You can't keep a good ninja down
Poor old Shinobi, he doesn't get much love these days. Like many other Sega franchises - Toejam & Earl, Streets of Rage, Alex Kidd etc. - Shinobi peaked in the late 80's and early 90's, before fading away, leaving only lackluster titles on more modern systems in its wake. The original Shinobi, released into arcades way back in 1987, is actually one of my all time favourite coin-ops, with some powerful nostalgia attached. Likewise, Revenge of Shinobi, Shadow Dancer and Shinobi III are some of my favourite Mega Drive games, and remain the pinnacle of 16-bit action platform games.
After the hat trick of excellent ninja action games for the Mega Drive, the torch was passed to the Saturn to represent Shinobi. For Shinobi X (or Shinobi Legions in the USA) Sega, thankfully, stuck to 2D, producing a very similar title to its predecessors, only this time with the added clout of 32-bits under the hood. Strangely, though, the decision was made to use digitized sprites, much like those seen in the popular Mortal Kombat titles. This probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but unfortunately, as we well know in hindsight, these always looked like shit, with a grainy, unappealing look and wooden animations. Unfortunately, Shinobi X is no different, with some truly ridiculous looking characters that seem out of place in the world they inhabit. The protagonist looks like a skinny guy in bandages, and the more unrealistic monsters, such as floating masks and lizard beasts, look even more unsuited to their environment. On the plus side, the backgrounds are, on the whole, colourful and reasonably interesting.
Far more entertaining, however, are the hilariously bad cutscenes. Each level is introduced by a cutscene using real 'actors', which tells the story of our hero Sho's attempts to rescue his sister, kidnapped by a brother who has been corrupted by the desire for magic powers. The acting in these cutscenes is atrocious, the fighting slow and poorly choreographed and the costumes look cheap and mildly ridiculous. Despite this (or more accurately, because of this) they are thoroughly entertaining, offering the same entertainment value as badly dubbed kung-fu movies from the 1980's, so are therefore brilliant.
The game not only differs in name across the regions. For the European release, Sega brought in one of their prolific composers, Richard Jacques - who, more recently, was responsible for the excellent Sonic & Allstars Racing Transformed soundtrack - to write completely new music for the game, delaying the European release until 1996. Apparently, Richard wanted to go for a similar style to Yuzo Koshiro's work in Revenge of Shinobi and, while it doesn't reach the dizzy heights of that title's audio goodness, it's well produced, perfectly suited to the Japanese setting in the game, and is a million miles better than the bland and lightweight tunes in the USA and Japanese versions.
Shinobi X sticks to the tried-and-tested formula of its predecessors - navigate the 2D stages, hurling shurikens or slicing up the enemies that get in your way, before facing off against an end of level boss. Certain items in the stages, such as torches or boulders, can be destroyed to reveal either; blue orbs that work as weapon powerups, extra health, or bombs that must be quickly avoided before they explode. As well as his sword and ninja death stars (as I always referred to them as a kid), Sho can also unleash a one-off smart bomb style move that destroys, or at least causes significant damage, to everything on screen. While the stages initially start off as your standard scroll left to right affairs, they quickly evolve into more sprawling environments that have you vertically traversing tree tops and cliffs, or exploring a maze like enemy stronghold. The levels are varied enough to maintain your interest, but still stick to the same old platformer staples we have seen a million times before, such as the obligatory elevator and mine cart stages.
The main problems with Shinobi X are that it never truly grips you due to the awful digitized sprites, and the movement feels very stiff. Sho lacks the agility and smooth animations of previous Shinobi incarnations, and often feels cumbersome to control. His sword slice often misses the target and takes too long to perform, while his jumping is imprecise, especially when trying to pull off his double jump manoeuvre. Level design is also rather bland, with no particular sections that stand out. Both the mine cart and mountain top stages are especially infuriating, with many frustrating bottomless pits and annoyances standing in your way.
Shinobi X is a game I dearly want to love. Indeed, it is one I always seem to come back to at some point, for some classic ninja run 'n gun (shuriken) action. Yet every time I do, I end up liking the game a little less. With a lot more polish and much better (non-digitized) sprites, the game could have been a worthy successor to the awesome Mega Drives titles, but thanks to it's sloppy controls, boring levels, and general lack of excitement, it feels like a poor imitation of the real Shinobi games. It's certainly worth a playthrough if you can find a cheap copy, purely for curiosity's sake, and for the so-bad-they're-good cutscenes. But don't expect anything matching the same quality as The Revenge of Shinobi or Shinobi III. In fact, fuck it. Just play those instead!
Title : Shinobi X (Shinobi Legions in USA)
Developer : Sega
Year : 1995
System : Sega Saturn
Also on : none