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Shinobi Legions (Saturn) artwork

Shinobi Legions (Saturn) review


"I did not play past the fourth stage of “Shinobi Legions.” Here is a game that could have buried a franchise. It is equal parts dull and hideous. Sega doesn’t need to say anything more. I can understand why they didn’t publish this in America themselves. After the revelation that was “Shadow Dancer” on the Genesis and the imagination of “Shinobi III,” how could they submit this as the next in line? If someone hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t even have believed that Sega had a hand in this. "



I did not play past the fourth stage of “Shinobi Legions.” Here is a game that could have buried a franchise. It is equal parts dull and hideous. Sega doesn’t need to say anything more. I can understand why they didn’t publish this in America themselves. After the revelation that was “Shadow Dancer” on the Genesis and the imagination of “Shinobi III,” how could they submit this as the next in line? If someone hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t even have believed that Sega had a hand in this.

But they did. Somehow, Sega of Japan did everything in their power to make “Legions” come across as the most generic mid-90s action game it could be. The graphics are a cheap knock-off of Mortal Kombat, with digitized actors and pre-rendered creatures taking the place of good old-fashioned sprite artwork. The gameplay is embarrassingly pedestrian: dice simple enemies, avoid simple obstacles. While the animation is smooth, there is no grace or style to the action. The proceedings have the inelegance of an actor posing for a motion-capture device.

The levels are phoned-in: traditional Japanese province, forest, bio-lab, Japanese temple …between “Revenge of Shinobi” and “Shinobi III,” we’ve played all these. “Legions” even rehashes the latter to the point of whipping out the “mutants breaking out of test tubes” routine. I found myself comparing the two games, and the “Shinobi III” version of the level came out tops. It had ceilings I could cling to, conveyor belts, pits of sludge, ambient lighting, cooler-looking mutants, and a greater variety of enemies. The most memorable thing about the “Legions” version was a goofy encounter with a carnivorous Brontosaurus (!), which runs away after you give it three whacks with your blade. That’s weak compared to the festering colossus that capped off the lab in “Shinobi III.”

I guess it’s nice that there’s now a button for using the sword, but the swordplay isn’t half as tight or exhilarating as Zero’s from the “Mega Man X” games. It doesn't help that the Shinobi blade feels thin and scrawny compared to Zero's lightsabre. You also can no longer power-up your throwing stars. Instead, your sword gains some kind of magic that creates the image of a giant idol whenever you swing it. If enemies collide with the image, they take damage. It’s very stupid. A cooler idea would have been an item that could increase the range and shape of your stroke, like the sword power-up in “Ninja Gaiden III.”

But enough about that. Let’s get to some of the finer points of “Shinobi Legions,” like the awful live-action “full motion video” sequences. They’re so inherently cheesy, they don’t even need an awkward English dub. (Vic Tokai, the publisher, subtitled the cinemas.) The costumes are cheap, the acting and dialogue is the lowest form of “tokusatsu” spittle, and the “stunt work” is downright embarrassing. Why did they bother? Simple title cards would have been just as cheap and more efficient, and the crew would have been spared the indignity of lighting, shooting and performing a video game story.

Even the music sounds like something you’d expect from a cheap motion-capture action game. How bad is the soundtrack? Sega actually hired someone to re-score the game for its European release…and unlike, say, “Sonic CD,” fans actually prefer the rewritten score to the original one. Ouch! When your music gets replaced and it can’t even muster any purists to be outraged about that, it’s downright awful. Needless to say, I wasn’t moved by the beats or the lack thereof. There is no edgy techno sound or rock or anything you’d expect from a “Shinobi” soundtrack. I can’t even remember any specific melodies. It’s all a blur of Asian bamboo flutes and percussion.

The only positive thing that I can take from this experience is a greater appreciation for what came after. Sega, on the basis of this garbage, could have deemed Shinobi outmoded and shelved the franchise altogether. Instead, 2002 saw a masterful reinvention of the character by the studio Overworks. “Legions” is at best a stepping stone to that great game and at worst a disgraceful footnote to Shinobi’s side-scrolling legacy. If it’s not the worst of the Shinobis, it’s certainly the most depressing.

FOOT-NOTE: I gave up when I couldn’t figure out the fourth boss. A rule of thumb for these sorts of games is to make the bosses’ weakness obvious but tricky to exploit. Trust should be placed in old tropes like “attack the flashing head” or “hit ‘im when his shield’s down!”. Anything more complicated and less obvious takes me out of the visceral “action” state and makes me want to quit. SIMPLIFY, man!

Rating: 3/10

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Community review by joseph_valencia (August 09, 2009)

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