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Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master (Genesis) artwork

Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master (Genesis) review

"Stronger Than Steel, Faster Than a Whirlwind"

If there's one thing Revenge of Shinobi has taught me, it's that you don't wipe out someone's clan and think you can get away without major repercussions, especially if the one avenging is the most dangerous shinobi in existence. What's more interesting is how Revenge of Shinobi's a tale about an unprepared Joe Musashi, striking back at the dreaded Neo Zeed organization after its surprise attack on his Oboro School of Ninjutsu and the kidnapping of his bride... and he still annihilated the whole bunch. An organization that had Spider-Man and Godzilla! You would think Neo Zeed learned from past mistakes and planned its resurrection cunningly, but apparently a group made primarily of ninjas doesn't know how to do things in secret anymore; the Ninja Master caught wind of their resurgence and launched a pre-emptive strike.

Shinobi III is the side-scrolling blitzkrieg tale of a Joe Musashi at full potential, a Joe Musashi with nothing holding him back, and a Joe Musashi that has no qualms about murdering Neo Zeed scum with a horse capable of, as the manual eloquently calls it, death-kicking.

Sounds like an amazing journey, but when controlling Oboro's finest for the first time, you're not yet close to Joe Musashi's level of expertise; stumble through the opening forest area, haphazardly tossing shuriken at foes, all while being caught by attacks from above, getting wreaked by distant shuriken, and accidentally setting off bombs inside item boxes. The awkwardness becomes more embarrassing when struggling to perform the dashing sword slash at appropriate times, accidentally bumping into enemies instead, or completely botching the first wall-jump segment, an uncommon video game sequence back then, several times in a row. You'll even barely get through a stage, let alone a segment, without using a special ninjutsu attack out of desperation, from screen-clearing dragon flames to a coat of lightning that acts as a shield.

But as you're trying hard to be Cool Time Ninja Doyen, the game effortlessly oozes style and detail with every few yards conquered. A dense forest glimmering with sunlight in the back transitions into a deep cave with waterfalls, stalactites, and pits galore; an ominous, dimly-lit laboratory harbors abominable experiments, but houses something more repugnant underneath; an obstacle course-like factory is illuminated with an interesting mix of purples, greens, and yellows, and prior to that, bright reds and oranges dominate a burning forest. The amazing soundtrack also does a fantastic job adding emotion to said scenes, such as a fast-paced, percussion-loaded beat in a stage filled with enemies, a low-key bass tune when you're lurking unknown halls, or a drum-heavy theme during an intense boss fight.

You might think it's doable to steamroll these scenarios without using Musashi's extensive moves. Being disorganized with your shurikens and doing typical platform jumping only works temporarily, as you'll quickly hit a brick wall and get punished for not treating the game with proper respect. Fully utilizing the entire catalog of techniques, and doing so with timing and precision, means everything in Shinobi III, since enemy placement and patterns can be so thorough; ninjas and soldiers with assault rifles guard vital, usually tricky platforms, and their presence requires immediate action. Whether it'd be a jump that transitions into a death-kick, or a quick shuriken toss followed by a block to fend off a discharged weapon, you need to get acquainted with these skills to survive.

That's one of the things Shinobi III, along with other games in its franchise, does particularly well for the genre: take away the ninja gimmick, visual slickness, and its excellent soundtrack, and you still have a good game thanks to solid level design. You can't just hop into battle, mindlessly flail shurikens, and hope for the best, because its strategic leaning forbids such mindless schlock. Even when you have a better grip on the protagonist, Shinobi III never bores, especially with the POW item entering the equation, which makes your shuriken more powerful. It's amazing how much the flow of battle changes with this single item, as one is able to plow through enemies en masse without much hassle if well-versed with the game. There's a catch, of course, where losing the ability is as simple as being hit once.

Seems like a troublesome challenge to partake of, but it's genuinely one of the most rewarding experiences in Shinobi III, because the game makes you feel and look like a badass shinobi in the process. After coming to terms with Joe Musashi's flexibility, you can then return to the starting forest location with newfound confidence, demolishing foes before their attack patterns begin, grab the coveted POW item, and proceed to annihilate everyone in your path without ever being touched. Then gracefully sword slash through shielded, towering soldiers, and shatter a frantic, floating brain with surgical accuracy! Death-kick a hoverbike with your jet-powered surfboard, then do it against heat-seeking missiles! Show that fire-breathing, projectile-stacked Mechagodzilla who's boss! Those last two sentences aren't inflated statements, either...

Shinobi III is the embodiment of commitment and quality, a product dedicated to giving players an exhilarating adventure from beginning to end. The devotion is even downright exemplary when reading up on the bumpy development history of the game*, which had completely different enemies and stages in beta form, and was on track on possibly becoming the worst Shinobi game on the console. Sega wasn't having any of that nonsense, brought in another director, had the game pretty much rebuilt, and delayed it from the initial 1992 date to a mid-1993 release. But you really don't need that extra bit of information to appreciate Shinobi III to its fullest: simply giving one of Sega's finest accomplishments the proper time of day is gratitude enough.

*As detailed in the much sought-after Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works book.


pickhut's avatar
Community review by pickhut (May 02, 2017)

You have no idea how close I was to using a Cool as Ice quote for my Riding Hero tagline...

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overdrive posted May 07, 2017:

This review reminds me that I have this game on a 360 compilation and haven't really done any more than the first stage and should remedy that in the future.
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pickhut posted May 07, 2017:

The thing that kills me about that compilation is that you'll get Shinobi III's lone achievement for completing the first stage. Meaning, people who never touched the game before and are only in it for the achievement will likely quit after the first stage. Meanwhile, they make people play up to Alien Storm's third level for its achievement...

Maybe I'm thinking too hard about this...
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Germ posted May 13, 2017:

This game is a favorite of mine and this review really did it justice. Great work!
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pickhut posted May 13, 2017:

Glad you liked the review!

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