Sunday, June 14, 2009

Genesis look: Revenge of Shinobi

When looking at a game like Revenge of Shinobi comparisons to its sequels as well as prequels are inevitable. While Sega has made numerous changes to the series over the years there are still many constants that tie them all together. The Shinobi is a Ninja Master. Although he has many tools at his disposal from a near limitless supply of shuriken to ninja magic for any situation his true skill comes from an ability to take any foe out from a close range. The main constant is that it doesn't matter whether the enemy has a gun or a thousand guns Shinobi will reach them and kill them.

The original Shinobi certainly put this aspect through its paces by handing out the most points to gamers who refrained from taking out enemies from a distance. This is certainly a challenge because not only must the player be on the ground they must also be close enough to initiate their close-range attack(since melee attacks are done with the same button as throwing shurikens or firing a gun). An already challenging game enters a whole new realm of difficulty when the player has to contend with more difficult situations that they themselves have created, throwing their own survival into question for more points. It's the difference between beating the game and mastering it.

The original Shinobi served as the basis for nearly every Shinobi game that followed suit. Even with the jump to 3D in Shinobi for PS2 the concept remained. While these sequels added such things as health meters, many hidden 1ups, and a variety of difficulty settings they also developed a new end-of-level bonus. By beating a level without taking damage the player is awarded a substantial amount of points. This bonus didn't exist in the original game because Shinobi only took one hit to get killed. This is smart game design. Aside from making the title more accessible to beginners it becomes more rewarding for pros. 

Revenge of Shinobi was released around the same time as Shadow Dancer. While Shadow Dancer was more of a sequel to the original Shinobi --as it shared many similarities in its gameplay aside from the addition of a ninja dog-- Revenge was something a bit different. Stages are still broken up into two parts. Typically one part is linear with a major emphasis on platforming while the other is multi-scrolling and involves some basic exploration. All eight stages end with a boss-fight and the player is rewarded a completion bonus which varies depending on how well they performed, a Perfect bonus for completing a stage with full health, and a Technical Bonus for not using magic.

The controls are where the differences really start to show. Joe in Revenge is a little bit slower. His movements by comparison are more direct and his jumps have varying height and can be controlled while in mid-air. Furthermore by jumping he has access to a second jump that gives him additional height and access to a special attack. Like in the other games Joe can still throw shurikens, do close-range attacks, and access magic. The magic however is different in that there are four spells. One serves to damage everything on screen, another grants immunity to damage for a few hits, another allows him to jump much higher, and finally a suicide spell that trades a life for complete refill of health. In prior games all the spell did was damage everything on screen. There's a lot more flexibility here but in the way of the master you can't rely on any of them.

The mechanics are similar to the other games. Joe only takes damage from direct attacks. For example if one of the Jackie Chan clones(Revenge is notorious for using tons of popular icons as regular enemies & bosses) does a kick if you make contact with any part of his body aside from his foot or leg you will not take damage. Sure it shares the same animation as taking damage but no health is lost. This is a necessary tool for getting close to enemies as at times you might just have to drop on them to get into position for a close-range kill. Unlike the Arcade Shinobis however the enemies don't react in kind, so it feels kind of odd bouncing off of someone and they don't even flinch.

These days gamers are probably more familiar with Revenge's followup Shinobi 3. This is to be expected as while Shinobi 3 is available on a variety of compilations and the Wii's Virtual Console, Revenge is only just now under consideration for a VC release. Thus going from a game released in 1993 to a game released in 1989 is a bit of a step-back. Revenge Joe doesn't have a number of the moves his future itineration would gain. In this game one of the only ways he can block is if he has the Power-up(which also allows him to do double damage...until he takes damage) and furthermore that's only if he's walking or crouch-walking. The other is done by performing a close-range attack but unless you don't have any shurikens that won't be much use. Other abilities like running(and the running slash) and the diving kick are also not in Revenge Joe's arsenal, making getting close to an enemy a much greater challenge.

The level design further differentiates the two games. While Shinobi 3 mixes things up quite often and features more accessible level design Revenge is definitely old-school. Old adages like pits with enemies nearby waiting to knock you in them are popular as is many situations where the firepower is so overbearing you'll have quite a bit of trouble working out how to get at the foes without flinging a shuriken and/or taking damage. 

The bossfights even further differentiate the two. Shinobi 3's fights involve foes with lots of movement, a large variety of attacks, and at times different forms. Revenge foes however are limited to 1 or 2 attacks and don't have much in the way of flexibility. That is not to say that Revenge bosses are any easier. In fact since the player's moveset is more limited they have to work harder to find the right spot to damage the boss without getting countered. Furthermore there are places in the environment where the Revenge player must take advantage of to avoid getting clobbered as he simply doesn't have the ease of movement that he'd gain from the sequel. 

All of these things make for a different kind of challenge. While Shinobi 3 is better at relying on reflexes and movement, Revenge benefits more from the careful players who analyze each encounter, study patterns and plan accordingly. Bringing the original Shinobi and Shadow Dancer into the fold we find that those two games rely mostly on manipulation(since enemies actually react when Shinobi bumps into them), memorization, and speed. It's impressive that Sega is able to focus on different attributes for all of their games so that players have different means of attaining their ninja master status.

Revenge of Shinobi's level design shows some remarkable ideas and contains quite a bit of variety while still maintaining some semblance of proper difficulty progression. In a couple stages the player can jump between planes(separated by a fence of some sort). This is essential for getting around some heavily armed areas and around pits & walls. The second stage that employs this design forces the player to contend with kunoichi nuns as well as speeding red cars. Towards the end the first half of stage 7 throws a lot of tough platforms with enemies at critical points. While stage 8's first half is similar it makes the platforming easier but adds in more enemies. The entire game complements itself well by changing the focus slightly for each stage but still retaining the overall direction. While enemies tend to repeat the game does well at putting together just the right combination of them with the surrounding environment to create a greater challenge than what you faced prior. While their behavior is familiar the addition of other enemies as well as differing level design makes for new difficulties. 

The enemies run the expected gamut of ninjas, soldiers, and even a few oddballs(what's with the dancing girls?). They're not much of a threat on their own and especially so if you simply take them all out from a distance. However as you close in on ninjas they fling a constant rate of shurikens and jump away with the occasional downward-angled shuriken. Soldiers have a pattern to their firing but getting close is always as a hassle since they tend to have support(from guys lobbing grenades or another soldier firing away). Rambo-esque thugs aren't much from a distance but their flamethrowers are very problematic if you try to get close. The bosses are extension of this ideal. While they can be pretty easy if you just stay back and fire away they have numerous spots that will damage you if you touch them and it's a serious challenge to hit them several times in a relatively small weakpoint with a tiny knife. Sure the sword has exceptional range and reach but that's only if you're still holding onto it(as it will be lost with your power-up if you take a hit). Finding these safe spots and weakpoints suddenly becomes a much harder affair and makes for a more compelling game.

In the end though it's all fair and balanced. While enemies and bosses have no shortage of ways to cause your death they offer just enough in the way of visual cues and patterns to leave just enough time for the player to get at them any way they can. While a perfect run of this game could take a long time the game does a fine job of leaving all of this up to the player and giving them many outs if things aren't going well. Though it'll cost points the player could always use the shield spell to take a few hits before losing their power-up(as a bonus this spell keeps them from bouncing away when they get hit). The harder settings do little aside from increase the damage Joe takes as well as give him less lives to work with but it gives the Ninja Master something to work towards. Usually I frown on difficulty settings that simply make it easier for the player to die but I think it works well here as most players won't attempt it until they've gained quite a bit of experience in the easier settings.

While Revenge of Shinobi could be considered a bit dated it is still among one of the best action games on the Genesis because it offers something akin to the older Castlevanias. It's a stiff and punishing game where every action has immediate results and enemies are placed wherever they'd be most dangerous. This isn't a game about looking good, creating massive combos, or killing hundreds of enemies with ease. Mastering this game requires planning, looking for openings, and tons of careful maneuvering. I consider it a required play...which is the highest possible rating I'll ever give a game.

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