Shinobi is hard. As in "you have only five tries to beat this 20-minute level packed with enemies and tricky platforming challenges" hard. Yet as challenging as this action platformer is, it remains approachable despite its formidable challenge. That's because Shinobi's throwback design is laced with modern scoring hooks and accessibility options that keep you coming back for more punishment. It's a hard but fair game, and it's stuffed with content.
The story stars Jiro Musashi, father of Joe Musashi, the hero of earlier Shinobi games. If you're not up on your Shinobi lore, there's a handy guide to the series in the extras menu, complete with goofy box art and cheeky commentary. The developers seem aware that the series' continuity is spotty at best, and they use it to have some fun with the plot. When a mysterious force attacks Jiro's ancient Japanese town, the agile white-clad ninja springs into action and then promptly gets sucked into a weird time vortex. Jiro gets spit out the other side more than a few hundred years later and, without missing a beat, continues down the path of justice. No, it doesn't make sense even a little bit, but it is a good excuse to get a cool-looking ninja into some cool-looking environments. Those environments are packed with a wide variety of enemies and environmental hazards. You jump over spike pits in a factory, fight off cyborg thugs on a moving train, slice up ninja robo-aliens in space, and more. It takes sharp reflexes and a mastery of Jiro's large moveset to get to, and beat, the game's final boss.
Navigating those enemy-laden levels is manageable thanks to the sharp, responsive controls. All the classic Shinobi moves are here, and then some. As Jiro, you can double jump, slide, slice dudes up with some quick sword combos, throw shurikens, grapple-hook onto platforms, and use some magical ninja powers. While all the moves have their specific uses, none is more useful than the parry. A quick tap of the R button brings up Jiro's sword for a parry. You can defend against nearly every attack, from shurikens to rockets to energy blasts, as long as you time your button press properly. That means getting intimately familiar with the attack patterns of Shinobi's many, many enemies. It's a system that rewards skill and punishes carelessness.
Practicing your way to a perfect parry is crucial if you want to take on the game's more challenging difficulty levels. On the lowest setting, beginner, you get unlimited lives, unlimited continues, more midlevel checkpoints, and weaker enemies. Dying in this mode sets you back a bit in the current level, but it never outright ends your progress. Beginner mode is accessible, but it's no walk in the park; you still get swarmed with enemies and forced through some precarious platforming sections. The higher difficulties introduce life limits, continue limits, tougher enemies, and even a more pronounced hit animation for Jiro. Run through all your lives in a level, and it's back to the beginning, which can be a huge bummer on some of the lengthier levels. So why even play the tougher difficulties? Achievements, new challenges, and some interesting unlockables await the skilled player.
A third of the bottom screen in Shinobi is filled with a giant score ticker. Everything you do yields points, and you see them popping out of enemies as they go down. As you parry and attack enemies without getting hit yourself, a score multiplier builds, imbuing your weapons with a fiery glow. There's something magical about maxing out that multiplier and seeing giant orange points fly out of your enemies. Points go both ways though, and you lose some when you get hit or die. You are also penalized for using too much ninja magic (it tends to make things easier) or taking too long to finish a level. Like many score-based games, Shinobi grades you on your performance, but here you actually see your grade below the score multiplier go up or down as you play. The scoring system is effective in encouraging improvement, and the carrot-and-stick enticement of unlocks is hard to resist.
Performing well nets you all kinds of unlockables. Shinobi has an extensive achievement list that includes things like defeating bosses quickly, finding hidden coins, and more. The achievements unlock concept art, music, cheats, challenge maps, and weapon and costume changes to be used in free play mode. The constant stream of unlocks ensures you get something for your efforts even if you fail to beat a level. Using your Street Pass coins you can purchase challenge maps to play, and then compare scores with friends. The challenge maps are brutal, featuring one-hit kills and devious enemy and platform placement. Not something you want to take on before learning to parry.
There's a wealth of content in Shinobi, but not all of it is stellar. A handful of levels include behind-the-back vehicle sections that have you riding on top of things into the screen. They're visually appealing, especially with the 3D effect on, but the "dodge the obstacle" gameplay isn't much fun. The surfing level in particular is a real stinker, since you're required to use the 3DS's tilt controls. The earlier outdoor levels feature some breathtaking design with some nice lighting and a few cool 2.5D camera transitions. Even with the 3D effect turned off you still get a sense of depth and rich atmosphere. Unfortunately, the later, mostly indoor levels don't fare as well. While they present a steep but fun challenge, they lack the visual variety and inspired design of the outdoor levels. Each level is bookended with some slick animations that have nice sketchy looks to them. Overall, the vibrant colors and constant scattering of points blend with the catchy techno-infused feudal Japanese music to give the game a classic arcadelike tone that does right by the series' roots.
Shinobi is a strong entry in the long-running franchise. The design walks the line between old-school punishing challenge and modern accessibility with only a few missteps along the way. The interesting unlockables should please lifelong Shinobi fans as well as achievement hunters. If you're up for a challenge, it's among the small number of quality games in the growing 3DS library worthy of a spot on your shelf.