Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.
-Martin Luther King
“The following is a contributor post by the Hopeful Sega Mage.”
The Shinobi series has had a long, storied history since its inception in 1987 and I would definitely consider it one of Sega’s main franchises, up there with Sonic, Streets of Rage and Golden Axe. However, like most Sega franchises, the Shinobi series isn’t straightforward when it comes to following the lineage of the games.
Shadow Dancer is probably responsible for the majority of the confusion. Originally Shadow Dancer was released in the arcades a few weeks before the critically acclaimed Revenge of Shinobi came out on the Mega Drive. Revenge of Shinobi is technically the third game in the Shinobi series which makes sense in terms of chronological order… until Shadow Dancer was ported to the Mega Drive the following year. It’s confusing enough that the third game in the series is released before the second game… it really doesn’t help when the second game has been reformulated and is a different game to the original arcade version.
See, like most Sega arcade games, Shadow Dancer was ported from the arcades to various consoles and computers after its arcade release. These ports were of varying quality (including an ambitious if not quite successful Master System version) but were relatively faithful to the arcade game. However, for the Sega Mega Drive version, Sega decided to develop an entirely new adaptation of Shadow Dancer. While the Mega Drive game shares its style of gameplay with its arcade brother, its levels and plot are completely different. Sega had also done similar with ESWAT previously, so it’s not the first time they’d changed one of their arcade games for the Mega Drive.
While Shadow Dancer in the arcades had a nameless ninja taking on the Neo Zeed (the enemies in the original Shinobi) in 1997’s New York, Shadow Dancer on the Mega Drive has two entirely different stories, depending on which region you live in. In Japan, the main character is Hayate, the son of series mainstay Joe Musashi, looking to avenge his father’s death, while in Europe it’s Joe Musashi himself, looking for revenge on behalf of a murdered student.
The common bond between all three versions of Shadow Dancer and the game’s unique selling point is the ability to attack enemies using your trusty dog. Indeed, that’s probably what Shadow Dancer is best known for, being “the Shinobi game with the dog.” Simply put, as well as their ninja skills and magic, Musashi/Hayate have a large white dog named Yamoto who can be instructed to attack enemies. When set upon the enemy, the dog will grapple with them until Musashi/Hayate can take them out. If you fail to take out the enemy in time, then Yamoto is injured and runs away in puppy form. Sega may have been more edgy than Nintendo in the nineties but even they weren’t going to have a dog killed in one of their video games!
So, to clarify, Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi on the Sega Mega Drive is an alternative take of the original arcade version of Shadow Dancer. It has no link to Revenge of Shinobi or it’s sequel Shinobi III. This is reinforced by the Japanese names of those two titles – in the Far East they were known as The Super Shinobi and Super Shinobi II, respectively.
I’ve even seen Shadow Dancer described as the final game in the Shinobi series, which would mean Shinobi and Shadow Dancer are part of a series separate from Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III. That blew my mind as I always considered all the Shinobi games to be one series. I can understand why I got confused – in England, we always get Joe Musashi as the main character so all the Shinobi games would have felt like the same series to me.
Mind you, I grew up with the Master System version of Shadow Dancer, which I found out actually gives the protagonist three different names – Joe Musashi in the manual, Takeshi in game, and Fuma on the attract screen. As a child who could read game manuals but not Japanese, I just thought the main character was Joe Musashi. Now I know of Joe’s 8-bit identity crisis, I’m amazed that Sega simply couldn’t agree on one backstory for Shadow Dancer across its ports and remakes.
Now that I’ve confused everyone (including myself), let’s take a critical look at Shadow Dancer and see how it holds up. Does it deserve more than being known as “the Shinobi game with the dog?”
Shadow Dancer: The Secret Of Shinobi was a fairly early Mega Drive game, but graphically I think it’s aged quite well. I really like the level of detail used on the graphics; the sprites are small but crisp and the backgrounds are basic but very effective in conveying the dark, gritty world Shadow Dancer is set in. Compared to later games, the visuals are nothing special, but considering the hardware and programming skills of the time, I think Shadow Dancer looks very good for it’s age.
I do like the animation on the sprites. Joe Musahi is brilliantly animated – his backflip in between plains is very graceful and generally, he’s very slick, whether he’s killing enemies or simply looking up. The little touches (such as Yamoto’s panting) also add to the polish of the game. Even the enemies, despite being more limited than Joe, move better than most generic video game grunts.
Keisuke Tsukahara is the composer for Shadow Dancer but I can’t say I’m too fond of his tunes here. Shadow Dancer’s BGMs are metallic slabs of funk not unlike Tsukahara’s work on the arcade version of Alien Storm, with lots of heavy synth bass lines and high pitched melodies. However, I don’t think the soundtrack is a great fit for Shadow Dancer – the music is too upbeat for such a serious game. There aren’t any songs that are terrible to listen to, but none of them really stand out other than to make me think they sound like they should have been in another game. I’ve included a link to the bonus stage music below as it’s one of the best tunes in Shadow Dancer but it also highlights the issue with the music being too jolly. It’s a tune that can get stuck in your brain, but the very nineties voice samples are far too daft, even for a bonus level.
There isn’t anything to report on the sound FX – they sound exactly like you would expect an early Mega Drive game to sound, all bleeps and buzzes, with a few fuzzy voice samples thrown in. The barking dog sample is pretty good, but the sample that accompanies the use of ninja magic is painful at first… it sounds like a grumpy hoover waking up and I’m not too sure why they used it personally. It takes away from the ninja magic attack screens and does take a little bit of getting use to.
I’ve always really enjoyed playing Shadow Dancer. I think the main reason is because of how fun it is to control Joe Musashi. He’s quick, responsive to commands and feels very graceful. Shadow Dancer plays exactly how you would want a game involving ninjas to play – the action is frantic yet it handles superbly so the player is in complete control at all times.
If I have an issue with Shadow Dancer’s gameplay, it’s the amount of memorization that is needed to progress. I don’t want to be too harsh since many 80’s and 90’s arcade games depend on you remembering enemy attack patterns to progress, but I’ve always found Shadow Dancer to be particularly guilty of this. Compared to ESWAT, Shadow Dancer lacks freedom in how you can deal with enemies and make progress. Back when I first started to play Shadow Dancer, I actually knew Level 3-1 off by heart and used to recite the pattern to help myself get through the level… something upon the lines of “walk…jump….slash…duck…wait…dog…jump…magic”. Compared to ESWAT, Shadow Dancer feels a lot more linear in its gameplay. I enjoy playing Shadow Dancer more, but I think ESWAT has more depth and variety in its gameplay.
I do like Shadow Dancer’s story… the Japanese story from the instruction manual is quite dark and stands out more than the US plot. However, Shadow Dancer doesn’t really follow either region’s story in-game – all we get is a generic attract screen with a fairly vague explanation of the plot. I’m not sure why Sega didn’t commit to a story for Shadow Dancer, but I wish they had to one of them as Shadow Dancer feels very sparse when it comes to plot. There aren’t any cutscenes and even the ending is pretty basic. To me, plot is important – if I’m dedicating time to playing a game, I need some motivation to play it, I need to be inspired by the character I’m playing as and their mission. If not, then I’m going to struggle to stick with the game. Shadow Dancer was lucky that I like games with ninjas, otherwise I might not have seen it through to the end…
As much as I enjoy Shadow Dancer, I don’t think it has much replay value. It’s not a long or difficult game (I beat it in around an hour and a half with save states, so any one who is decent at games would probably fly through it) nor is it a game that inspires you to return to play it intensively after completion. Shadow Dancer is fun to play so I can see it being dug out every now and again for a quick play, but nothing more.
Another problem for Shadow Dancer is it has much superior games in the series to contend with. Are people going to replay Shadow Dancer when they can play Revenge of Shinobi or the original Shinobi? I think people are more likely to play the challenging Revenge of the the three and I’d probably put Shinobi ahead of Shadow Dancer in terms of depth.
Shadow Dancer is a fairly easy game to pick up and play. If you’ve played any 2D arcade game, you’ll get the hang of Shadow Dancer quickly. Given its responsive controls and appealing gameplay, I can’t see any one not wanting to play more of it and dedicate time to learning its nuances and secrets.
Shadow Dancer is widely available these days and isn’t too hard to find on its original format. However, there was a period of time where Sega weren’t adding Shadow Dancer to their compilations. I can’t find an exact reason why, but I believe it’s due to Shadow Dancer falling foul of German censorship rules. I’m not sure of the exact reason (I have decapitation scenes as the reason in my head, but I can’t recall an incident of this in the game) but there were a few Sega games that fell victim to this. As a result, Shadow Dancer is missing from the PAL version of the PSP/PS2 compilation Sega Genesis Collection and is completely absent from PS3/XBOX 360 Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection. However, these days whatever issue Shadow Dancer had seems to have been dealt with and it’s available on Steam along with Sega’s other Mega Drive releases.
I can’t say Shadow Dancer is a unique game – in the early 90’s, there were tons of ninja-inspired arcade games on all formats. Shadow Dancer also has a ton of overdone video game level tropes from 80’s and 90’s arcade games – elevator levels (why do the bad guys never just turn the elevator off?), dingy warehouses, destroyed cities… you could easily mix it up with another game from the same time period. Hell, Shadow Dancer even has a level with parts bathed in darkness… didn’t Ninja Gaiden II do this?
Joe Musashi is the star of the game really – I can’t think of many protagonists as graceful as him. Strider and Rolling Thunder come to mind, but damn, they’re hard games. Shadow Dancer would probably be a good way of building up to those two games in my opinion, a toe in the water of tough all-action arcade games. Other than the ninja clad in all white, though, there isn’t much unique about Shadow Dancer.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I’ve always liked Shadow Dancer – I consider it one of the Mega Drive’s ‘B Tier’ games, a term I use for games that are worth seeking out after you’ve exhausted the console’s classics. I think my enjoyment of it stems from the gameplay – I’ve always enjoyed the speed and movement. It feels like a good representation of a Shinobi sequel and given that the original Shinobi wasn’t ported to the Mega Drive, Shadow Dancer is probably the next best thing.
However, upon going back to Shadow Dancer and giving it a thorough review, I can see why it isn’t regarded as one of the Mega Drive’s classics. As much fun as it is to play, it’s not a long game to play and its dependence on memorization means most players will probably beat it fairly handily. Also, Shadow Dancer was hurt by being released after Revenge of Shinobi – compared to that difficult, intense game, Shadow Dancer lacks the long term appeal and depth that Revenge offers.
Indeed, I think that’s why Shadow Dancer didn’t make as big a splash as it could have upon release. By the time it came out in 1990, it was competing with the Sega’s ports of Strider and Ghouls and Ghosts, two bonafide arcade classics. Maybe if Shadow Dancer had come out as a Mega Drive launch game or before Revenge of Shinobi, it may have made more of an impact. Sadly, upon reflection Shadow Dancer is an above average ninja game that missed the boat by a good margin. While it’s fun to play, it’s not got the lasting appeal to stand out in the Mega Drive’s crowded library. As it stands, Shadow Dancer sits with ESWAT in the second tier of Mega Drive games… neither are classics, but you could do worse than give them a try.
Aggregated Score: 5.4
The Hopeful Sega Mage is a Sega obsessive who shouldn’t be approached by members of the public. However, he can be found on Twitter at @carrythegary and here at The Well-Red Mage, if you wish to discuss Japanese Mega Drive artwork and the greatness of Altered Beast.
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Categories: Game Review