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Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (Genesis) artwork

Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (Genesis) review

"Coming off the heels of Revenge of Shinobi, a highly-praised game during the Genesis' launch year, was Shadow Dancer, a follow-up that Revenge fans weren't expecting."

Coming off the heels of Revenge of Shinobi, a highly-praised game during the Genesis' launch year, was Shadow Dancer, a follow-up that Revenge fans weren't expecting. Completely disregarding the changes and additions made by its Gen predecessor, Shadow Dancer instead falls in line with the original two arcade titles, Shinobi and Shadow Dancer. This means you don't have a health bar as a safety blanket, a selectable array of Ninjutsu powers, and a double jump that does a shuriken spread. Some probably view this and everything it stands for as a wrong step backwards, but speaking as someone who's a fan of the game that started it all, this is like revisiting an old friend with a new coat of paint.

In this installment, you play as Joe Musashi (or his son, depending on the cart's region) as he challenges the nefarious, um, Union Lizard gang from taking New York hostage. Despite sounding as if they work at a shipping company, the first stage demonstrates why this group is no joke: Brooklyn is burning to a crisp! And I don't mean one or two apartment buildings smoking up, as you'll see the background literally engulfed in a fortress of flames, buildings in the foreground reduced to rubble, and flares erupting from manhole covers. Amongst the chaos is your protagonist, in grey clothing and armor, who can bulldoze through a gauntlet of foes with his deadly arsenal, either from a distance with shuriken, dangerously close with a sword, or all around with the lone Ninjutsu attack; fend off units in riot gear, masked goons that resemble Power Rangers fodder, and save Andy Bogard cosplayers scattered around, and just like in Shinobi, are all divided into two planes you can jump between. This time however, you have a buddy tagging along, Yamato the dog, who can be charged up and unleashed against the opposition.

Now, when I say things like "a new coat of paint" or "just like in Shinobi", I don't want to make Shadow Dancer seem like a pale imitation, because this product captures the essence of the original's mechanics perfectly. You can't enter this game with a shuriken a-blazin' mentality, and if you do, your first embarrassing death will set you straight. Shadow Dancer demands thought and precision. For some, it might feel a tad overwhelming at first, what with gun-toting enemies hiding just out of striking distance, foes suddenly rushing from behind, and ninja materializing from above, especially if one is used to relying on a health bar over this game's one-hit death rule. Others, too, who won't understand the meaning of the word 'patience', will likely be frustrated to the point of calling the gameplay cheap and archaic. But those that put genuine effort into beating Shadow Dancer are going to realize it's not as random or crazy as previously assumed.

The more threatening enemies have their own unique quirks that can be exploited, like gunners that frantically reload after a few shots, or the ninja rainbow squad, each colored goon corresponding to a different method of movement. This is going to sound painfully obvious, but it really is vital to commit these weaknesses to memory, because Shadow Dancer is a game that loves ambushing you with a mesh-mash of enemy types, all working in unison in usually the most damning of circumstances. Who do you attack first, and in what capacity? The roll-happy slasher to your left or the fighter and the bullet to the right? The blue ninjas or the red ninjas, while also avoiding a helicopter, on Lady Liberty? And in my favorite stage, instinctively lunge at a visible attacker in a dimly-lit cave, or react to a distinct sound that cues another presence? It's like the game is gleefully saying, in its best Mark Hamill Joker impersonation, "Let's see you get out of this one!"

That's why titles like Shadow Dancer and Shinobi click with me more than something like Revenge of Shinobi; they're tight action games full of energy, forcing me on my guard with tough, balanced difficulty, having a quicker pace, and always keeping me on my toes due to the guarantee of dying with a simple poke. In a badly-designed game, going through an army of ruthless foes will be insufferable, and dealt the one hit per life card will be like a sick joke. But when a game gets all the ingredients right, like Shadow Dancer, you'll feel like a badass when every being and projectile zones in on your ninja, annihilating the poor saps with the use of quick thinking, skill, and your crazy dog. Shadow Dancer is also a rare instance where I played an oldschool title on every difficulty setting, since I enjoyed how stages would flood with more enemies in tougher placements the higher I climbed the difficulty ladder. There were times when it felt like I was playing a puzzle title than an action one on the hardest setting, thanks to more elaborate setups. If I had it my way, I would have made the hardest difficulty the only setting, since I have this feeling some gamers are content with only playing the lowest, default curve.

Earlier, it sounded like I was treating the arcade and Genesis versions of Shadow Dancer as different products, and that's because they are. This is good. The arcade game, while following Shinobi's template with some changes, have three major issues working together that make it a pain: dodgy level design, an often skewed perspective that makes it hard to see anything above or below, and nearly-impenetrable ninja opponents. Thankfully, when it was time to develop this sequel, remake, quasi, or whatever, they made the brilliant decision to model it after the first game. Unfortunately, one annoying thing has survived and mutated between the games... the dog's irritating bark. Every time Yamato faces enemies, it sends out an endless stream of barks until you either turn around or kill them.

You'll eventually drown it out as background noise, but it's still unfortunately a shrill thing to hear in such an entertaining game.


pickhut's avatar
Featured community review by pickhut (May 18, 2013)

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