Shinobi was always the counterpart to the Ninja Gaiden franchise. Both starred heroic ninjas in challenging, side-scrolling adventures. They almost always appeared on opposing systems, and while Ninja Gaiden hung out on the NES, Shinobi was found on the Mega Drive or similar systems. Even after things went more modern, they remained on opposite systems, with the new (and brutally difficult) Shinobi showing up on the PS2 and the rebooted Ninja Gaiden showing up on the Xbox. Now, with Ninja Gaiden 3 showing up on the PS3, we're actually looking at a new Shinobi on an unexpected system: the 3DS. Rather than continuing the modern 3-D action game design of Shinobi and Nightshade for the PS2, Shinobi for the 3DS is a trip back in time to the simpler — but no less easy — days.
Shinobi is a return to form for the franchise, so the basic side-scrolling gameplay is quite simple. The Y button attacks with your trademark sword. This is a powerful weapon that can combo but requires you to be close to a foe to use. The A button allows you to throw a kunai, a long-distance weapon that is weaker but safer. You only have a limited supply of kunai, and they recharge slowly after being used, so you can't endlessly spam it. The B button jumps and, as any good ninja should be able to, you can do a double-jump. The X button allows you to use your grappling hook. Most of the time, the hook can help you reach a high ceiling that is normally out of reach. If you mistimed a jump or are in a location where even a double-jump can't help you, the hook is a life saver. Sometimes the hook can also be used in combat. During the boss fight against Yuki Onna in the demo, hitting would stun her and allow you to use the grappling hook to perform a special super-damaging attack.
You can't actually block attacks in Shinobi, but you have the ability to parry, which requires strict timing. Tap the R button at the proper time, and your ninja will raise his blade and block an attack. For a melee attack, this can stun enemies and leave them vulnerable to extra attacks. For ranged attacks, this reflects the attack. Sometimes this sends the attack away from you and allows you to advance toward the enemy without danger, but other times, you'll reflect the attack back at the enemy for extra damage. It's important to master parrying because it allows you to use enemies' weapons against them and earns you a boatload of points.
Shinobi is interesting because in an era when the goal is to simply reach the end of games, it is very upfront about being a score attack game. Simply finishing the stage is not exactly easy, but it's certainly not the most challenging thing about the game. Everything you can do in the game is scored in some obvious way. If you hit an enemy, numbers pop off them to signify the points you'd earn by defeating them. On the other hand, if you get hit, you lose valuable points, which appear as red numbers above your head when you screw up. While it's usually possible to come away with a net gain in points even when you get damaged, it's something you want to avoid. Losing a quarter or more of the points you would've gained from a kill is a poor way to get a high score. You also get points for feats of skill. Reflecting a kunai back at an enemy with your parry ability, for example, earns you a cool chunk of points. Do so while also making the reflected kunai kill that opponent, and you'll earn even more points. You can't just farm points in this way, though; there's usually only one bonus for this reflection per foe, even if you do so multiple times in a row.
Points are a big part of the reason why you shouldn't rely on ninja magic. Your character has access to a few different magical spells. Lightning allows him to take up to three hits from any damage source, including spikes and such, without taking damage. Water lets him move faster and causes his kunai to regenerate at super speed. Earth makes him faster and completely invulnerable for a short period of time, but it then lowers him to one hit point after the effect runs out. All of these abilities are powerful, but they also add a very high point penalty when used because they're a bit of a handicap. When you first go through the stage, you can use Earth or Water to get through a tough part and give it a try without the handicap your next time through.
While the side-scrolling stages appear to make up the huge bulk of Shinobi's gameplay, there are also some more 3-D stages. These take the form of on-rails riding stages where your ninja rides his horse from one location to the other. In these stages, the Y button slashes and the B button jumps. You have to avoid trees in the road and occasionally knock enemy ninjas off horses. While the side-scrolling Shinobi gameplay is fun, the horse-riding segment seemed to go on too long and had fewer chances to show off skills. Perhaps later parts of the game will be a better example of the gameplay style.
Shinobi is shaping up to be quite a fun, old-school, side-scrolling action game. From beginning to end, it's pretty clearly a love letter to the old Mega Drive Shinobi games. The gameplay is fast and fluid, and there's clearly a lot of effort put into making it feel fun and accessible. The horse-riding segments felt rather tacked on, but it's tough to judge an entire gameplay segment from one example, and I'm looking forward to seeing how that evolves during the development process. Shinobi for the 3DS is a throwback, and it's a return to the classic style of Shinobi gameplay that has been long missed.
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