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Double Take: Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master

Shinobi III is the greatest Sega Genesis game of all time in my opinion. If you were to poll all Genesis gamers about the best Genesis game of all time, chances are one of the Sonic games would come up on top. In all actuality, Sonic SHOULD be number one, seeing as how it was Sega’s most important franchise, as well as its mascot. It would look very good to have a Sonic game sitting at #1. It is the safe answer, the popular choice, the easy way out. It would be pleasing, and it would make a lot of sense, but in my opinion Sonic is not the best thing on the Genesis. I’ve just never been much of a “hoppity boppity” type of guy. Now if you replaced the hedgehog with a ninja and replace the hopping and bopping with some hacking and slashing, now you’re speaking my language!

Double Take Shinobi III-1What makes Shinobi III the all-time greatest Genesis game is its razor sharp physics, collision detection, and controls. Much like the way the Mario games capture a special type of magic, Shinobi III just has a certain feel in your hands as you control the character on screen. It’s almost like the game is an extension of you on the TV screen. Once you master the controls of Shinobi III and you figure out how to do the double tap sword slash and the dash kick, once you get a feel for the physics and you figure out how to time those double jumps, once you get the wall jumping down, then there is a strange, inexplicable “oneness” that you feel when playing Shinobi III. It’s almost like sex without the fluid exchange. It’s a feeling with the controller in your hands when playing, almost like you don’t “play” the game at all, you make love to it.

The whole game just oozes a certain swagger, it drips ninja machismo, and it’s true Sega style down to the bone. Everything from the little overworld map cut scenes in between levels to the stylish images of Shinobi vanquishing the bosses in the “round clear” screens, right down to the fonts, menus, and that awesome little opening intro. The music of Shinobi III doesn’t get as much acclaim as Revenge of Shinobi, but to me it’s just as good. One of the best tracks in the game is the “Mandara” theme of the very first boss battle.

One of the smaller things I’ve always loved about Shinobi III is that the game rewards you for playing it a certain way. You get 50,000 bonus points for going through a level without using your throwing knives, for example. Doing little tricks through the levels will give you all kinds of bonus “special” points, little things like using the running double jump to clear the pits in the first level instead of using the rope. Mixing up your attacks and using your sword and your dash kick also yields more points. The arsenal of moves and attacks that you have in this game is what makes it feel so good to play. Your character is damn near invincible; he can jump all the way across the screen, run full speed, block with his sword, and has a full arsenal of different offensive moves, including MAGIC!

Double Take Shinobi III-2Shinobi III is an action platformer with controls that feel like Street Fighter, with physics as tight and smooth as any Mario game. What sets it all off is the design of the levels and the placement of the enemies. They’re placed strategically in the levels so you can run through and take them out with a combo of moves, and it just feels so damn good, so satisfying. The designs of the levels and the placement of the enemies really enhances the game and adds a lot to the action. Another great aspect of the level design is the sheer variety. There are levels that scroll horizontally and diagonally, platforming levels, even a level that starts off with you riding a horse.

The horse level in Shinobi III has to be some of the most beautiful uses of parallax scrolling ever used on the Genesis, using a full six layers on the top and bottom halves of the screen, showing the lake, the mountains in the background, and the clouds overhead all moving at different speeds to create a really nice looking level with some great depth. Another great graphic effect is used during the boss battle later in the second half of the level, when the screen becomes disoriented and the controls are reversed – right becomes left and left becomes right for a few seconds while the boss plays its mind games on you. It’s a very nice looking visual effect and the switching of the controls was some Hideo Kojima-level genius.

Shinobi III is not a perfect game by any means; the game does have its flaws, the most glaring of which is the total absence of any type of story. There’s no dialogue, no Ninja Gaiden-style cut scenes, nothing other than a vague bit of text at the beginning of the game that doesn’t tell much. The story of Shinobi III is pretty much told through the actual game. The first level starts off with your traditional ninja types of enemies, some of them even resembling some of the enemies from the past Shinobi games. Once you progress into the second level, the enemies get a little more advanced and you start seeing more of the military types of enemies like the ones from the fence level of Revenge of Shinobi. When you reach the boss of the second level, it becomes clear that this is a whole new enemy that Joe Musashi is up against, a much more advanced, futuristic, technological, science fiction type of enemy.

The surfing level is one of the best in the game as it features probably the best track in “Whirlwind,” and the parallax scrolling is truly amazing. The surfing level uses a full 13 levels of parallax to simulate the speed of the action on the water, with like nine or 10 layers on the bottom half of the screen alone, another four on the top for the scenery. It all moves so fast that I probably almost had a seizure trying to count the layers. This levels is always a good time just for the music and the feel of doing the dash kick with the surf board! The parallax scrolling effect used on the dark clouds in the industrial level is another example of why I think this game used the effect better than any other game from the 16-bit era. The boss battle at the end of the surfing level is probably one of the best in the game as you take on the robotic gunship in just a real exciting battle. All of the boss battles just have a tension to them that works very well, especially the gunship boss at the end of the surfing level.

The beautiful flaming background and the frantic pace of action in the “destruction” level makes it one of the best in the game. The way the enemies are placed makes this level a lot of fun every time, like running through and slashing one foe before quickly jumping up and landing a dash kick on the one behind him, followed immediately by a sword slash to another enemy all within one rapid fire sequence of moves. It has a certain feel to it that is truly remarkable, almost an adrenaline rush type of feeling. The whole game takes a turn from the ’80s action movie style of past Shinobi games and goes into the direction of ’90s science fiction going into the third level. The third level is some serious X-Files stuff, a creepy, dark, bio-genetic themed level ending with a huge, freaky boss that takes up half the screen.

Shinobi III starts to lag a bit after the surfing and destruction levels once they start recycling music. The weird bomb maze level is my least favorite in the game. It just lacks the flow of all of the other levels. The boss battle at the end more than makes up for it though. It’s probably the one in the game, as you take on Mecha Godzilla. Shinobi vs the Mecha Godzilla is a fun duel, especially if you are out of throwing knives. This is one of those boss battles that will make your palms sweat. It’s just really tense action, with a great David vs Goliath feel to it.

Double Take Shinobi III-3The skydiving level where you descend through the canyon is a mixed bag for me. The parallax scrolling used on the sides of the screen is very nice to simulate the falling effect, but overall this level feels cheap and almost feels like it doesn’t belong. The birdman boss battle at the end feels especially uninspired and out of place; it’s easily the weakest boss battle in the game. Thankfully, the finale picks up again very nicely and has some of the best parts of the game. The labyrinth maze level has a very Castlevania feel to it, and it all works in the story as Shinobi takes out the old Ninja “Zeed” guard from the last game before moving on to the sky fortress. The final level of is a masterpiece that challenges all of the skills required to make it through the game and the obstacle course here is what separates the men from the boys. Finally, the last boss is the toughest challenge in the game. Musashi must fight the only thing in the game that’s as fast and as invincible as he is: a cyborg mirror image of Shinobi that uses a lot of his same moves. The final fight is a perfect ending to an almost perfect game.

Shinobi III is just fine tuned action, a game that really puts your hands in tune with your eyes, your reflexes all come together and the controller can feel like a stick of dynamite about to go off at any second as you slice and dice your way through the levels. It is not only the greatest Genesis game of all time, in my opinion, but it is my personal favorite video game ever made. I fell in love with it when I was little, and it has eventually become a part of me through the years. The overall theme of the game, the beautiful graphics, the universal way they told the story through the action without any text, the variety in the levels, the music, and the overall feel and style of the gameplay is all brilliant; and it has all aged beautifully. Shinobi III is a true masterpiece.

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1 Comment

  1. sdelfin says:

    Great write up for a great game. I missed this game when it first came out, but got it used from a friend when he was clering out his 16-bit stuff in 96. As I’d just gotten a Nomad, I was looking for extra Genesis games to play. I played it a ton on my Nomad and have fond memories of doing so. I did little gaming for a while and Shinobi 3 was one of the two games that sucked me back in.

    Whirlwind is a great track. Solitary is another favorite of mine and Idaten stood out as well.

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