two new Shinobi games! I'll be rich! Alright!), this is the perfect time to dust off the old Genesis and relive Shinobi's glory days. It's games like this that make me glad Sega is out of the hardware business. Why? Because now more people than ever will have exposure to games like Shinobi.
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