The Revenge of Shinobi was probably one of the first killer apps for the Sega Genesis. That’s a bold statement but completely true. In the early years of the system’s life arcade ports of varying quality dominated its lineup. While the console’s capabilities meant ports were closer to their coin op counterparts than before there is nothing quite like an original title that pushes the hardware and really shows what it can do. And Shinobi was that game.
Three years have passed since the downfall of the Zeed organization. They have not forgotten however and reform under the name Neo Zeed. Their first acts of revenge against the Oboro clan are to kill Joe Musashi’s master and kidnap his bride Naoko. Big mistake, as now Joe is on their tail.
Joe has gained a few new abilities in the intervening years that make the journey that much more fun. You have a life bar for one which changes the flow of the game significantly. To offset this shuriken are limited in supply. Despite the abundance of extra throwing knives everywhere you’ll still have to be conservative in their use at times lest you end up having to rely on hand to hand combat. You might as well just die at that point. As well as the frustrating double jump Joe can unleash a rainbow of shuriken that is good for clearing the screen but uses up ammo fast. The best power-up in the game is the POW icon which doubles the damage of your attacks. It also grants a longer sword that can cut up projectiles. Taking a hit removes it but the trade off is worth it.
Ninja magic has also been overhauled. There are now four spells although you are still only allowed one use per level with the exception of one. Ikazuchi creates a lightning shield that protects you from damage. Fushin allows you to jump even higher. Karyu is a screen clearing fire attack that will also inflict significant damage on bosses. Mijin is a double edged sword but the most useful. By sacrificing one of your extra lives you can inflict damage and also refill your life bar. Its only limit is your stock of lives. Technically you get a point bonus for not using ninja magic but screw that. You can find plenty of 1-ups if you bother to look.
Revenge ditches the focus on rescuing children in favor of typical platforming. The levels aren’t as tightly designed but instead now feature far more wide open spaces. The level design varies between open areas with a heavy emphasis on platforming and more enclosed areas with carefully placed enemies and traps. One of the cooler gimmicks are a few levels that allow you to move between the background and foreground. These are expertly designed and can be a little confusing to navigate but a welcome challenge nonetheless.
There are some duds in there as well. There are a number of levels that scroll vertically. The level designers have a habit of placing enemies off screen where taking cheap hits is unavoidable. The shopping mall is the worst offender as the variety of laser cannons on all walls can shred you in seconds. The final level is a long maze of doors that teleport you around the compound. I am not opposed to a good maze but here you are given no indication if you are on the right path. Even looking at a map of it now is confusing.
The bosses deserve their own special mention. Someone at Sega were a bit overzealous as most of the bosses in the game are licensed characters. Spider-Man, Batman, Godzilla, the Terminator, there’s even one that is very clearly patterned after the Incredible Hulk. There are standard soldiers that are John Rambo if you can believe it too. Not all of these were properly licensed at the time leading to at least four revisions of the game over the years. These fights are extremely cool outside of their shock factor and make the game that much more memorable.
Revenge of Shinobi is not an easy game by any stretch and can be downright infuriating. The double jump is the biggest reason. The timing of it is incredibly precise with no margin for error and unfortunately the game relies on it heavily by its midpoint. The last two stages will sap plenty of lives due to this. Even after close to thirty years of playing this game I can’t say that I’ve mastered the stupid double jump. The cherry on top is that credits are limited to boot. The final boss battle is one of the most difficult in gaming history as you must defeat the Neo Zeed leader while also preventing Naoko from being crushed. There are two endings and most will get the bad one because the difficulty of this fight is that insane. Prepare to swallow your pride and cheat.
At its release Revenge of Shinobi was head and shoulders above just about every other game out for the system. Its large character sprites boast solid animation with backgrounds that are incredibly detailed. There are numerous cool details such as crashing waves and active traffic that bring them to life. But more so than the graphics the soundtrack is probably why the game is so fondly remembered. The pulse pounding beats of the heavily oriental score really made the system’s FM synth sing and is regarded as some of composer Yuzo Koshiro’s finest work. I wouldn’t go that far but it is phenomenal.
Revenge of Shinobi is revered as a Sega classic and it is easy to see why. Even Sega acknowledge the importance of its release as it has been re-released in various compilations and download services. It’s a bit frustrating at times but still a truly fantastic game and one deserving of its praise.