Resurrecting arcade legends and bringing them up to date is a great idea on paper, but it never seems to work out all that well in the real world. In fact, we're scraping the bottom of the barrel just to think of any arcade classics which have turned into enjoyable games once passed through the modern Make-It-3DTM development process; Defender, anyone? We didn't think so.
Somehow, though, the idea of our favourite games of yesteryear being given a new lease of life always gets us excited, and we manage to cast aside memories like Frogger and Daytona USA in favour of unbridled optimism. Therefore, when Sega announced that Shinobi was in line for a major facelift, our reaction was definitely veering towards the "ooh cool" end of the scale rather than the "drop the 3D engine and step away from the old franchise with your hands where I can see them" end.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our optimism was once again misplaced.
But Ninjas are cool!
Those who remember the original Shinobi titles will recall that they were entertaining, hugely unforgiving and often bastard hard but ultimately very satisfying games to play. There wasn't a lot of complexity or depth there; for the most part, levels were defeated by a combination of lightning-fast reflexes and learning off the positions of enemies by heart. Any update of such a formula into a modern game would need quite a bit of a rethink to make it work; after all, even though it's fun to go back and play through the original Shinobi now on an emulator, you'd hardly pay £40 for it.
At first glance, it appears that Sega have done almost exactly what's required with Shinobi, and the game is initially very promising. There's a hokum plot about a clan of ninjas, a golden palace appearing in the middle of Tokyo, some Evil Ninja Blokes and more undead ghoul-type creatures than you can shake a katana at. There's a stunning bit of rendered intro movie, featuring a breathtakingly cool ninja stunt, and then there's the lead character himself, Hotsuma, who not only bounces around like a ballistic bunny rabbit, but also does a fine line in Tortured Hero Dialogue and posing dramatically at appropriate moments in combat.
Unfortunately, once you get past the fine window dressing, everything starts to fall apart. The first thing to note is that the graphics are bad - really, really bad. Hotsuma is beautifully animated, from the balletic grace with which he moves about to the red scarf which flows around behind him, but the environments he prances through are uniformly bland and repetitive, with dull texturing and lighting. Each level is made up of pre-fabricated chunks, so you find yourself running through sets of identical rooms and corridors in each stage, and aside from a certain crispness to the textures, there's very little here that couldn't have been done on the PSone. It's not even that it looks like a first-generation PS2 title (horrific jaggies and all); it's actually very close to a step back from that.
Tokyo, city of a million identical samurai dogs
Then there are the enemies. OK, we fully accept that any game of this type will involve being attacked by hordes of identical enemies, but the lack of variety here is mind numbing. Some enemies have a few different death animations (most don't), all of which consist of the enemy being split in half by your sword and the two halves sliding to the ground. In true ninja style, this doesn't happen as soon as you kill the enemy - they remain standing, frozen in position, and then slide apart a few seconds later. If you kill all the enemies in an area within a certain space of time, you get a vaguely stylish cut-scene where Hotsuma pauses, waves his sword around in a poncy fashion, and then all the enemies around him fall apart at once. Sadly though, the death animations bear no relation to the way you've actually killed the enemy; it would have looked great if the game chopped up enemies just as you hit them, like Jedi Knight II did, but then again, that would have required actual programming and game design, which Overworks were clearly unprepared to dedicate to Shinobi.
In gameplay terms, we can see what Overworks were trying to achieve, namely keeping the gameplay faithful to the original title, but that's not only an inadequate goal for a modern game, it's a crippling failure of the title. The range of things Hotsuma can do is hugely limited in combat terms - while you can flip around and run along walls to your hearts content, when it comes down to actually dispatching any of the clone army you face, things are very dull indeed. Every enemy in the game requires the same approach - wave your sword at them, and if they're blocking, run around behind them and wave it some more. Lather, rinse, repeat, until your brain crawls out through your ear in desperate search of something less tedious to do. What's more, the impressive move Hotsuma pulls off in the intro to the game isn't available to the player, so if you fall off a building in one of the rooftop levels, you die instantly - consistency, eh?
The Devil is in the detail
You have throwing knives which temporarily incapacitate an enemy, and special magical attacks which you gain by picking up scrolls littered around the levels, but that's about the height of it, even once your demonic sword, Akuijiki, awakens and starts sucking souls from dead enemies. This does make gameplay vaguely more interesting, and encourages you to kill plenty of enemies in as short a space of time as possible (since your sword powers up with each one you kill in series), but it's hardly enough to keep your attention, really. Boss encounters do break the tedium somewhat, but even they repeat themselves, and are generally incredibly easy. To top it all off, there are no mid-level restart points - die, and it's right back to the start of the level with you, which is incredibly frustrating when the game is balanced so badly that the only difficult parts of many levels are right at the very end.
When playing Shinobi, strangely, the comparison that came to mind over and over again was with Devil May Cry. Capcom's game contained many of the same elements - one poseur against a horde of evil things, armed with a sword, some projectile weapons and a few impressively acrobatic moves. However, the sad fact is that however flawed Devil May Cry may have been, it pulled off just about everything that Shinobi tries to do far, far more effectively than Shinobi does.
DMC had beautifully designed, interesting environments; Shinobi has repetitive cardboard cut-outs with bad texturing and rubbish lighting. DMC had a wide range of weapons and moves; Shinobi has so few options in combat that you can count them on the fingers of one hand. Dante gradually acquired new abilities over the course of the game, keeping things fresh and interesting; Hotsuma subscribes firmly to the concept that old dogs don't learn new tricks. Devil May Cry had a better variety of enemies, better music, better graphics, infinitely better bosses... The list goes on.
Ninja May Cry
Frankly, we're hugely disappointed in this utterly botched effort by Sega. What should have been the revival of a classic franchise has been turned into a poor rip-off of a Capcom title that wasn't even the dog's bollocks in the first place. The people at Overworks responsible for the stunning rendered movies and the grace and style of Hotsuma's design and movement deserve commendation; but the designers who took those elements and wrapped them in such a completely abysmal game should never be let near another beloved franchise ever again. Rent this game if you're a huge Shinobi fan who doesn't mind being heartbroken by the desecration of another gaming classic; everyone else, steer well clear. We may love Sega, but even beloved pets sometimes leave unwelcome presents on the living room carpet.