- November 12, 2002 00:00 AM PST
It has been a while, but Shinobi has finally returned to the video game scene. Does this new ninja Hotsuma deserve to bear the treasured Shinobi name?One of the staples of the grand 2D era, Shinobi, at long last goes 3D in a huge way with the first true next-gen incarnation of the popular Sega franchise character. For the uninitiated, Shinobi is one of the "big three" ninja characters along with Ninja Gaiden's Ryu Hayabusa and Strider in the futuristic ninja saga of the same name. But while Hayabusa has yet to show his next-gen self (in playable form, anyway) and Strider remains in 2D, Shinobi completely revamps his tried-and-true side-scrolling origins in an intense adventure where only the toughest gamers will fear to tread.
"Rest In Peace"
Shinobi's clad in coolness with the skills to match, and a great deal of this game's appeal is the play engine. From a third-person view, you guide the nimble ninja, Hotsuma (previous Shinobi Joe Higashi is M.I.A.), through the wreckage of future post-apocalyptic Tokyo as he carves a path through enemy ninjas, samurai dogs, and other natural and supernatural foes. All the required ninja skills are present -- sword-swiping and Shuriken-chucking -- along with some new stuff like wall climbing/running and the ability to cast a ghostly after image that not only confuses enemies, but also moves Hotsuma short distances in the blink of an eye.
Yet unlike other ninja games -- Tenchu immediately springs to mind -- Shinobi doesn't rely on stealth kills during combat but rather a "head-on deception." Using his sword in conjunction with the Stealth Dash, Hotsuma wins most battles by luring enemies toward a dummy target and then hacking them to pieces from behind. When surrounded by multiple enemies, Hotsuma's blows become stronger with each successive hit that he lands; if he finishes off several enemies in short order, a cool, hyper-violent cinema kicks in that shows his foes -- literally -- falling to pieces in a mass of severed limbs awash in red arterial spray.
"I Shall Have My Revenge"
Casual gamers beware: This ain't your daddy's Shinobi. The game is seriously tough--almost too tough at times -- and it could be more generous with re-spawn points after Hotsuma meets his demise. The tuned enemy A.I. and boss characters help pass the learning curve as enemies gradually become more challenging and you're forced to use all of Hotsuma's skills with each progressive stage and boss character you're pitted against. Consider the boss of Stage 4-B, where you fight a giant moth over a pool of lava. Not only do you have to watch your step, dodge incoming fireballs, and destroy re-spawning enemies, but you must also keep Hotsuma's sword, Akujiki, "fed" with a steady supply of souls (after this weapon becomes cursed later in the game). If the Akujiki goes hungry, it will feed off Hotsuma's life meter. Now that's ninja multi-tasking.
Shinobi's visuals and audio are honorable. The clean graphics do a fantastic job of keeping pace with the onscreen mayhem -- albeit with an occasional awkward camera angle -- and bring the various bombed-out environments to life. Then there's Hotsuma's scarf, which is probably the coolest in video game history. Well-rendered cinematics break up the action and add spice to the intriguing narrative. Although some of the techno-pop music pieces don't fit the sword-and-sorcery theme, the atmospheric sound effects vibrantly ring true throughout.
Excellent controls keep Hotsuma in line. Despite the daunting plethora of special techniques and abilities, movement is silky smooth and easy to learn. Moving the camera with the right analog stick is imprecise, but the center camera button does a better job of keeping you attuned to the surroundings by snapping the camera directly behind your character.
"Perhaps This Is Our Destiny"
No matter what stops may be pulled out in the upcoming Ninja Gaiden, Tenchu, or Strider entries, this is the current ninja to top. This Shinobi is tough, challenging, frequently frustrating, yet very rewarding.