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Dick Tracy

I remember the insane marketing blitz surrounding the release of the Dick Tracy movie back in 1990. I was too young to know about its origin as a newspaper strip from the 1920s and viewed it as a movie starring a colorful cast of villains like batman. With all the radio watches, fast food meals and other merchandise came video games of varying quality; the less said about the NES game the better. Its Sega counterpart fared better and outside of its steep difficulty is a pretty cool title but one that I have a hard time recommending because of it.

The 1990 film featured a star studded cast with the likes of Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Madonna lending their talents. It was one of the movie events of 1990 with Disney going all out to saturate the market in Dick Tracy products. To me it seemed as though they were going for the Batman audience and considering the surface similarities between the two you can’t blame them. It didn’t exactly pan out the way they hoped but some cool stuff came out of it. The Genesis game wasn’t a direct tie-in to the film but was close enough and featured the majority of Dick Tracy’s rogue’s gallery and a few unique gameplay hooks. However its execution lets it down. This is still a good game but it can be incredibly frustrating.

In terms of mechanics I’m reminded of Shinobi/Rolling Thunder. Your pistol has unlimited ammo and doesn’t need to reload thankfully. When up close dick will belt enemies with his fists. It’s a simple setup however you have to deal with enemies on two planes, including the background. For these you’ll bust out the Tommy gun. This is probably the coolest aspect of the game and its most distinguishing feature. It’s so unique in fact the enjoyable boss battles use this mechanic specifically.

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The level design bears out the similarities as well. Both are action games however you can’t blindly charge into either with guns blazing. Although the generic criminals here aren’t as, uh, “unique” as the Geldra they follow along similar lines, with specific enemies having specific forms of attack. Rarely are you ever walking in a straight line as there are boxes, crates, and support beams scattered about to hide behind for cover or just as a general nuisance. Being aware of your surroundings is crucial as enemies spawn in groups or roll in from off screen at any time. If you pay attention it is obvious where the next group will spawn although in what direction and how many is always a surprise.

Unlike Shinobi however you’ll find no power-ups to aid you whatsoever which is what makes the game brutally difficult in the end. The one concession the game makes is the bonus game at the end of every stage which is a shooting gallery where you can earn extra continues. Good luck with that however; it ramps up so fast you’d swear the designers purposely wanted to make sure you never earned your keep.

While the majority of the game consists of your typical side scrolling action it does break things up occasionally. For certain levels Dick Tracy will be unable to use his gun, forcing you to rely on your fists which is interesting in the later parts of the game to say the least. Also there are a few driving segments that see you perched on the outside of a police cruiser as you pick off rival drivers. These are interesting diversions but like the rest of the game tend to drag on too long. Some of the level themes repeat far too often

The challenge presented is pretty steep and not always for the right reasons. You’ll have a level or two at most before the game asks a little too much of you in my opinion. The rate enemies spawn is extremely high to the point where you are better off inching forward since there’s no telling where they’ll come. Without any items, even something as basic as health, the margin for error is extremely low and I’ll warn you now that most stages are long with no checkpoints.   While I can appreciate a good challenge every now and then it has to be fair and by Dick Tracy’s midpoint it crosses that line.

If that isn’t a deal breaker however the unique two plane action is engaging and rarely explored even today. With a little more polish this could have been a great game instead of a flawed gem.

6-out-of-101

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Shinobi

In the inevitable transition to 3d during the PlayStation era many beloved classic franchises either went into hibernation or suffered immensely as the technology/designer’s level of skill were not up to the task of accurately representing their gameplay.  For every Super Mario 64 there was two or three Contra Legacy of Wars or Sonic 3d Blasts.  When Shinobi Legions failed to catch on Joe Musashi and company were added to the pile until 2002 when a group of wise designers within Sega decided he was ripe for a comeback.

Shinobi stars Hotsuma, a new ninja within the Oboro clan.  While Joe Musashi is missed it won’t take long before you taking a liking to this new badass.  In terms of his feel and skill set Hotsuma ranks up there with Alucard in Symphony of the Night.  There’s a level of fluid grace to all of his movements seldom seen in gaming, making the simple act of running in an environment a joy.  The ability to run along nearly every surface really opens up the levels in terms of exploration.  The series infamous double jump returns although it isn’t as much of a pain in the ass to activate.  The shuriken also appear but are now used to merely stun enemies to allow you to get in closer with your sword.

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Two of the most important gameplay mechanics added to the game are the stealth dash and Tate kills.  The stealth dash is an insanely cool technique that allows you to quickly move in a designated direction so swiftly that it leaves an after image behind.  This is probably the most important technique to master as it allows you to slip behind enemies, break through defenses and also becomes critical to the later platforming sequences.  I liken it to wall jumping in Ninja Gaiden; you won’t get far without it and it just looks so god damn cool.

Tate kills reward you for quickly stringing together multiple chain kills using the stealth dash with a brief cut scene as the enemies simultaneously die in a shower of blood while Hotsuma poses.  After the first kill has been you have a two or three second window to perform another to keep the chain going.  Aside from looking cool it generates extra souls to feed the sword Akujiki.  Early on in the game the sword awakens and will drain Hotsuma’s life if he doesn’t constantly kill to feed it.  Tate kills are the fastest method to prevent this and a further incentive to keep it sated is the increased damage with a full life bar.

As you can see the game is armed with a raft of features that make combat and traversal interesting but falls apart when it comes to level design.  Most levels follow a linear path filled with repeated architecture and enemies.  Each environment is fairly small and doesn’t leave much room for you to use some of the more interesting mechanics such as wall running.  The game is at its best when it presents you with opportunities to use your full skill set, such as executing repeated stealth dashes to cross long gaps or chain running multiple walls.  These moments are damn near picturesque when executed properly and it’s a damn shame there aren’t more of them.  A lot of this stems from the game’s Dreamcast roots; by keeping the levels small they could keep the frame rate high as groups of enemies swoop in for the attack.

Combat suffers from similar issues as the level design.  In spite of the various techniques available it isn’t until the second half of the game that you are presented with enemies that actually put up a fight.  Fighting the same zombie ninjas and dogs that are more apt to stare at you than attack becomes repetitive fast.  Contrast this with the modern Ninja Gaiden games that do an excellent job of marrying its play mechanics with suitable challenges to use them; almost any encounter can lead to death if you aren’t paying attention in those games.

That’s not to say the game isn’t challenging but mostly it’s for the wrong reasons.  All eight levels are broken down into two sections and a boss, with each lasting up to 15 minutes.  Unfortunately there are no check points, requiring you to more than likely play through each multiple times.  If the level design were more interesting it wouldn’t be such a chore but running down the same hallway 8 times per level gets old fast.  Late in the game you’ll encounter foes that require you to break their guard using a Tate kill, a feat that becomes increasingly difficult when 8-10 of the bastards swarm like killer bees.  Most of the bosses also have this requirement, with lesser adds spawning to give you chance to build up your attack power.

The bosses are the highlight of the entire package and are a throwback to prior games in the series.  Deducing their attack pattern and pulling off a near perfect kill for a high rank is a fun challenge along the lines of Devil May Cry.  Shirogane and Akagane present an interesting challenge in terms of prioritization while the four armed Buddha statue is a lightning spewing beast.  Keeping Akujiki at full power is the key to surviving these encounters although I will say that if you can defeat the final boss without tearing your hair out or cheating you are truly a god amongst men.

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Shinobi certainly didn’t win awards for its graphics at release and it’s only gotten worse as the years have passed. The art direction is solid; Hotsuma is well designed as a modern day ninja with some trace elements of the past.  His scarf is insanely pretty to watch as it trails your movements and the destroyed Tokyo streets and various temples all have a unique look but the cut and paste environments ruin the illusion.  Most character models have low polygon counts that are noticeable at times although later bosses buck that trend.  The sacrifice in detail allows the game to run at a high frame rate which you’ll notice immediately as the controls are ultra-responsive.  The soundtrack is excellent all around and continues the series musical legacy.

Though it stumbles at times Shinobi is a solid reimagining of the series.  There are a ton of extras, from art work to 3 more playable characters.  If you stick with it you’ll be rewarded with a challenging and long quest that will truly test your skills while staying true to the series foundation.

7-out-of-10

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Shinobi

Jesus what a terrible game.  Shinobi in the arcade was hugely popular and one of Sega’s biggest quarter crunchers of the time.  The original arcade game was markedly different from the exclusive home console Shinobi games, resembling Rolling Thunder more than the straight up action games on the Genesis.  It saw many home ports to nearly every computer format you can imagine and in a surprising twist was released on the NES through Tengen.  They really shouldn’t have bothered as the NES version is a truly awful piece of crap.

The criminal organization known as Zeed have been kidnapping children all around the world and Joe Musashi is here to save the day.  Shinobi was just in time to cash in on the ninja craze of the 80s and was a decent clone of Namco’s Rolling Thunder, proving that the two companies were guilty of copying each other long before Virtua Cop/Time Crisis in the mid-90s.

Why Sega would go nuts and grant a license to release some of their most cherished properties of the time on a competing platform is a mystery.  Tengen were responsible for all of the NES versions of Sega games and each was poorly programmed and instantly recognizable by the oversized black cartridges.  The entire Tengen saga is interesting to read about but if you want more insight as to the behind the scenes this episode of Retronauts explains it all: www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/podcast.the1upnetwork.com/flat/Retronauts/R041610.mp3

Admittedly I was never a fan of Shinobi; the stop and go action didn’t jive with what a ninja was supposed to be in my eyes back then.   Silly, I know.  The NES port of Shinobi is based on the Master System version, itself a well done conversion considering the hardware differences.  However due to incompetency, lack of skill, and the weaker hardware it turned out worse and qualifies as one of the worst games of all time.

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 Split up into 5 stages with numerous sub levels the goal of each stage is to find the kidnapped children and reach the exit in one piece.  “Find” is a bit too strong a description as they are all in plain sight.  Rather than a straight action romp Shinobi borrows from Rolling Thunder.  All enemies are deliberately placed and there are numerous boxes and other such objects to take cover behind and wait to attack.  Like that game you can jump between multiple levels to avoid enemies or grab items.  The level design was above average in the way certain enemies were placed and how you would try and deal with them without getting hit.

The NES version is missing a significant chunk of all of this, to the point where it’s almost a different game.  All of the secondary weapons are missing, leaving you to rely on shuriken and basic kicks to survive.  You can only fire a single projectile at once, which impacts the game severely.  Most levels consist of wide open spaces leaving the enemies in plain sight.   As long as you crouch and walk you’ll avoid getting hit the majority of the time.  The awesome vertical scrolling levels of the arcade game have been redesigned as horizontal stages.  Why all of these changes were made is a mystery as they were completely unnecessary.

The epic boss battles of the arcade have made it over but not without flaws.  The one projectile limit makes these fights nearly impossible, especially the battle against the Black Turtle helicopter.  Although the number of ninja attacking has been capped at 3 they move so fast and unpredictably that you’ll be bounced around and die without a chance to fight back.  Even worse you can’t see your life bar during the fight either.  The hit detection on each boss is so terrible that that it’s impossible to discern whether you are hitting the correct target or not.  Wailing on a massive demon for minutes at a time with no feedback is not fun at all.

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As if ruining the bosses weren’t enough the game is ungodly ugly as well.  The color choices chosen to replicate the arcade’s graphics are so far off the mark it’s unbelievable.  Joe Musashi does not resemble his arcade counterpart in the slightest and looks like a generic army grunt.  The music is an affront to your eyes with its one looping music track and grating sound effects.  Nearly all of the unlicensed Tengen games were in a special class of terrible but Shinobi is in a league of its own.

Normally at this point I would say don’t buy this under any circumstances but like most of the black Tengen carts it’s in short supply and the few that are out there are priced so high no one will bother.   As well they shouldn’t.

4-out-of-101

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Shadow Dancer

After the release of Revenge of Shinobi the franchise saw new life and momentum behind it.  When Sega announced a sequel, I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that expectations were high.  ROS had established itself as the ninja game, so it’s a bit of a disappointment that its sequel was a retuned port of an arcade game.  My own experience with the game was bit tainted; I didn’t own it, the annoying kid down the street did, and whenever I would start to get far in the game he would start whining.  “Gimme, it’s my game!”  So I kicked him out along with the game.  It would only be a bit later that I would play it sans irritating brat for a fresh perspective.

Shadow Dancer was released in arcades in 1989, the same year as Revenge of Shinobi actually.  A direct sequel to the original arcade release, it follows the same basic gameplay.  The story has you seeking revenge on the Union Lizards for the death of your master (or student depending on the version).  The Genesis version was released in 1990, a full year after Revenge of Shinobi, inviting comparisons between the two.

The changes are few between Shinobi and Shadow Dancer.   New to the game is the addition of your canine companion, Yamato.   After a quick charge, you can send your dog to detain enemies for you to close the gap and kill them unimpeded.  Stronger enemies or if he gets hit will cause him to shrink and become unavailable for a short period.

The arcade and Genesis have stark differences.  For the home version all of the levels are new, and rather than defusing bombs you are rescuing hostages like the first arcade game.  The bonus stage is an aerial drop off a building as you mow down ninjas coming at you rather than the first person shooting gallery the arcade games had.  Everything is done competently, so why is it a disappointment?

It’s just bland.  Comparing it to Revenge of Shinobi is a bit unfair, seeing as this is a sequel to the arcade game and not an original home release.  But as it was released after ROS, you can’t help but to compare the value.  The game is far shorter, consisting of 5 stages with 3 levels each.  It sounds like a lot, but most levels last less than 2 minutes.     In fact the game is so short it can be finished in a little over 20 minutes.  The majority of the game takes place in urban environments, which are a far cry from the Japanese temples and military bases that wowed just a year ago.  You can only take 1 hit before dying, which is annoying but understandable.  To offset this, direct collisions no longer kill you, just bump you back a bit.

All enemies have specific spawn points, so if you pay attention you can draw them out beforehand.  Yamato spices up the action but is wholly unnecessary.  You could go the entire game without using him and it would not make the slightest difference.  The tension heats up during the boss fights but they fail to excite.  The epic boss fights from Revenge of Shinobi are a hard act to follow of course, but they could have tried a little harder.

Judged entirely on its own, Shadowdancer is decent enough.  Judged as a sequel to Revenge of Shinobi it feels like a step back.  Approach it from those two perspectives and decide if it is worth your time.  I can’t really recommend it as you’ll blow through all of the content too quickly.

 

Buy Shadow Dancer

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Revenge of Shinobi

Early in the Sega Genesis’ life the system was dominated by arcade ports.  The reasons for this are numerous of course, but not as overt as you would think.  Sega has always had a strong arcade heritage which continues even today.  With the release of the Genesis they now had a home console powerful enough to reasonably convert most of their more demanding arcade cabs and did so with aplomb.  Another reason came as a direct result of Nintendo’s strong arm tactics.  Third parties were locked up by stringent contracts and could not directly support Sega so they had to license their games to Sega who would then do the conversions themselves.  It’s actually mind boggling how many of these they programmed but if you loved arcade action games you were happier than a pig swimming in its own..you know.

But that’s the rub!  Arcade ports are fine but they mostly only appeal to people who were already fans to begin with.  Also arcade games are designed for one purpose: suck as many quarters as possible out of every pocket.  You can see this in games like Ghouls & Ghosts with the frustrating amount of cheap deaths that occur.  Original games designed for the home market were needed, and it’s here that Revenge of Shinobi comes in.  First of all, the intro.  For its time the intro starring Sonny Chiba as Shinobi was mind blowing.  And that music!  The whole soundtrack for the game represents Yuzo Koshiro at his peak.

A direct sequel to the arcade game, Revenge of Shinobi Joe Musashi running afoul of the Zeed organization once again, except now they have christened themselves the “Neo Zeed”.  They kidnap your girlfriend, kill your master as revenge, and you set off in pursuit.  Released in 1989, this quite possibly was the first major release that turned heads and made everyone take the system seriously.  I would even go as far as to call it a killer app.

Gameplay is split into 8 stages with 2 sections each capped off with a boss fight.  Your journey to destroy the Neo Zeed will take you from the ancient ruins hidden in a bamboo forest to a Zeed military base.  You even stop by the ship docks of New York as you finally assault the Neo Zeed marine fortress to save the girl.  Your arsenal of moves has been greatly expanded compared to the original and you’ll need every single one of them.  You still have your traditional ninja stars and when in close use your sword to conserve ammo.  The two biggest additions are the double jump and the rainbow shuriken throw (well at least that’s what I call it).  The double jump is absolutely essential to the game which is why it’s so infuriating to activate.  You have to jump at the apex of your previous leap with no margin for error.    The rainbow throw is activated in conjunction with the double jump and covers a wide area of the screen at the cost of more stars.  It’s a cool visual but will clean you out if abused.

The ninja magic system has also been overhauled completely.  You have your choice of 4 spells to use with all serving a function.  You only get 1 use per stage with 2 exceptions: collecting a power-up or using the last spell, Mijin, which sacrifices one of your lives to inflict damage and refill your life bar.  You get a point bonus for not using them at all, but you know what?  Fuck that.  The game is already hard as it is, there’s no sense punishing yourself even further.

That difficulty I just mentioned is absolutely insane.  There’s no battery backup, no passwords and limited continues.  Its all or nothing as you pursue the Zeed leader to rescue the girl.  Enemies come in waves at times with some devious trap placement.  There is a heavy emphasis on platforming and in combination with the finicky double jump will lead to many cheap deaths. The frequent bottomless pits demand near perfection of the double jump or you face death, something that the controls aren’t up to the task of handling.

It’s very easy to burn through your stock of shuriken forcing you to rely on hand to hand combat.  Hell, the boxes that contain power-ups even try to kill you in the form of explosives.  The fucking boxes try to kill you too!  The last stage consists of a maze of doors that will break the sturdiest of gamers.  I freely admit I had to cheat to find my way through it, a fact that I’m not the slightest bit ashamed of.

Sega you naughty bastards!

The bosses are in a word, awesome.  All of the bosses have unpredictable patterns and require lightning reflexes to survive.  In addition to their Sega’s own creations you will fight Spider-Man, Batman, Godzilla, and depending on the version, Devilman.  Or at least representations of them.   The licensing arrangements regarding these characters has resulted in at least 4 different versions of the game out in the wild.  The final boss battle is a controller breaking experience as you struggle to prevent Naoko from being crushed to death while fighting the Zeed leader at the same time.  There are 2 endings depending on whether you are successful or not and chances are you’ll fail.  Yes I’m predicting that you’ll fail but I speak from personal experience.

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If you’ve made it this far good luck, you’re gonna need it.

The legacy that Revenge of Shinobi has left behind is many.  The soundtrack has been performed at numerous video game music concerts and composer Yuzo Koshiro even uses some of the tracks when DJing at clubs.  Whenever Sega releases retro compilations it’s a sure bet that Revenge of Shinobi will be included in the list of classics.  It was a much needed shot in the arm for the Genesis and gave the series a boost in the public eye.

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Buy Revenge of Shinobi