Graveyard: Shadow of the Ninja

Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.

The NES played home to countless classic games, as well as many that never got their just due in their time. Shadow of the Ninja received critical acclaim, but it didn’t become a beloved title held in high regard by its generation. While titles like Ninja Gaiden became iconic, it has remained a hidden gem for many even with NES-related nostalgia growing to unbelievable heights over the past decade. The plot is amusingly simple — a big evil dictator named Garuda has taken over the United States and it’s up to two ninjas to save the country. Hayate, a male and Kaeda, a female can be used in simultaneously this co-op action-platformer.

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If you don’t want to deal with a second player – or just prefer solo gaming, however, Shadow of the Ninja is still an excellent way to pass the time. As either ninja, you’ll be dashing around stages, slicing up enemies, and making use of skillful platforming tricks to survive. Patience is also a virtue because enemies are pretty relentless. You’ve got gunners that have specific patterns, and you can usually either duck out of the path of their gunfire or jump over it. Robots can also be sliced in half – but you have to be careful when doing that because the top-half can then just fly around and still kill you. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself cursing at the screen in frustration as red ninjas just charge at you and don’t do anything but knock you off platforms.

Shadow of the Ninja will kick your ass and make no apologies for it. Everything about the game is unforgiving except for the limited-use weapon upgrades. These enable you to either kill a series of enemies with throwing stars or even use a harpoon gun on them if you want. This gun can even be used vertically and diagonally – making it a must against most bosses and flying enemies. The default sword slash is a bit like Strider, and along those same lines, you can also dangle from underneath ledges and then flip up to attack enemies.

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Doing so can be tricky, and you’ll also have to avoid level hazards like steam at the same time. You will be taught things gradually based on the level design, and there isn’t a single challenge you can’t overcome by just being patient and learning patterns. The boss battles cap things off nicely too and feel rewarding. They’re varied and each throws different kinds of weapons at you. Some will trap you for a bit, and one is an amusing boss battle blended with a bit of sumo where you knock your enemy off the stage to ensure damage is done.

The control layout is logical and everything is as responsive as it should be. For a twitch-heavy game like this where split second timing is going to mean the difference between taking damage or not, you want every action to be done on a 1:1 basis. That’s the case with Shadow of the Ninja, so while it will beat you up time and time again, you’ll never quite be able to blame the controls for a death. Sure, you can curse out the rushing ninjas, but you can’t blame a bad jump or mis-timed sword slash on the game. Scrolling sections are rare, but will put you to the test as you have to efficiently kill everyone or just hope to avoid as much contact as possible to survive.

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Visually, Shadow of the Ninja has great-looking backgrounds and sprite work…for the most part. The backdgrounds are incredibly detailed, and nearly on par with the best in class Batman: Return of the Joker. They’re highly-detailed and have a lot of color gradients in them to add some life to the world. Enemy sprites look fine too, but your ninja sprites seem oddly lacking in detail. Faces are basically non-existent and given that, they should probably just have masks on to hide that issue better. Sure, the headband may look cooler — but it doesn’t

The soundtrack is one of the most catchy on the NES. When you’ve got a system full of chiptune classics, it’s hard to stand out – but Shadow of the Ninja does by having some of the fastest songs on the system. Iku Mizitani and Kouichi Yamanishi did a fantastic job crafting songs that got your blood pumping. Everything sounds nice and clear and they made perfect use of the limited hardware to create exciting songs. They’re very much like the Shinobi series soundtrack where you have traditional Japanese music, but the instrumentation used is far different, so it stands out even more.

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Shadow of the Ninja may have passed gamers by when it was first released, but there’s no reason for that to still be the case. You can get the game for only five dollars on the Wii U’s eShop. Shadow of the Ninja may have been a rival to Ninja Gaiden, but the game’s fate took an amusing turn when Tecmo revamped what would have been a Game Boy version of this game into Ninja Gaiden Shadow. Considering its low asking price, this is a must-buy for anyone who loves action-platformers. It’s a bit more forgiving than Ninja Gaiden, and far more enjoyable than the NES incarnation of Strider as well. If you absolutely want to play it on the original hardware, it’ll set you back around $40-$50 – so most will get more out of the eShop download. Beyond knowing it will work without issue, you’ll also gain access to save states to make life easier.