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The Moonlight War novel by S.K.S. Perry

Shinobi (Xbox 360) artwork

Shinobi (Xbox 360) review

""Shinobi" is the ultimate arcade game. So it was in 1987, and so it remains nearly a quarter of a century later. Now it has been flawlessly ported to Xbox Live Arcade, to be studied and practiced....and mastered. Folks, shelve those copies of "Revenge of Shinobi". It's time to play a real "Shinobi" game. "

"Shinobi" is the ultimate arcade game. So it was in 1987, and so it remains nearly a quarter of a century later. Now it has been flawlessly ported to Xbox Live Arcade, to be studied and practiced....and mastered. Folks, shelve those copies of "Revenge of Shinobi". It's time to play a real "Shinobi" game.

But first, the primer:

This is a game of precision. Your ninja does not have the luxury of a "life bar". He can attack enemies from a distance with throwing stars, or he can get up close for a quick melee kill. Most enemies go down with a single shot or strike. Observe and execute. Sometimes it's more about observing than executing, and sometimes you just have to “do it”, but above all its precision that makes or breaks a "Shinobi" run, whether its the precision of reflexes or the mind.

As far as coin-operated games go, "Shinobi" is very fair in regards to challenge. The controls are as precise and reliable as any console game I can think of. On normal, it is fairly possible to make it to the Mandara boss without using a single 1-UP, credit, or ninja scroll. The trick is beating Mandara without dying on the first try. He (it?) is a born coin sucker, and is merciless in its efforts to dry up your wallet. Beyond that part, I've found that you can get endless mileage out of your credits on sheer skill. Hell, I’ve even beaten Mandara on the first try, twice, although I had to douse my fiery thumbs with water afterwards.

There is a display of restraint, a resistance to sucker-punching the player, that makes "Shinobi" great. Consider a lesser action game like "Ninja Gaiden", which is dependent on re-spawning enemies. Sometimes you scroll the level just enough that you hit a "sweet spot" for re-spawns, such that you may find yourself in front of a gap while an endless barrage of Zombie Atheletes charge at you like pre-teens on Robert Pattinson. You’re posed with a Catch-22: keep fighting off enemies until the timer runs out, or attempt a jump that will be blocked by the mindlessly charging drones. "Shinobi" is above that. The same precision we exercise in playing the game is also practiced by the designers who plotted the layout of enemies and obstacles. Little is left to chance.

Beyond these technical qualities, "Shinobi" is a very imaginative game. It has a distinct 80s touch, with its gritty urban streets, its juxtaposition of ninjas and helicopters, and a fairly "pop" soundtrack. The first boss, a towering hulk who wears samurai armor, makes a cameo in each of the two stages that precede his boss battle. He has a tiny little weak spot on his head, and each of his palms shoot streams of fire that seem to have a mind of their own. In a lesser game, he would be the fourth boss. Sega did not pull any punches.

The aforementioned Mandara is formidable because it is gaurded by a wall of rotating buddha statues, which encroach on your space in an attempt to knock you into an electrical current. It is a mixture of the divine and the hi-tech, of holy idols and laser beams. The Master Ninja, the ultimate villain of "Shinobi", has so many defenses that by the time you reach him he's built up a mystique. To get to him, you must traverse a bamboo forest where spinning ninjas fly about from no where, where treading without caution is rewarded with a ninja sword to the face. Then there's the inner sanctum, in which Sega takes the "kitchen sink" approach. Almost every grunt you've encountered in the game is waiting for you: gunners, ninjas, bone-slinging ghouls, shielded Mongols...but even at the end, there’s curveballs. The Master Ninja himself is easier than you'd think, but there's so much anticipation and anxiety in making it to his lair that the greatest threat is you might choke up. All of this is compounded by a distressing amendment to the rules in the final level: no more continues.

What else? The bonus game. One of my most vivid childhood images was waiting around an arcade and glancing at the various monitors. On one, marked “Shinobi”, there was a hand tossing stars at a crowd of approaching ninjas. The demo always ended with one ninja jumping in the distance, then suddenly dropping right in front the screen. Very terrifying. What I never saw was the shower of paper fans that greeted whoever managed to fell all the ninjas. This is one of the best bonus stages in video game history.

The Xbox Live port is flawless. The emulation is completely accurate, and the configuration options are plentiful and functional. There's even a save feature, though I can't imagine why anyone would want one in a game like this. If you have friends on Xbox Live, you can compare scores on the online leader board. All that and a great game for 400 Microsoft Points, about five bucks. Few are the number of Xbox Live Arcade games that will take your $5 as far as "Shinobi". In the original arcade cabinet, a skilled player could also get very far on a single credit. I call this "Shinobi-nomics".

Rating: 10/10

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Community review by joseph_valencia (June 30, 2009)

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