MetalFRO's Blog

Posted on Sep 11th 2021 at 08:00:00 AM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under Shinobi Legions, Shin Shinobi Den, Shinobi X, SEGA, Saturn, retro gaming, classic gaming, ninja


In the 80's and early 90's, ninjas were a big deal. They were everywhere in media, from cartoons like G.I. Joe to movies like the American Ninja series, those of the adolescent mutant amphibious variety, and of course, video games. For those who played on Nintendo consoles, we had a number of options, but the most obvious of those was the Ninja Gaiden series, at least through the 8-bit days. On the Sega side of the fence, there was Shinobi, which received a Master System reinterpretation of the arcade game. The series branched into 3 paths, 1 being the more straight-forward Shadow Dancer which followed the original arcade game (and had a different, but similar outing on the Genesis), and then the 2 Super Shinobi games for the Mega Drive, which we know in the West as The Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III, respectively. The 3rd path is the 2 GG Shinobi games on the Game Gear, but whether or not those are canon in the series I cannot say. The final 2D entry, prior to the series' soft reboot on PS2, is often ignored, or worse, frequently either forgotten or maligned. With the RF Generation Community Playthrough group focusing on the series' 16-bit entries this month, I thought it was timely to look at the final original 2D game from the venerable series.



Shinobi Legions released for the Sega Saturn in 1995 in North America. Originally known as Shin Shinobi Den for the Japanese release, and retitled as Shinobi X for the European release, this entry deviates from the previous mainline entries, which normally follow the exploits of primary series protagonist Joe Musashi. Instead, this entry sees you taking up the mantle of ninja Sho, one of 3 children of an unnamed ninja master. His brother Kazuma has become obsessed with power, and demands his father teach him the ultimate ninja technique. When his father refused, Kazuma vowed revenge. The game starts with you taking on Kazuma's minions, as you discover that your sister Aya has been taken captive by Kazuma, and you set out to find her, and stop Kazuma in his quest to become unstoppable.


One possible reason Shinobi Legions wasn't well received was the digitized sprites.

Let me get a few potential negatives out of the way first. I say potential because, as with anything relating to how a video game is received, these things may not affect one's outlook on the game, so your mileage may vary. First, the 2 previous games from the Super Shinobi series had beautiful pixel art, particular the latter of the 2 games, to where it rivaled the best on the Genesis. By contrast, the Saturn entry looks a bit drab in comparison, with that sort of Mortal Kombat-esque digitized sprite style, with pre-rendered backgrounds that just don't look as dynamic or interesting as what came before. In terms of sound, the original soundtrack has been criticized for being kind of boring, especially compared to Yuzo Koshiro's soundtrack for The Revenge of Shinobi. Some of this may be due to the fact that it's not Redbook audio, like many Saturn releases, but the music is generated using the console's sound hardware, instead. The European release of Shinobi X has a different soundtrack, by British composer Richard Jacques, which many prefer to the original release.

Another frequent complaint is the FMV cutscenes between stages. They're filmed well enough, but as with much of the FMV sequences from the era, it certainly doesn't hold up even to voice acting and scenes from just a few short years later. There's no "Jill sandwich" in this game, but it certainly wouldn't have won awards for its script or execution. Another other possible complaint one might level against the game is that control isn't quite as tight as the 16-bit games, so jumps might feel a bit floaty, or the game might feel like it has input delay, because your on-screen avatar moves more naturally, rather than the instantaneous sword slashes and shuriken throws we had become accustomed to. Again, some of these things might not affect your perception of the game, but they were certainly seen as negatives by some reviewers and players.


The FMV sequences in between stages are gloriously cheesy, which may or may not be your thing.

All that aside, let's look at some positive aspects. Like the 2 previous games, this entry in the series is fairly lengthy, so you get a lot of game to play, which can translate to a good value for your hard earned money. Sho's move set is different to that of Joe Musashi, and he has independent attack buttons for using your sword or your shuriken. As with previous games, shuriken are limited, so you'll end up using your sword more often, but with the additional techniques at your disposal, you may find there's a lot of fun to be had. You can jump in the air and hold down on both the d-pad and the sword button, and make a downward slash. If an enemy blocks that, you'll bounce off harmlessly, not unlike Scrooge McDuck, but if not, you can safely attack an enemy that has a more frontal assault. Double-tap forward and hit your sword button to create a forward lunging slash attack which is very powerful. You can also press another button on the controller to hold your sword up in front of you to block enemy attacks, so incoming shuriken or enemy swords can often be mitigated that way. There are multiple sword slash techniques to use, and the shuriken spread throw from the previous games returns as well. There are wall jumps, a jumping spin move that you can use to get a bit more height or distance from your jumps, and other techniques you can employ, so there's a lot you can do to control Sho in this title.

Despite the divisive graphical style, the animation in this game is generally above that criticism, because it's quite fluid and fun to watch. Sho's moves are nicely telegraphed, and most enemies (with a couple notable exceptions) have similarly silky movement. In addition, the scenes and setting for this game are all in Japan, and the bosses are a combination of fellow ninja, as well as some interesting Japanese mythological references, so for those with an appreciation for Japanese culture and mythology will find something here to enjoy. Some of the locations are pretty neat, and a few of the levels really make you use a fair number of the moves Sho is capable of performing, so you're actively engaging with a lot of what this game offers. Some of the level design has a level of verticality and intricacy that it's not just "walk right and slash dudes" like a lot of ninja action games could easily devolve into, so that's a nice touch. And while it may not be Oscar material, the story is at least interesting, and while it's still "rescue the girl" as the main plot device, it's your sister, and not some romantic interest, and your main enemy is your brother, so that adds a layer of tension to the story that other narratives don't have.


When I first saw the dinosaur, I nearly doubled over laughing at how stupid it looked.

Let me circle back to some of the criticisms I mentioned earlier, and try to counter a few. For me, while the Richard Jacques soundtrack is nice, I actually prefer the original. It's not fancy, and doesn't take much advantage of the Saturn hardware, but I do feel that it's fitting to the game's atmosphere, setting, and overall feel. Could a Redbook audio soundtrack have helped give the game a bit more weight? Absolutely! But what's here at least has good melodic structure, and I find myself humming these tunes for a little while after I've played the game, so they're at least somewhat memorable. As for the graphics, while I'm not a huge fan of the digitized actor style, there is a familiarity for that from the era, and in context of the popularity of the Mortal Kombat games (particularly since 2 of the 3 in that style ended up on the Saturn), it makes sense. I don't find the digitized graphics to be a stumbling block, other than the game could have benefitted from more color in spots, or a slightly less "muddy" look at times. Some of the areas are quite detailed and interesting to look at, even if they lack the flair of the pixel art from other games. Also, I think the cheesy FMV in the game is actually a good thing! They're good enough to not be dismissed outright, and are kind of in that sweet spot of being just poor enough to be "so bad they're good" in a way, but for the time, the limited budget the game probably had, and how few takes they probably did to get the footage in the can, it's probably the best we could have hoped for. In terms of moves the game offers, I miss the downward jump kick from Shinobi III, but overall, Sho's move set is strong enough to make up for that minor gripe. All in all, I feel that some of the things that players may find to be detrimental to the game aren't really so, and it's more a matter of perspective and personal preference.

At the end of the day, this game isn't remembered well, and Sega of America probably thought this was going to go over like a lead balloon here in North America, despite ninja still being somewhat relevant in popular culture, so Vic Tokai published the game here. Curiously, Sega of Europe published Shinobi X, so perhaps they felt like it would do better there, since Sega had longer been an influence in that area of the world, at least in the console space. Regardless, I believe this game unfairly gets short shrift in conversations about the Shinobi series in general, and is still a worthwhile, fun game to play. It certainly has a lot more going for it than the ill-fated Master System outing, The Cyber Shinobi. Whether you prefer the European version's soundtrack, or the original like myself, no matter how you slice it (pun intended), I think this is a fun game that doesn't really get its due because of the excellent games that preceded it, and how comparisons to those titles mean this one doesn't quite stack up. Rather than direct comparisons, I suggest judging the game on its own merits, and I believe you'll see a flawed, but fun game that deserves another look.


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Comments
 
I really enjoy this game. Thanks for shedding some light on it. It's no masterpiece but it was certainly a pleasant surprise when I started picking up and playing Saturn games. The B movie FMV cut scenes are amazing!! I laugh every time I play this game.
 
@Corkman: Yeah, part of the charm of this game is the laughably bad FMV and overall goofy story, but the core gameplay is solid. Like you said, not a masterpiece, but fun just the same. Thanks for reading!

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