Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Griptonite Games
Shinobi is obsessed with points, to the extent where I'm seriously wondering whether floating arbitrary numbers were a commonplace sight in feudal Japan. Leap into the air, fling a fan of Kunai and impale a lesser ninja on your razor-sharp katana? Have some points. Parry a massive fireball as you sprint across a rickety bridge? Have some more. Smash your horse headfirst into a tree? You'd better lose some there. The emphasis on points is testament to Griptonite Games' mission statement: to provide the 3DS with a a truly hardcore action platformer to satisfy the self-bettering urges of the more mature gamer. Nintendo's handheld certainly needs more titles like this, but I'm not convinced that Shinobi is the panacea that we've been waiting for.
Shinobi is the 13th title to bear the less-than-illustrious branding of the popular 1987 arcade game, and as such, the formula remains much the same despite the advent of the new millenium. You'll lead a deadly masked ninja through perilous 2D stages, engage in some fast-paced swordplay and die a lot. It's an endearingly nostalgic take on the action platform genre, and one that manages to excel and utterly fail depending on which side of the equation you're looking at.
The combat is absolutely brilliant. You'll leap and slash your way through tricky and clever combatants, engage in spectacular mid-air swordsmanship and fling wicked Kunai with merry abandon. A split-second parry manoeuvre replaces the traditional block, putting the focus firmly on aggressive defence, relocation and pressing the advantage at every opportunity. Perfect responsive controls and tight mechanics make Shinobi feel like a meaty triple-A action game shrunk down to size and two dimensions.
Platforming, however, is an absolute nightmare. Leaps and wall jumps lack precision and grace, and the sense of weight and momentum feel disconcertingly off. It's extremely difficult to judge whether a leap of faith will land you on the right platform or merrily carry you into the waiting hazards below. The close camera angles also never quite display enough of the stage to be useful, meaning that spiky death, bottomless pits or sneaky foes waiting to punt you into oblivion tend to lurk just outside of shot. And the hook, while a fun addition, never provides more than a simple way of grappling onto long, slow ropes. Viewed as a platformer, Shinobi is an unmitigated catastrophe.
You'd therefore expect Shinobi to sideline its platforming aspirations in favour of Ninja Gaiden-esque guts and glory, but I'm dismayed to report that Griptonite have completely botched their priorities.
The horrendous level design manages to space out brief blissful combat with nightmarish extended platforming sequences that demand precision and timing beyond the scope of the mechanics; leading to numerous aneurysm-inducing cheap deaths. It's unfair - not difficult. On top of this, later levels recycle challenges and enemies to an insane degree - in fact, even the first level forces you to face off against the same aggravating mid-boss twice. The points may be sweet, but you'll find it difficult to get motivated enough to try each level more than once. If you even make it through the first few without flinging your handheld across the room.
Racing sections were a great idea in theory, but become thankless and aggravating chores thanks to an awkward three-quarter camera angle that makes it extremely difficult to work out your position relative to incoming obstacles and pickups. The extra three-dimensional depth does little to mitigate the misery and annoyance of these segments, which could have worked so well from a different viewpoint.
As a 'hardcore' game - hell, as a Shinobi game - the level of challenge is also incredibly intimidating. Normal difficulty and upwards only provide you with a limited number of lives, and once you've blown through them all, you'll have to restart each lengthy level from the very beginning. This would be absolutely fine if Shinobi focused on the combat, but since you'll constantly die through no fault of your own in miserable platforming hell, it's absolutely unforgivable. Call me a 'noob' all you want, but unless a game is a faithful port of a beloved older IP (see also: Deathsmiles Deluxe), I believe new games should make at least a token effort to cater for the mainstream beyond a patronising easy mode. Maybe deducting points could have been used as a punishment for failure rather than making us trudge through each stage time and time again? There's a difference between hard and flat-out inconsiderate.
There's certainly some fun to be had here thanks to the brilliant melee combat, and the lust for points is as addictive as ever. Furthermore, Shinobi does manage to throw in a few nifty extras to sweeten the deal such as unlockable achievements, art gallery, a dojo, Streetpass content and franchise trivia. But these features serve to highlight the last crippling omission: the complete lack of online leaderboards. Why go to all the trouble of netting high scores if you can't secure any bragging rights?
Finally, it's worth noting that Shinobi's visual impact has nothing to do with graphical prowess. Viewed objectively, the 3D modelling and texturework is crude to the point of being genuinely poor, but the Japanese watercolour art style and comic cutscenes work wonders in creating a pleasing experience overall. The sound design is similarly inconsistent, featuring repetitive recycled samples clashing with an exceptional soundtrack.
- Outstanding combat - but just not enough of it!
- Pleasing 3D visuals
- Nifty extras
- Woeful platforming
- Cheap to the point of being shockingly unfair
- Inconsiderate difficulty
The Short Version: Shinobi's reliance on catastrophic platforming and dismal difficulty stop its brilliant combat from shining through. It's a step in the right direction for 3DS games, but I'm afraid that you'll have to wait for the console to truly show its hardcore colours.