When you hear the word "Shinobi" paired with "Genesis," odds are, 1989's Revenge of Shinobi comes to mind. Before we could plunge headfirst into the go-go '90s, Sega's ninja-platformer gave us all a taste of what the 16-bit era had to offer with its huge sprites, pumping Yuzo Koshiro jams, and its decidedly non-Nintendo edginess -- discounting the fact that it includes Batman, Spider-Man, and Godzilla (or non-copyright infringing variants of them) as bosses, of course.
Coming five years after the Japanese launch of the Mega Drive, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master didn't hit with the same impact as Revenge, but 20 years later, it holds up as the superior Shinobi experience. The team behind it had Sega's humble little console completely figured out by this point in time, and it shows; Shinobi III stands as one of the few Genesis titles that could honestly be mistaken for a Super Nintendo game. With Shinobi III, Sega puts every graphical trick of the 16-bit generation on display: massive sprites, transparencies, and layer upon layer (upon layer) of parallax scrolling. In fact, if you've never played Shinobi III, the lavishness of its visuals may take you by surprise -- I actually had to pause for a few seconds to fully absorb the frankly gorgeous depiction of a burning forest which acts as the backdrop of level five.
Unlike last week's re-release of Ecco the Dolphin, Shinobi III is more than just a pretty face. It offers large, set piece-focused levels that offer a new take on ninja action in every stage, and with an amount of challenge that rarely feels unfair. In fact, Shinobi III comes close to feeling like a product from the beloved developer, Treasure (Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy, Guardian Heroes), since it shares so much in common with their best works: short stages built around unique challenges, and graphics that make you feel some sort of pact with Satan must be responsible. If you want to see Sega's brand of fast-paced, arcade-inspired action at its finest, Shinobi III shows the developer at one of their most creatively fruitful periods.
Given that there's not much room for improvement, M2 didn't have to work too hard to make a re-release of Shinobi III worthwhile. As with their past classic Genesis releases, Shinobi III also carries their standard set of features: a save/load function, the choice between Genesis 1 and 2 emulation as well as Japanese/International versions of the game, and a stage select.
The most monumental change to Shinobi III, however, can be found in its "Expert Ninja Mode," which doesn't make the game harder -- as its misleading name would imply. Instead, it adapts the controls of the original game to system with more than three buttons, making Joe Musashi a much more versatile character. Instead of offering a single attack button that launches a shuriken whether it's needed or not, Expert Ninja Mode now gives melee and projectile attacks their own respective inputs, making it much easier to hold onto your expendable secondary weapon. And with this mode activated, you can now block instantly, instead of clumsily holding in the attack button while hoping your sword-slashing animation plays out before any incoming threats hit you in the face.
M2 didn't have to try very hard to polish Shinobi III up to modern standards, but as we've seen with their past re-releases, their meticulous work and reverence for these classic games continues to astound. As developers' interest in classic gaming continues to wane, M2 has been the only game in town when it comes to serious game preservation -- and they should definitely be rewarded for their efforts.
- Visuals: Few 16-bit games look better than Shinobi III, and M2 has preserved its fantastic graphics, while adding subtle 3D effects that make the multiple layers pop.
- Sound: Not quite as memorable as Revenge of Shinobi's -- but what is?
- Interface: In typical M2 fashion, the menus are clean and easy to navigate. Though they should have tried a little harder to explain what "Expert Ninja Mode" is outside of the manual, since it's really the preferred way to play.
- Lasting Appeal: From taking out robots on the back of a surfboard to boulder-hopping down a near-bottomless chasm, Shinobi III offers a variety of experiences that will put your skills to the test.
Shinobi III stands as one of the best Genesis games out there, and one that didn't really receive the attention it deserved during the ugly console wars of the early 90s. Pick it up and prepare to be surprised -- 20 years later, it's still an astounding take on ninja action.