American Ninja, Ninja Terminator, The Ultimate Ninja, Full Metal Ninja, Ninja Strike Force, Teenage Mutant Ninja… Turtles? That’s right it’s the 1980s and the world has ninja fever and I’m afraid the symptoms are bad, there is no known cure. Everything from lunch boxes to motorbikes has the word ninja slapped on it as droves of people become obsessed with those cunning assassins who are masters of disguise. The word ‘ninja’ is big business so it only made sense that when Sega decided to make a video game to cash in on ninja fever they would use a word that every teenager would recognise: Shinobi.
Not the word you were expecting, I know. But translate that word back into its original language of Japanese and you end up in the same place; a covert agent trained to carry out assassinations and espionage. Okay, so I may have been a bit liberal in my description but the diehard fans amongst us will likely have the same image cast in their minds whether you said ninja or shinobi alike. A masked agent dressed in camouflage with only their eyes displaying any of their true intent. In short: a person of mystery.
Much like the ninja movies flooding the industry at the time, Shinobi brought an air of mystery and intrigue, not to mention more martial arts move than you can shake a shuriken at when it debuted in arcades in 1987. But how did Shinobi get from feared legendary assassins from the age of the samurai to an adventurer in the arcade cabinets of the mid-eighties, well, we’re about to find out.
Back in the eighties, Sega was not well-known for producing games for home systems. In the period we’re talking about, 1987, all they had on their resumé was the Sega Master System that had launched in Japan in 1985. Their first entry into the home console market, the SG-1000, had a lot of fans in the Asian market but had yet to catch on in the West. The home console was in its infancy, and whilst the Famicom from future rival Nintendo was a staple in most Japanese homes, it had yet to successfully launch in the USA and Europe. After the great video game crash of 1983, companies were hesitant to invest in home consoles, for Sega this wasn’t a problem. Their domain wasn’t the home market, well, not yet, Sega made arcade games. Sega were arcade games.
But why am I telling you about home consoles when we’re here to talk about Shinobi? It’s a good question, as good as any, but the home console will play a very important part in Shinobi’s future, but for now, let’s go back to his roots.
Director Yutaka Sugano joined Sega in 1986 and with his appointment, he was given the task of producing a game that would jump in on the ninja fever that was sweeping the world. Ignore the fancy title I’ve bestowed upon Sugano, ‘director’ wouldn’t mean what it does today. Sugano didn’t have a huge team under his command, nor did he have the resources many games companies would have at their fingertips today. He was a designer of video games and with his first real video game test put to him, Sugano wanted to make an impact. So he thought of a name that would appeal to the masses, and be recognisable. Ninja just didn’t sound right, but there was one other word which meant the same thing that sounded much more marketable: Shinobi. With the name chosen, Sugano got to work stitching together the core of the game. First, they needed a protagonist, one that would appeal to audiences on both sides of the Pacific. Realising that like the films mentioned before such as American Ninja, audiences at that time in the West were more accepting of a name or a character that was westernised, so Sugano and his team chose the first name of Joe for their hero. Joe was a name as western as you could get, but not wanting to leave out the Japanese heritage of his creators he was given the surname of Musashi.
Unmasked and let loose, Joe would battle his way through five levels, with each level divided into areas populated by gun-toting thugs and now-you-see-me rival ninjas. The main aim is to reach the head honcho of Zeed, a criminal organization that’s stealing kids, with the four level bosses protecting their supreme leader – Masked Ninja. Despite the name of the main bad guy not being that original, the mastermind behind the organisation was, it was Nakahara! None other than Joe’s mentor himself. With this revelation, Shinobi had conquered the forces of evil trying to bring about a new age of feudalism in Japan just so all the ninjas could have jobs again. Sounds crazy, right? But that’s the central motivation behind Zeed’s plans. Japan must have a lot of unemployed ninjas.
Though the storyline could be considered shaky, its gameplay was not. Joe carried a wide variety of moves all controlled by three buttons. One would allow Joe to traverse up and down levels using a skilled jump, one would attack, close and long range, and the other was reserved for ninja magic. Despite only using three buttons, the game was designed in such a way that your attacks changed depending on your position. Far enough away from an enemy? No problem. Joe would throw a shuriken, or use his gun if he’d upgraded enough. Anything closer range and Joe would use a series of katana slashes or ninjitsu to take down his opponents. Nothing in his arsenal would compare to the full force of Joe’s ninja magic. Once a level Joe would be able to unleash the full fury of his ninja mastery. Thunderstorm, tornado and doppelganger attacks, all were designed to clear the screens of enemies but could be used only once per level. Players would need to make sure they reserved these for when they were in dire straights. Joe’s ninja magic would come back to haunt him though when he faced off against his former mentor who would unleash the same fury on Joe as his former pupil had unleashed on his enemies.
The game was difficult. Really difficult. Joe could survive bumping into enemies, but get hit by a sword or a fist and it was game over for our plucky ninja. Between each level there was a mini-game, a shuriken-throwing ring toss from the first-person perspective, with ninjas standing in as our targets. It was a way to rack up more points and get yourself on the leaderboard. After all, this was an arcade game, and the honour of putting your initials on the scoreboard for all to see was all part of the fun.
Shinobi was a hit for Sega all over the world and brought ninjas into the imagination of gamers. It was such a success that when Sega launched their new console, the Sega Master System, there was only one obvious choice for one of the system’s games and in 1988 Shinobi debuted on Sega’s home system. This was followed by ports to several other platforms to the home computers of the age, as well as a port to Sega rival Nintendo’s Entertainment System as an exclusive title for the United States.
The ninja, a figure synonymous with the shadows, was now firmly in the limelight and would become one of the mascots of Sega.
Joe wasn’t finished though. Sega would come calling again for his services when they launched their new console – the Sega Mega Drive. The Revenge of Shinobi smashed onto the console with full ninja fury and is considered to be the best game in the Shinobi series. The game, called Super Shinobi in the Japanese arcade market, would feature a strange boss that would start as Marvel’s Spider-Man and then morph into Batman. However, as Sega did not have the rights to use DC Comics’ character, he was changed in later versions to become a winged demon.
Shinobi wasn’t finished in the arcades. There was still the little matter of a sequel. Revenge of Shinobi had been a console-exclusive for the Mega Drive, but there was no true successor in the arcades. That is until Shadow Dancer arrived in 1989. The addition here was this time the ninja brought his dog with him. Despite some confusion over who the protagonist was in the game, it was well-received and would go on to be ported to the Sega Master System and Mega Drive as Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi. Although a lot of the features from the arcade version would be cut for its console cousin, with the canine companion being a power-up attack rather than a constant onscreen sidekick.
Despite Shinobi’s time in the arcades coming to an end, there would still be time for other outings. Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master made its way to the Sega Mega Drive in 1993. Whilst not quite the critical success of its predecessors, it was still well-received.
Shinobi was reborn for a new generation when he made his 3D debut on the PlayStation 2 with the release of Shinobi and its sequel Nightshade, but it would not be Joe Musashi leading the fight, those responsibilities had passed to a new generation of ninja, with Joe being relegated to an unlockable status.
The Shinobi wasn’t quite finished after its release on the PlayStation. In 2011 Shinobi 3D landed silently on the new Nintendo 3DS. This time the role of the protagonist was taken up by Jiro Mushashi, leader of the Oboro ninja clan. Jiro would find himself flung 800 years into the future for a final showdown with Zeed, and the alien masterminds behind their insidious plots. The game was a failure, with one of the worst features about it being Joe Mushashi was wiped from existence due to the timeline alterations caused by his father. When the game finished with Jiro walking away into the sunset, so did the series, and Shinobi went back to the shadows.
Despite Shinobi’s less-than-glorious swansong, the first three games in the series defined what a stealth platformer could be, and for any fans of games such as Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell, we must always remember that Shinobi’s Joe Mushashi was doing it first and he was doing it best.