Level Up: Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
Ninja Gaiden can eff right off; Shinobi III for the Genesis is the definitive ninja game in my book. As a 10-year-old I would rent this game on the reg, enamored by its crisp graphics, huge bosses, catchy tunes and fast pacing. When designing Last Chance to Reason’s Level 2 game, I looked to Shinobi III for inspiration, analyzing it inside and out. Far from robbing it of its magic, intellectualizing the game made me appreciate its genius all the more. After wall-jumping to hidden caverns, destroying robots atop a surfboard and jump-kicking Mecha-Godzilla’s face, you’ll feel like a black belt in bad-assery.
Shinobi III‘s release was originally slated for 1992. Previews and even reviews were published for the hit gaming mags before Sega decided to hold the game back for polish. As is often the case, the extra time paid off. Like a great song, Shinobi III takes you on a journey and offers variations on several themes. The variety of gaming experience unfolds at an artful pace. Slow, methodical platforming is juxtaposed with fast-scrolling horseback-action. Climaxes are home to some of the most gnarly bosses ever created for the Genesis, and shuriken-tossing at enemies is the glue that binds it all together.
Let’s get nerdy on graphics for a minute, early ’90s style. Shinobi III uses every trick in the book of (Sega) Genesis and more. Thoughtful use of parallax-scrolling brings a depth and a sense of space to the 2D visuals. The pixel art is top-notch, delivering that gritty detail that the Genesis had at its best. Effects-like, animated backgrounds, magic-flaming-dragons, and warping scan-lines are the icing on the cake.
The SNES has an awesome sound-chip (ironically made by its future competition, Sony) that produced full, rich orchestral sounds. The Genesis didn’t fair as well with it’s FM synthesis based music, but some games, Shinobi III included, managed to make it work. From traditional Oriental melodies to Alan Holdsworth-esque fusion, Shinobi III had catchy and varied music that truly added to the experience. Sega was wise to avoid the tinny sounds that plagued many soundtracks, instead opting for smooth mid-range instruments that are easier on the ears. This leaves room for the crunchy sound effects to really cut through. The explosions have a satisfying “32nd notes on double-kick” quality and the grunts and groans of combat are passable, but resemble a dog’s bark enough to confuse your pets.
The tragedy of Shinobi III is that it’s often overlooked in favor of the objectively worse Shinobi II. Since it was released earlier in the life of the Genesis, Shinobi II garners more nostalgia in the minds of gamers and seems to end up on every “Best of Genesis” list on the Internet. While it’s a proficient game, Shinobi II is a mess when compared to its sequel. I would not only place Shinobi III as the best in the series, I would venture to say it’s one of the best games of its era. It hits all the marks of a great 2D action game and in many ways represents the azimuth of 16-bit gaming.