What’s the difference between a Martial Artist and a Ninja?
At least, that’s what Shadow Gangs would have you believe.
Many thanks to JKM Corp for the review copy.
DAN IN SHINOBI WORLD
Of course, I’m being slightly facetious, but I find the idea of a machine wielding Ninja hilarious. You play as Dan, the Crimson Ninja (or black, or blue, if you prefer), who is out to save his family from the Shadow Gang – headed up by none other than Freddie (or Eddy) Mercury. There are five missions, each containing two lengthy levels followed by a boss fight against one of the gang’s members. It’s very formulaic, with a twist that you’ll see coming a mile off, but it’s still serviceable for the most part. Especially as you’re here for the Ninja action rather than the lore.
Much like how Alex Kidd in Shinobi World was a reimagining of Shinobi in the world of Alex Kidd, Shadow Gangs feels like a reimagining but for the modern era. Things aren’t exactly the same as Shinobi, but there’s all the same hallmarks: hostages to save, a double jump, multiple platforming planes, ninja powers, shuriken, etc. So much is familiar here that fans of the arcade classic will likely be able to jump into the game and feel right at home.
The protagonist, Dan, starts each level in his normal form, where he can do basic martial arts manoeuvres at close range, or throwing shuriken at a distance. He can only perform a single jump and he can’t use any special abilities until he finds the Ninja power-up that will give him access to stronger attacks (a sword and a machine gun), along with the second jump and the power to place mines and perform screen-nuking Kanji magic. The magic is extremely useful, especially in boss fights, although the mines have relatively little utility. Your Ninja form can be obtained pretty early on in most levels, so you’ll rarely feel underpowered – except for in the final mission, which forces you to play as the weaker Dan for a little longer before you can beef yourself up.
Aside from these, there’s also a drone turret you can obtain in some of the levels, which is incredibly useful. This handy little bot will automatically target and shoot any and all nearby foes with pinpoint accuracy. There’s also a bonus pickup you can obtain too that will transport you to a bonus stage where you need to kill enemy Ninjas fleeing a building. Presumably, you’ll unlock extra lives or continues upon beating the stage, but I failed it every time so I can’t say for sure! This isn’t the only bonus stage in the game, as between mission levels you will play another that is reminiscent of the one from the arcade Shinobi game. This one is far easier and more enjoyable than the building bonus game, but it’s still hard as balls. You need to shoot thief Ninjas who are trying to steal the bonuses before they escape (notably these are the same thieves that pop up during the game to steal your power-ups, which is a nice touch!). Despite my inability to succeed in this one too, I always had a good time trying.
THE SILENT DANNY
The stages themselves offer a lot of variety, from forests, to temples, to one on top of a train. Disappointingly, there’s not a huge amount of interaction with the environment as per the likes of the underrated Shinobi X, but they’re still pretty enough for it not to matter too much. Almost all of the levels offer multiple planes of action, allowing you to jump higher or into the background (just like in the Shinobi titles). It’s a fun gimmick, and often offers a tactical advantage since you can bait enemies into following you for an easy target. It can be easy to forget which plane you are on, resulting in some unfortunate deaths as you jump to your doom, but those can be put down to carelessness rather than bad level design. In fact, the levels themselves are mostly well designed with some great platforming – although there are some moments on small platforms where enemies will catch you off-guard, sending you plummeting to a cheap death. These moments though are few and far between, and you should be able to work out the best way to approach a level and take out the enemies with ease after a few attempts.
The enemies themselves are largely comprised of Ninjas, but there are also an assortment of other enemy types that gradually get added as the game progresses. Every one acts differently, and require you to act appropriately to deal with them. Masked Ninjas on sticks can attack you from a distance with their pole, but a flying kick can knock them off balance and give you the advantage. Red Ninjas will roll directly towards you, but can usually be avoided by jumping or ducking. Whilst the enemies are all unique, there are some that only pop up for one mission only to never appear again: for example, one weird enemy is a humanoid lizard man that throws crocodiles at you. He appears for one mission, and then he’s gone with no explanation or reason as to his existence. Enemies such as this seem out of place, especially when the majority generally fit the world well.
THE REVENGE OF DAN
One of the big standouts in the game are the boss fights. There are five in total (technically six) and each one feels very different from the last, but all pose a serious challenge until you know how to deal with them. I found the earlier bosses harder than the later ones, but that could be down to improving at the game. The second boss, a bald guy in a robot suit that he refers to as ‘daddy’, was an especially tough fight. That being said, they are all a blast to take down, and their over the top personalities add to the charm. Most of them also appear during the previous levels too, which make them feel even more ingrained into the world. A small touch, but one that is very much appreciated.
That’s not to say that only the bosses pose a challenge in Shadow Gangs. This game is hard. I would go as far as to say it is harder than the original Shinobi, which was an arcade game designed to eat your money. There are three difficulty modes, with the easiest offering you a few lives, two continues, and extra health… but even that will be a challenge for veterans of the Sega classics. I’ve beaten all of the (non-playstation) Shinobi games and Rising Ninja (easy mode) gave me a run for my money. When I beat the final boss, I was down to the final life of my last continue. This game is no joke.
That being said, the game is also more forgiving than most tough games. Each level contains one or more checkpoints throughout, and you will resume here upon using up a life or continue. Hostages saved will also be saved forever, which makes things easier since their guards stay dead too. Finally, a mission select function will allow you to jump straight into the last mission you got up to with all your lives and continues intact, meaning you don’t have to redo the entire game. All of these are welcome improvements that help mitigate frustration… for veterans of the series. Newcomers, or lesser skilled players, will likely find the later missions too tough to get though with only a couple of continues at their disposal. This serves to make the game unappealing outside of a particular niche. The developers have hinted that they may make easy mode more forgiving in a future path, but it remains to be seen if this ends up being implemented.
The high difficulty for newcomers is only exacerbated by the games fundamental problem: the price. Taking only four hours to beat (give or take a little depending on your skill level), the asking price is far too high for people to give the game a chance. Personally, I think €15 would have been an ideal price point that would encourage fans of the genre to grab it without a second thought, and allow for an appetising sale price for anyone who just has a passing interest in seeing what the game has to offer. Whilst the game has that replayable arcade charm to it that will see me revisit it in the future, I still don’t think it’s quite enough to warrant the price tag.
If you enjoy the arcade Shinobi titles, you will no doubt adore this game. Veterans will be faced with a significant challenge even on the easiest settings, with the harder modes being there to satisfy the most hardcore of Ninjas. Everyone else may find the game too difficult for their tastes, and that massive price tag certainly won’t encourage them to try. Whilst the game does have a few niggles, it has proven to be one of the highlights of my gaming year… but I’d still suggest that people wait for sale before picking it up.