Ninja Gaiden Shadow
by Polly

Remember when the GameBoy first came out and developers went into a game-making frenzy to get their biggest and brightest flagship titles onto the damn thing? Remmeber how those games were typically always original or different takes on an already established franchise, providing a unique experience that could only be found on the GameBoy? Contra, Bionic Commando, hell, even Mario got in on the act and managed to be different enough to not feel like a rehash. Oh, I'm sorry, those of you who were only around for the launches of the GameBoy Advance, DS, and the upcoming 3DS probably don't have any idea what I'm talking about since every new Nintendo handheld that's launched since the original pea soup brick has always done so with watered down ports. But back in ol' Polly's day, a GameBoy iteration of your favorite NES title was almost always something worth checking out. Case in point, today's review for Ninja Gaiden Shadow.

This game actually has a pretty interesting story behind it. On the NES, Natsume had released a game called Shadow of the Ninja, which was a game that was fairly similar to Ninja Gaiden, but was pretty damn crappy to be honest. It did have two player action, but honestly just wasn't that great of a game. Ninja Gaiden Shadow actually began its life as the GameBoy version of Shadow of the Ninja, but somehow along the way, Tecmo scooped up the rights to the title as well as the code, and this game was re-branded into the Ninja Gaiden series and marketed as a prequel to the first game. It also explains some of the gameplay style differences that'll be addressed a bit later in this review. Either way, even though it began its life as a game in another series, Ninja Gaiden Shadow is yet another fairly unique experience that could only be played by those owning a Pea Soup Portable. Or those of us who found theirs in a school desk after third period and nobody claimed it. Best freebie ever, man.

As mentioned, Ninja Gaiden Shadow is a prequel to the first Ninja Gaiden game. You take on the role of Ryu Hayabusa and must save New York City from the evil desires of one Emperor Garuda, who is apparently a servant of Jaquio. There's nothing much deeper going on story-wise than that. All the main bosses are named in the manual, which is pretty keen, but a likely indicator that this game was hurriedly turned into a Ninja Gaiden game late into production is the lack of any anime-style cutscenes between stages. There's a brief opening cinematic and a little bit at the end, but no real story progression to speak of. As I've said in the past, the stories in these games were never spectacular, but it was always nice that the effort was there. Even though Ninja Gaiden's story was pretty shallow, it was real progress for gaming as a whole. The fact that the cutscenes are missing in this installment kinda feels a little lame, but that really has no bearing on the game as a whole.

And the game itself is actually pretty damn good. Given that Shadow of the Ninja was just a crummy Ninja Gaiden rip-off, it should surprise no one that this plays fairly similar to the original NES games. You run, jump, and slash your way through hordes of enemies as you normally would and fight big mean bosses at the end of every stage. Though there are only five stages in the game, all of them pack that typical Ninja Gaiden tough but fair challenge, so you'll be hacking away at it for a while. Enemy placement and obstacles are just as intricately and deviously placed as ever, and will require your finest set of reflexes to finally overcome. There's still that rewarding feeling one gets from finally figuring out how get themselves out of a really bad situation unscathed, and some of the later portions of the game may have you punching at copious amounts of air or harming some of your favorite pillows in getting to that level of play. This of course means that once you've learned all of Shadow's nasty tricks, it's quite easy to rush through the game and never lose a life, but as always, the journey towards getting that good at the game is what makes it so much fun.

They could have easily just stopped there and created a fine and memorable game, however, whether the features were ganked from the original Shadow of the Ninja plan or not, Ryu has a few new tricks to help keep the action spiced up. For one, he's got a nifty new grappling hook which he can use to hoist himself up onto certain surfaces. This technique becomes pretty standard early into the game and is vital for avoiding a great number of enemies' attacks or getting out of the way of incoming environmental hazards. Ryu can also hang from certain ceilings and bars in the background to maintain an aerial advantage in combat, as well as pulling himself all the way up to the top of or hanging from certain platforms and bridges. You'll be using these techniques a good bit of the time and stages are expertly crafted around them, making them feel integral to the experience and not just thrown in for the sake of having something new to show off. All in all, Ryu ends up feeling a bit more flexible in this version of the game, and these features wouldn't see the light of day on the NES versions of the game until its third and final installment.

In shinking down everyones' favorite bloo ninja dood, however, some cuts had to be made. Unfortunately, these cuts came at the expense of Ryu's famous ninja skills. You know the stuff I'm talking about. The Fire Wheel, the ninja clone shadow buddy, the spin cut? All those have been nixed for this version of the game, and Ryu now only has access to the fireball attack that he throws forward at a bit of an upward angle. It's still great at taking care of most everything in front of you and there's still a lot of know-how involved in knowing when to use them, but the lack of variety and placement of certain power-ups in stages shaves off a bit of the strategic element that went into the other games of the series. Far from a deal breaker, but the old powers' inclusion could have really stepped this game up to an even higher level than it's already hanging at. Get it? Cause Ryu can hang? Yeah! Top-quality writing here, folks!

Moving on, I guess it shouldn't surprise anybody by now that coming from Tecmo, we've got another great-looking and sounding game. Of course, I do have to wonder just how much of this was Natsume's work and how much was Tecmo's, but since it says Tecmo on the box, I'm just gonna be my usual ignorant self and attribute all the game's great GameBoy visuals and sound to them.

Given that there were only four shades of Peas to work with, an outstanding job has been done on the visuals, not only from a "this stuff just looks really good and is exceptionally animated and detailed" point of view, but also a "wow, I didn't know the GameBoy could do that" kinda way. The sprite work and backgrounds are the kinda good stuff you expect from a Ninja Gaiden game with lots of animation, shadowing, and detail. What impressed me most with this package was that there's quite a few effects I don't recall being in many other GameBoy games such as layered scrolling on clouds and various other backgrounds, and water-like distorting effects that give some areas that "heat wave" kinda look. Yeah, I'm not an artist, can you tell? These effects in no way affect the game's performance, so you'll never see slow-down or sprite flickering like one may expect.

The audio department isn't any slouch either, with the soundtrack being comprised of some original pieces and some surprisingly good-sounding down-sized versions of some of the more popular NES tunes. I doubt the OST is something anyone would wanna have on repeat for any extended period of time, but to my delicate ears, GameBoy music that was listenable was pretty hard to make and they did a fine job here. The only real thing that bothers me about the audio package is that "fire" sound effects that loop endlessly until said fire is off screen. This sound effect is god damn grating and completely distracting and sometimes there are long areas where you'll be around fire, so maybe it's best to slide that volume on down to mute until you've finished these areas.

Like other great NES games that took a down-sizing to the literally greener pastures of the original GameBoy back in the day, Ninja Gaiden Shadow is a fantastic side entry to an already great series. And also, just like those games, this game takes what made the originals work so well, shrinks it down, and still manages to add new features and gameplay mechanics that keep it from feeling like a pointless cash-in or a crapped-down port. It stands on its own as a solid game, providing a solid challenge to anyone looking for that quick adrenaline boost a good action game can provide and is most definitely worth your time if you find yourself craving more old-school Ninja Gaiden but didn't know about this game.

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