Hello, one and all, and welcome to another In Desperate Need of Love, the posting that showers praise on the overlooked gems of the video game world. This time around, we’re entering the world of the ninja, and heading back to 1988 for a journey through the Sega Master System classic, Shinobi.
So, when you check out the Genesis/Mega Drive collections that have been appearing on lots of different systems over the years, you’ll likely come across a game called ‘The Revenge of Shinobi’. Hell, that game was popular enough that it was included on a compilation back when its home system was still at the forefront (along with fellow classics Golden Axe and Streets of Rage). What a lot of people don’t realise is that the Shinobi series actually started life as an arcade machine, and that its first excursion into the home console market was in fact the Master System port of said machine.
But what made the Master System game so special? I mean, on first glance, it doesn’t hold up that well, at least graphically. If you look at screenshots from the original coin-op and the home version side by side, it’s quite clear that the arcade machine had a fair bit more power, allowing it to put out what were (for the time), some pretty impressive graphics. Meanwhile, the animation was as smooth as you’d expect for the ate 1980’s, and our protagonist, Joe Musashi, could pull off a wide range of attacks, including shuriken assaults, punches and kicks, sword slashes, and ‘ninja magic’. While the gameplay elements did transition with the game, the Master System simply couldn’t provide the same level of graphical quality, resulting in some jerky animations and the occasional glitchy flashing. The creators obviously knew that though, and set about adding in some things to set the game apart from the original incarnation. That’s where the game begins to shine.
The arcade machine saw one particular mechanic that may not have fit in so well with the (potentially) less adrenaline fuelled home environment: Joe’s ability to die with one hit. It sounds like a standard thing for a hack and slash platformer, but giving the player a dedicated energy bar was both a wise and unexpected move, even if it did come with the trade-off that simply touching an enemy was enough to cause you damage. Then there are the hostages. In the arcades, saving the kidnapped children was a necessity to clear each level, but in the home version, this was optional. These two points alone essentially rid the game of the things that caused the most frustration for players.
Of course, simply tidying the game up like this wasn’t enough for Sega. No, if they were going to port the game over for home systems, they wanted to add something new for the players. Shinobi has always come with a first-person view bonus round, and in the arcades, these occurred between each stage, with the prize for completion being an extra life. With no one hit deaths, an extra life wasn’t the most logical prize for the home version. Instead, beating the bonus round now gave you some ninjutsu skills. While this was limited to one piece of ninja magic per round in the arcade, the master System changes meant that the player could now hold up to four, and they could provide a number of different advantages: we’re talking three short-range weapons, four long-range weapons, and some of that handy ninja magic. Oh, did I mention that the number of different ninja magic spells also doubled from three to six too? No? Well, it did.
Sega didn’t want to make it too easy to get these bonuses though. Simply getting a bonus after each round works well for coin-ops, but can you really imagine it working for something like Sonic the Hedgehog? No, earning your bonuses is far better way to go, at least in my opinion. As such, Sega adapted part of the arcade game. Yes, it was optional to rescue the hostages, but if you wanted the bonus stage to appear, you had to rescue the right one. While the ninjutsu was always useful, this simple change actually gives you more than one way to play the game, which is a pretty cool addition.
So, if this has made anything clear, it should be that Shinobi on the Master System was not perfect. From a graphical standpoint, it was a weak conversion of the arcade original, but that isn’t how the game should be judged. Sega took a risk by making changes, and every single one of them paid off. It may not be as monumental as recent steps in game creation, but this was still innovation on Sega’s part, and that deserves some love.
Thanks for reading everybody, I’ll catch ya later!