Ninjas have been a video gaming staple ever since the ’80s, appearing as both heroes and enemies. Their prominence can probably be attributed to the fact that most of the best games back then were made in Japan, but they were also easily adaptable to the format of games. They could fight, sneak, use various weapons and supernatural abilities, and often found themselves entangled in plots of espionage and intrigue.
Plus, they’re really cool.
One of the more popular ninja games of the ’80s was Sega’s arcade classic Shinobi. Released in 1987, Shinobi was a side-scrolling action game in which you played as a ninja named Joe Musashi. Your goal was to rescue children kidnapped by an evil crime organization called “Zeed,” and ultimately defeat the mysterious “masked ninja.” The game took place over five missions, each divided into two or three areas, plus a boss fight.
Interestingly, the gameplay of Shinobi seems to take its cues from an earlier arcade game: Namco’s Rolling Thunder from 1986. In that game, you play as a secret agent infiltrating an enemy base to rescue your girlfriend. Both games feature “shooting,” some duck-and-cover strategy, the ability to jump between two different levels (or foreground and background), and slightly stiff jumping. Also, both games are very methodical, and rely on memorizing when and where enemies appear.
I suppose the similarities make sense in a way. Ninjas are really just the Japanese version of a secret agent. However, I feel that Shinobi improves on Rolling Thunder‘s gameplay in a few ways. You have unlimited ammo , as well as up-close melee attacks, you don’t take any damage from simply bumping into enemies, and you have a screen-clearing magic attack. It makes the gameplay slightly more forgiving and fun.
Shinobi also adds bonus stages between the missions, where you throw shurikens at enemy ninjas from a first-person perspective. They’re fun and add a bit of variety to the game, but are very challenging. However, completing them awards you a valuable extra life.
And you’ll want to rack up as many extra lives as possible, because the game takes away your ability to continue once you reach the final mission. This seems to be a fairly common characteristic of classic Sega arcade games, and was probably meant to prevent the player from simply credit-feeding all the way to the end. Of course, you can also set the game to give you 240 lives, which should be enough to help you see your way to the finish without having to continue.
To be honest, I don’t recall if I’ve ever seen the actual Shinobi arcade cabinet, although I might have and simply forgotten. It would be a little strange considering how many other classic Sega arcade games I actually saw back then. (Heck, I still see a lot of Sega games in arcades now!) But the arcade version is currently available as a download on the Wii Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade, and is unlockable in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The game was also ported to the Sega Master System, PC Engine, NES (unlicensed), and various home computers of the time, like the Amiga.
And needless to say, Shinobi went on to be one of the most famous series of ninja games ever, right up there with Ninja Gaiden and Strider. It had only one arcade sequel called Shadow Dancer, but most people are probably more familiar with The Revenge of Shinobi, which was an early system-seller for the Genesis/Mega Drive, and was the game that really brought the series into its own instead of being a derivative of another arcade game. But the series still continues even today, with the fairly recent Nintendo 3DS game simply titled Shinobi. And most recently, Joe Musashi is spending his spare time racing against hedgehogs and monkeys in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. (I guess even ninjas are having trouble finding work these days.)
It’s interesting to go back to the original Shinobi all these years later, because it’s still a really fun and challenging action game, even if it doesn’t quite play like later games in the series. It may be short, but it’s a game you can come back to every so often and keep enjoying. It really represents vintage Sega arcade gaming.
Plus, it’s really cool!
Hardcore Gaming 101: Shinobi – A comprehensive and up-to-date retrospective of the entire Shinobi series.
History of: Shinobi – A somewhat older retrospective at Sega-16 from 2004.