In 2002, Sega revived one of its classic franchises when it released Shinobi, a pure arcade-style action game featuring incredibly challenging missions and unique play mechanics. This new Shinobi bore little resemblance to the classic games that shared the same name, but it remained faithful to the spirit of its action-packed predecessors. Now this latest Shinobi game has its very own sequel in Nightshade, whose Japanese title Kunoichi is the word for the female counterpart to a shinobi, or ninja. Indeed, the main difference between Nightshade and Shinobi merely appears skin deep, at first. But in fact, the developers took Shinobi's unique play mechanics and expanded on them, so the resulting game is in many ways even more challenging than its predecessor, which, if you played Shinobi, you might find hard to believe. It's not that this is some completely unfair or needlessly frustrating game. It's a game that hearkens back to the days when games were tests of skill and timing. Those who like their games nice and easy shouldn't bother with Nightshade. As for the rest of us, we can heartily appreciate it for its monumental challenge and tight, responsive controls.
In Nightshade, you'll play as Hibana, the female counterpart to Shinobi's Hotsuma (who's actually an unlockable character here). She's a world-weary government-employed ninja who's tasked with taking out members of the Nakatomi Corporation, which has witlessly unleashed hellspawn upon futuristic Tokyo. Now everyone's after the shards of Akujiki, the legendary cursed sword that Hotsuma used to seal the hellspawn the last time. In short, Hibana will need to brave about a dozen perilous stages filled with enemy ninjas, robots, and monsters. Furthermore, she'll run across her former master and his cohorts, as well as a very nasty ninja cyborg, in the process. The game's story unfolds via prerendered cutscenes in between each mission, and it's not bad. However, the story takes a backseat to the action, as well it should.
Nightshade is structured just like Shinobi. Its missions are linear by design, and each one culminates in a battle against a challenging boss opponent...and these boss battles sometimes take longer to finish than the stages leading up to them. Without a doubt, you'll need to master--and not just learn--the specific play mechanics in Nightshade if you hope to reach the end of Hibana's journey. The game has the appearance of a typical third-person hack-and-slash affair, but it's nothing of the sort. The key to the gameplay is Hibana's limited ability to fly.
Hibana moves extremely quickly, just like Shinobi's Hotsuma. She can double-jump and attack with her sword, and she can also execute a stealth dash, which causes her to jettison forward very quickly for a short distance...or around and behind an opponent. She can also latch onto vertical walls and run along them like Hotsuma could. In Shinobi, you needed to perform some perilous leaps from wall to wall and over bottomless pits, and you could leap quite a distance by double-jumping and then using a stealth dash (though that's as far as you could go in midair). Nightshade ramps this core gameplay mechanic up a notch. Basically, it plays like a platformer, only instead of jumping from platform to platform, as in games like the Super Mario series, you'll be leaping from enemy to enemy, killing them one after another and using them as springboards to your next victim.
In addition to the double-jump-stealth-dash combo, Hibana may also execute a flying kick in midair, which sends her hurtling farther forward a ways, so long as she's locked onto an opponent. What's more, if she makes contact with an enemy, either with her kick or with her slashing attack, she may jump once more, dash once more, and kick once more, and then slash once more in midair before having to repeat the process. What this means is Hibana is theoretically capable of never needing to touch the ground, so long as her supply of airborne enemies doesn't run out. Many of the game's boss battles, as well as its later stages, become harrowing exercises in which you're jumping, dashing, kicking, and slashing multiple foes in sequence while certain death--or at least a very powerful boss--awaits below. The gameplay is very responsive, and the frame rate is perfectly smooth at almost all times, thus making the necessary finessing of the controls here somewhat easier rather than impossible.
There's more depth to the gameplay than just flying around from bad guy to bad guy. Like in Shinobi, Nightshade challenges you to kill multiple enemies in sequence and rewards you for doing so not only with a cool cutscene and extra points but by making Hibana's sword stronger and stronger with each successive foe in an area that she slays. Basically, as you zip your way through a level, groups of enemies will spawn in. As soon as you kill an enemy in the vicinity, the enemy freezes, and a meter starts rapidly dwindling away. You have just several seconds to kill another foe. If there are four or more enemies in the area and you manage to kill them all in sequence, Hibana executes a tate (pronounced "tah-tay"), and all the enemies are split in half at the same moment. This is how you max out your score during the game's missions, and it's also the key to beating most of the game's bosses, who'll all but shrug off your standard attacks. Only after you've killed a group of regular foes in sequence (who conveniently spawn in from time to time while you're fighting the bosses) can you hope to deal some decent damage to the boss, so you'd better make these few precious seconds count.
Hibana has a few other abilities that don't seem necessary at first, but you'll come to rely on almost everything in her arsenal soon enough. Like Hotsuma, she can use ninja magic and always has the option of choosing from one of three different abilities: one that causes fire to engulf everything around her, one that makes her invincible and faster for a while, and one that allows her to throw a half-dozen damaging wind-blades. Hibana starts out with one use of ninja magic per level (save it for the boss, of course), but she can collect more if she finds certain power-ups. Also, she can throw paralysis-inducing shurikens, just like Hotsuma, which will send flying foes plummeting to their dooms or immobilize other foes for a few moments. When at the top of a double jump, Hibana can also use a shuriken boost to stun everything in the vicinity.
She's also got a few unique combat moves. Her twin short blades aren't as damaging as her sword, but they hit multiple times, which drives up Hibana's chakra gauge. When charged, this gauge lets her perform a powerful, unblockable shadow attack that can seriously hurt the game's end-level bosses, though it might take you a while to figure that out on your own. Up to three shadow attacks can be stored up, and each one is stronger than the last. Finally, Hibana can execute a sweeping kick that sends an opponent into the air. Then she can follow up with a leaping kick-smash that causes a wave that breaches any nearby enemy defenses.
Breaking through enemy armor is another one of the new additions to the gameplay. You'll easily identify armored opponents not just from their appearance but from the different-colored reticle that appears when you target them. Such foes are impervious to Hibana's blade, but a swift kick--which causes no damage--can shatter the armor so that the sword can finish the job. Late in the game, you'll be jumping-dashing-kicking-shattering-slashing through multiple, armored airborne assailants. (Did we mention how grueling this stuff can be?)
In some ways, Nightshade is easier than Shinobi. For one thing, Hibana isn't constantly in danger of having her sword drain her life, unlike Shinobi's Hotsuma, who needed to constantly feed his sword with enemies' souls lest he run out of power. For another thing, in the previous game, if you died during a mission before reaching the end-level boss, you needed to start that mission over from the beginning. In Nightshade, most (but not all) missions contain multiple checkpoints, so you can restart from these checkpoints should you fail. Also unlike in Shinobi, the standard foes in Nightshade really aren't much of a threat. They mostly just stand or hover there, rarely taking a potshot at you. Make no mistake: The bottomless pits and the bosses are what make this game as difficult as it is.
Nightshade is longer than Shinobi and features a surprising number of extras, including the revealing of hidden items, for those stalwart enough to not just finish the game but to score well in each of the game's stages. Unlockable characters, unlockable outfits, bonus missions, and concept artwork are all waiting to be discovered, and the game has multiple levels of difficulty too. We've mostly just been referring to the "normal" mode here, but easier and tougher modes are also available. As a result of all this, Nightshade actually offers a lot more lasting value than the average single-player action game these days. Since the gameplay genuinely rewards skill and repetition, and since there's little chance you could finish this game short of a few dedicated days' worth of effort, Nightshade offers up a great amount of lasting value.
The game looks similar to its predecessor. Some of the environments, such as an ancient temple that's overflowing with evil and the ruined husk of a bridge that's hanging thousands of feet above the water, look pretty good. A couple of other stages take place on moving platforms, which Hibana must constantly leap across or else fall to her death. These are pretty exciting, while other stages, like a subway and the Nakatomi factory, look pretty bland and all consist of right angles and big, wide-open rooms. Most of Hibana's foes don't look terribly detailed either, but the simplicity of the visuals affords the game with its very fast, smooth frame rate. All the while, Hibana, in her red and white ninja armor, is a very cool-looking character, whose extremely dexterous moves and flowing pink scarves lend her a distinct appearance that's only comparable to that of Hotsuma from Shinobi. The character designs for some of her foes are memorable as well, including a jealous former ninja colleague of hers who attacks with explosive fireworks.
Nightshade unfortunately doesn't offer the option of Japanese dialogue like its predecessor did, though the English voice acting is understated enough and therefore works out fine. The sound effects are good all around, if not especially noteworthy, but the game's soundtrack is terrific. It's upbeat and intense, featuring some traditional Japanese instrumentation for that authentic touch, as well as lots of synthesizers that make the music sound like it almost could have been ripped from some 15-year-old arcade game. Whatever the case, it works extremely well with the game, and you might find yourself wondering whether it's the soundtrack or the gameplay that's sent your pulse racing as you play through the levels.
Nightshade offers a helpful tutorial and a beginner mode. While these might help you learn the ropes, especially if you haven't played Shinobi, you still shouldn't mess around with this game if you don't like the thought of a relentless and sometimes punishing test of your reflexes and hand-eye coordination. The game's difficulty is clearly a design choice and not a fault, though the gameplay itself does have a few quirks. For instance, Hibana will sometimes target an undesirable foe (though usually she'll naturally lock onto the next foe you'd want to attack from your position), and at times, the tate sequences will occur as you're hovering above a bottomless pit, which can throw off your timing and get you killed. These are relatively trivial concerns, though, and getting around them is just part of the challenge. In the end, Nightshade is a better game than its predecessor, and it's a uniquely difficult and potentially very rewarding action game in its own right.