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Virtual Spotlight: Shadow of the Ninja, a Reminder That 8-Bit Games Hated You

Natsume's ninja action game isn't just a tribute to Ninja Gaiden, it's a deliberate blow to the self-esteem, too.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

Natsume's Shadow of the Ninja tends to be written off as a Ninja Gaiden clone. The comparison holds some water; after all, Tecmo swooped in and snagged the Game Boy sequel during development and had it reshaped into an actual Ninja Gaiden spin-off. It doesn't get much more direct than the publisher of the game you're accused of ripping off coming along and saying, "Hey, let's make this a legit game."

But simply calling it a Ninja Gaiden knockoff is too reductive and fails to get at the full expanse of the game's inspirations. Better to call it a clone of every great NES action game, really. Why stop at just one when there were dozens of greats to borrow from? Shadow of the Ninja plays almost like a "greatest hits" compilation of NES ideas, reminiscent in nearly every way of many more popular classics. The indie game scene is jam-packed with retro-style games that offer a pastiche of NES game ideas, but Shadow beat them all to the punch.

What it really captures from the NES era, more than anything else, though, is the way those games felt as if they had been created by people who absolutely hated their customers. Insane, sometimes unfair difficulty was a matter of course on NES, and for good reason; those chunky cartridges could only hold so much data, and NES games tended to be terribly short. If they were as lightweight and easy to breeze through as most modern platformers, those poor kids of the '80s would have been out $50 (that's about $125 in weaksauce modern money) for an hour's entertainment. So NES developers made their creations crushingly, despair-inducingly difficult.

And holy wow, did Shadow's creators go all-in. This game wastes no time setting about the task of ruining a new player; the game's five worlds are divided into several stages apiece, and by the time you reach world 1-2 you're already dealing with absolutely hair-pulling challenges. The difficulty balance in Shadow really feels nothing like Ninja Gaiden, which featured a huge variety of masterfully placed enemies in enormous numbers. Here, you deal with fewer foes, and they don't instantly respawn the moment you backtrack. But they're extremely dogged, and unlike Ninja Gaiden's bestiary of foes they don't go down in a single hit; it's more of a Castlevania approach, where most enemies can soak up multiple hits before fading away in a little 8-bit implosion.

Sometimes Shadow of the Ninja seems more like Ninja Gaiden than others.

The first of the game's worst opponents comes in the form of strange rushing foes, reminiscent of Super Mario World's Chargin' Chucks. While they don't damage the player's ninja directly, they move with incredible speed and will shove you quickly along the ground until you hit an obstacle or, more likely, fall into a pit. They absorb a ridiculous amount of damage and will continue to chase you through the stage until destroyed, and they're placed strategically in the worst possible places, guaranteed to knock you into pits full of monsters or, worse, into pits with no bottoms.

That's not a light threat in this game: Shadow grants your ninja warrior a significant life bar, but no extra lives. Once you die, that's it. You're allowed a measly five continues, and your health doesn't regenerate automatically between stages. Shadow of the Ninja becomes a war of attrition (mitigated only somewhat by the occasional appearance of health pick-ups along the way), and if you choose to take on the two-player mode, both ninja share that pool of five continues between them.

With that meager stock of continues, you're forced to battle through more than a dozen stages packed with durable foes who zip quickly across the screen, fire projectiles before you've even scrolled them completely into view, and fill the playing field with sprays of bullets and spears. Tough foes stand unmovable in narrow passageways, so even if you give in to pragmatism and decide to forego killing each individual enemy you're still going to have your face rocked by burly dudes with bazookas, whether you like it or not.

The game's weapon system forces you to make tradeoffs: Quick, short-ranged attacks, or a lengthier reach with greater limitations?

It doesn't help that Shadow's weapon system is incredibly limited, forcing players to make hard choices. You can only carry a single weapon at a time; if you collect a throwing weapon, you're stuck using that weapon until the limited stock runs out. The two main weapons, a katana and a bladed chain called a kusarigama, present a tradeoff: The former is fast but extremely limited in range, while the other is slow and only good at a distance, doing no damage at close range. You have to collect these weapons to swap them, so you need to know which tool you'll need for each segment of the game.

But that's Shadow of the Ninja in a nutshell. It's not a game of response and reaction but rather one of memorization and commitment. You even need to commit to weapon selections; if you collect multiple upgrades of the same tool, that ability will power up... at least until you take too much damage, at which point it will be downgraded for you. Everything in this game is stacked against you; even if you manage to defeat the brutal final boss, Shadow still has one nasty last little parting shot for you. This is not a game that goes down without a fight.

Yes, those may very well be the alien runners from Contra cosplaying as Paul Revere.

But in return for your agony, Shadow of the Ninja offers you a lively romp through little snippets of every NES game you loved (well, except maybe Tetris). The music and ninja protagonists appear to have been ripped from Ninja Gaiden, yes. But the weapons and enemy patterns bear a strange similarity to Taito's Power Blade. The backgrounds and sprites look like some lost Sunsoft game. And then there's that two-player simultaneous mode, a la Contra.

On top of that, Shadow has plenty of its own little grace notes. Players could choose to control one of two ninja from the outset, one male and one female, both of whom wielded the exact same powers and skills. Rather than copy Ninja Gaiden's wall-cling ability, the hero or heroine could instead hang from walls and mount platforms. It played like a load of other NES games, but not exactly like them.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Visuals: Definitely near the upper tier of NES games, although it rather lacks its own visual style.
  • Sound: Great, rockin' chiptunes, though they can grow repetitive.
  • Interface: The control scheme feels a little clunky, especially when mounting platforms. The single-weapon mechanic can be especially frustrating.
  • Lasting appeal: Provided you don't blitz through the game in half and hour with save states, Shadow of the Ninja requires skill, practice, and patience.

Short on originality and tall on challenge, Shadow of the Ninja represents a solid B-class NES action game — an entertaining if somewhat maddening way to spend a weekend (or however long it takes you to master the game). If you've mastered the classics, Shadow's a decent semi-classic to waste some time with.

3 /5

Virtual Spotlight: Shadow of the Ninja, a Reminder That 8-Bit Games Hated You Jeremy Parish Natsume's ninja action game isn't just a tribute to Ninja Gaiden, it's a deliberate blow to the self-esteem, too. 2015-03-05T00:30:00-05:00 3 5

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Comments 17

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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #1 cldmstrsn 3 years ago
    Oh man I remember seeing AVGN playing this game and he was getting so pissed. I know he embellishes for the show but given the history im sure he didn't have to try to hard at looking and sounding mad. This was a great piece and im happy to know I will probably live longer having not played the game.Edited 2 times. Last edited March 2015 by cldmstrsn
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  • Avatar for JinjoHayabusa #2 JinjoHayabusa 3 years ago
    This game has one of the best soundtracks on the NES, in my opinion. Up there with Castlevania 3 and Mega Man 2.
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #3 kevinbowyer34 3 years ago
    Playing this on Virtual Console is my first time ever playing this game. Loved it! Made it to the final boss before I had to resort to using the save state (I tried about 4 or 5 times to beat him legit). Even I only used the save state at the start of the fight and made myself beat him from beginning to end. Pick up the long chain weapon and play the game like Castlevania.

    Now to go back and tackle the battleship stage in S.C.A.T.
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  • Avatar for clearancesticker17 #4 clearancesticker17 3 years ago
    Yeah, that sharing of "measly" continues was pretty rough.

    Honestly, this game brought back memories of being more like Irem's Ninja Spirit rather than Ninja Gaiden, though.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #5 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    This sounds horrifying. I may have a look!
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #6 kidgorilla 3 years ago
    I liked this game. I hate this game's box art.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #7 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @kevinbowyer34 The chain weapon doesn't work like Castlevania, though! Only the tip does damage, and only when it's fully extended. The Belmonts were much better equipped.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #8 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    Man, I love this game. It's awesome stuff, and as mentioned, the chiptunes are absolutely rockin'. Pretty much all of Iku Mizutani's stuff is great.

    Difficulty-wise, it's a tough game, but it's certainly not impossible. I ended up having a harder time with Ninja Gaiden than this, but I suppose that's not saying much!

    Oh, this might be a good time to link to one of my favorite remixes for this game, right?Edited March 2015 by SargeSmash
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  • Avatar for garnsr #9 garnsr 3 years ago
    I remember it being a big deal when Natsume released Shadow of the Ninja as their first game in the States. I don't remember why, exactly, for some reason it seems tied in with Sunsoft putting out Batman on Genesis, in the days of restrictions on systems and amounts of games companies could release, and such.
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  • Avatar for gyp-casino #10 gyp-casino 3 years ago
    Wow, those screenshots are beautiful. I suppose it's the beauty of HDMI. My NES produces a kind of fuzzy image on the TV.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #11 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    @gyp-casino : Yeah, it's just a function of using composite video (or RF). They actually make an NESRGB board that lets you add RGB and S-Video, although the process is a bit involved. A fair sight better than raiding Playchoice-10 boards for the PPU, though!

    http://etim.net.au/nesrgb/
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #12 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    Deleted March 2015 by SargeSmash
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #13 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    I really don't like some of the views you expressed in this review. First of all, I hate the expression "the creators hated their customers." If anything, I think the creators who REALLY hate their customers are the ones who treat them with contempt, as evidenced by lots of hand holding and rubber walling. That's treating the customer like an idiot. Creating a challenging game is what the creator is SUPPOSED to do, and it's what a lot of gamers wanted back then. That's not hating the customer, that's treating them with respect and delivering a good game.

    We really need to curtail the overuse of words like "unfriendly" and "sadistic" when we talk about design decisions in games. That's coming from the modern standpoint that the gamer is entitled to win a game, that a game isn't good if it doesn't let you win. Games from the NES era were not designed that way, and it's not just because the levels were shorter and they needed to "disguise" the length. That's an insulting idea. Challenging for it's own sake is never a bad thing when it comes to a game.

    Shadow of the Ninja is a pretty difficult game, but it's a game that most people could beat with enough patience. But most people aren't supposed to be able to win, and that's the point. It's supposed to take some effort. Some modern gamers seem to think that gamers aren't supposed to take effort, as though that reduces the amount of "fun." You'll never understand games like this if you try to look at it with that attitude. Games like Shadow of the Ninja were designed for a certain kind of gamer for which the effort involved in beating a game IS part of the fun. Without a certain amount of effort involved, there is no fun.

    But thanks anyway for spotlighting a great semi-obscure NES game, even if I disagreed with almost every word you said about it.
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #14 kevinbowyer34 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish a good Castlevania player attacks with maximum distance so should only be hitting with the tip 90% of the time. Hence, my claim that it is similar :)
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  • Avatar for nhler27 #15 nhler27 3 years ago
    Great review. I remember playing this game as a kid and beating it. Went back a few years ago and tried it and totally forgot how frustrating and painful it was. Great soundtrack.

    Thanks for reviewing it.
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