This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
The year was 1994, and the Nintendo v Sega console war was still going strong. It was a time just before Sony entered the scene and rewrote the rules, and the Internet hadn’t sucked the entire planet into its loving embrace. Video games generally cost a pretty penny back then, so if you bought any game – good or bad – you’d generally be playing it for at least a year.
If you choose the Sega side like me and went for the Megadrive, then you were provided with a six-game multicart. This cartridge of goodness contained classic beat ‘em up Streets Of Rage, where you punch through waves of punks that look suspiciously like Adrian Edmondson from The Young Ones. You could use melee weapons like bats or broken bottles, eat plates of ham off the street to restore health – as you do – and curse when you accidentally hit the A button and waste the special attack, when you should be saving it for the end of level boss.
The multicart also contained Golden Axe, a fantasy beat ‘em up where you smash through skeletons, barbarians and giant knights. You also mug adorable little sprites and steal their potions, which feels a bit mean in hindsight. The other games were World Cup Italia ’90 – which I played for all of three minutes – Super Hang-On, puzzle game Columns and, of course, The Revenge Of Shinobi.
This tightly designed, action stacked side scroller had everything a seven-year-old boy needs; a ninja hero, boss battles with characters that look suspiciously like Godzilla, Batman and Spider-Man, relentless pacing and explosions galore.
Plus, the awesome soundtrack. Dear God, the soundtrack.
The story has a ninja named Joe set out to rescue his bride from a criminal organisation named Neo Zeed. Like a lot of games from this era the plot is inconsequential, and it disappointingly never explains why Godzilla or Rambo appear to be working with evil ninjas.
To my young mind, Shinobi was an addicting experience like no other, and hours would easily melt away during play. Not because it’s a long game, mind. In fact, a skilled player should be able to crack it within an hour. The problem is that the game is hard. Granite-hard.
Which was an issue, because no matter how many times I played and improved, I could never finish it. The Revenge Of Shinobi isn’t unfair, but if you’re not with the game’s rhythm you get punished. Attack too early? Too bad, the boss hit you and you lost a life. Mistime that jump? Boo-hoo, into the bottomless pit with you. Run out of shuriken? Guess you’d better fight that giant ninja one on one then.
Hard as it was, it never felt cheap. If you lost it was because you messed up, so you swallowed defeat and tried again. The level variety was a true marvel, where you could be wondering through a bamboo forest one moment, before fighting through a rocky canyon or dodging cars – and ninja nuns – on a busy freeway. It always found new ways to surprise you.
The key to success was memorising attack patterns and adapting to the level design. This took some getting used to, and the game gradually increased the difficulty with each new stage. Just when you thought you’d adapted to whatever it could throw, here comes an enemy that can block your attacks. It never let you get cocky, and made you fight for every victory.
Eventually, my skills improved enough to reach the last level and fight through the labyrinth maze. Victory was close, I could smell it. Then the final boss would always, always whip his hair back and forth and dash my triumph. Again, this was before the internet could provide you with that winning strategy. Like a brave soldier, I’d keep trying, and die again and again and again.
Ultimately, I just stopped trying.
It was time to accept I’d never win, and there were other games to play. Eventually, Mortal Kombat 3 started to suck up more time, with having to memorise the buttons to play off a fatality and learn how to beat Shao Kahn. Years passed, the Megadrive was set aside and the notion of returning to Shinobi disappeared.
Cut to 2016, and the old Megadrive has been sitting in a drawer for a long time. An irresistible urge to replay RoboCop Versus The Terminator comes over me, so I hook it up and blast through it. The lure of nostalgia is strong, so after playing through more games – Alien Soldier holds up great, Predator 2 does not – I come back to the sacred multicart.
I replay Shinobi and having been spoilt by years of modern games being gentle I get my ass kicked. Then the old instincts kick in, and once again I sink into the rhythm of it. I beat most of the bosses without losing a life, curse in frustration when mistiming a jump and remember that handy two lives trick from the factory level. It was great to feel the old surge of adrenaline but I realised that even if I reached the end, the boss and his magical hair would still win.
I reach the final level, make it through the maze and there he is. I die a couple of times and then the weirdest thing happens; a clear strategy emerges. I follow my instincts, strike when he’s vulnerable and occasionally hit the chain that prevents Joe’s bride from being crushed. I still expect to lose, but it’s nice to see I’m finally getting somewhere. Then he explodes, my jaw drops and the realisation hit: I finished it. After twenty bloody years I actually did it.
It was an odd experience. It’s hardly a life altering feat, but the warm glow of pride still felt nice. The old school gamer inside me was alive and well, and it was nice to wrap up some unfinished business. The Revenge Of Shinobi still rocks two decades later, and while it would be immensely douchey to claim “games were so much better back then”, it was refreshing to fight through something that really made you earn that credit screen.
I still have one, very important question: who the hell planted all those bombs in the crates?
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