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Shadow of the Ninja

Natsume were a force to be reckoned with on the NES, with their games reaching near Sunsoft levels of quality.  The only thing holding them back from the upper echelons of the development community would be that they did not publish their own games until 1990, a bit late in the console’s lifespan.

Shadow of the Ninja was released in 1991 and immediately drew comparisons to Ninja Gaiden.  It’s the year 2029 and the Emperor Garuda has taken over the world.  Ninjas Hayate and Kaede are dispatched to take him down and restore peace.  In 1 or 2-player coop you’ll face Garuda’s forces across 5 levels on your way to the final showdown.

Your 2 ninjas move at a zippy pace and exhibit a level of agility most platform characters could only dream of.  Like Ninja Gaiden 3 released the same year you can hang from any surface and pull yourself up or down.  The levels take full advantage of this mechanic with many tricky sections that will require you to make snap decisions in the heat of the moment.

You start off with a katana that has pathetic range but can be upgraded to numerous different armaments, each with their own quirks.  Throwing stars pack a punch but are limited in supply and default back to your previous weapon once spent, a trait shared with the bombs.  The grappling hook will be the primary weapon used, not only for its range but because of the additional damage it inflicts when it retracts.

It’s hard to avoid comparisons to Ninja Gaiden as the two games are similar.  There aren’t any annoying hawks or bats waiting to knock you into pits but the game does have its share of irritating enemies.  There are soldiers who bum rush you and push you into whatever pits or enemies lie in wait.  Killing these bastards ends up not worth the frustration.  By the third level you face robots that break in half when hit and use both parts to attack you unless destroyed properly.

These two enemies also serve to highlight one of the biggest issues with the game: the hit detection.  It’s bad enough your katana is near useless but flailing about without your hits registering is infuriating.  Even with the grappling hook finding the exact sweet spot is maddening.  You only have one life and 5 continues; wasting them on what should be routine bad guys is just stupid.  The game isn’t very hard overall as it is a bit short.  The 5 levels are divided into 3 sections each, but some of these are shockingly brief.  The only real tricky parts are figuring out the boss patterns.

Like Shatterhand which was released the same year Shadow of the Ninja is a graphic powerhouse.  The rain effect on the first level would be copied by many games after and is incredible considering the hardware.  Many of the backgrounds are impressive such as the skyline on the rooftop stage or the airport.  The animation is suitably impressive and on the same level as Ninja Gaiden 3.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this game was made using the same engine as Shatterhand as they share a similar look and use of color.  Regardless it makes excellent use of the hardware considering its limitations.

Although comparisons to Ninja Gaiden might be unfair it can’t be helped as the two games have many things in common, making them nearly interchangeable.  In fact they are so similar Tecmo would ultimately buy the gameboy port and repurpose it as Ninja Gaiden Shadow.  It doesn’t quite reach the heights of its competition but it still manages to entertain.

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