If you were an early Mega Drive owner, Sega’s superb sequel to its arcade hit Shinobi was the game you used to convince your friends to upgrade. While it lacked the fast pace of its predecessor, its superb level design, inventive bosses and superb aesthetics more than made up for it. Here we speak to director, Noriyoshi Ohba about his groundbreaking game.
The Mega Drive was hardly blessed with the most dazzling selection of launch titles. In fact, Japanese gamers had a measly two to choose from. The machine launched in Japan in 1988 with the forgettable couplet of Space Harrier II and Super Thunder Blade. Both unremarkable sequels to Sega coin-ops, these were followed by a port of the okay Altered Beast (Juoki) later that year, which marked the console’s first legitimate arcade port. Though Sega was billing the Mega Drive as a machine capable of bringing the true arcade experience to the home, it’s fair to say that had things continued down this path, the future would have looked pretty bleak for the console. Thankfully, they didn’t.
You can’t hear it here, but trust us, Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack is incredible.
In December 1989, Sega released two Mega Drive games that turned the tide for its brand new machine: a solid 16-bit port of its successful Golden Axe coin-op and a great sequel to one of its popular arcade hits. That sequel was The Revenge Of Shinobi, and it very quickly became a must-own title. Looking better than anything that had appeared on a home console or computer up to that point, it was the first Mega Drive release that really opened people’s eyes to what the machine was truly capable of delivering, something its director and Shinobi creator, Noriyoshi Ohba, puts down to the game’s success.
“We were adamant that The Revenge Of Shinobi would make full use of hardware functions available at the time,” reveals Ohba. “If you look at its backgrounds, for example, in usual Mega Drive games there are only two layers of scrolling. However, in The Super Shinobi [Revenge Of Shinobi’s Japanese title] there are three to four in many stages, and this added a lot of depth that just wasn’t seen in Mega Drive games at the time.”
The levels, ranging from barracks to China Town, give The Revenge Of Shinobi a gritty, realistic look.
As well as clearly showing people what that technological jump to 16-bit looked and played like, The Revenge Of Shinobi represented a title that also showed a clear change in thinking happening with regard to how best to transfer popular arcade properties to home consoles. Typically, arcade games were designed in such a way as to offer simple and easy-to-grasp gameplay, quick frills and alluring graphics to suck people in and separate them from their cash as quickly as possible. They were therefore designed to be fun, challenging and reasonably short. Sega realised early on that these types of games not only made up a considerable chunk of its popular IPs at the time but also that these offerings might not sit well with gamers being asked to part with around 5,000 yen. This was most likely the reason why the machine launched in Japan with two sequels to popular coin-ops rather than straight conversions, but it was most certainly in the mind of Ohba when he started considering how best to approach creating a home console sequel to his 1987 ninja-based classic. It was his intention to produce a sequel that touched on the salient gameplay pillars of the original, but extended them to support a weightier story and elevate the franchise.
In the original coin-op, Oboro clan ninja Joe Musashi was tasked with rescuing the kidnapped children of several world leaders – or children of the fellow Oboro clansman if you’re playing the Japanese version – from a criminal organisation called Zeed. After their plans are foiled, in the sequel Zeed reforms under a new banner, Neo Zeed, then kills Joe’s master and kidnaps his fiancée, Naoko. Now wanting revenge, hence the title, it was a much more personal mission for Joe, one purposely thought up to evoke a more epic feel for the sequel. To achieve this, however, a few changes to the original gameplay would need to be made, which Ohba points out.
Magic remains a big deal and can cause huge amounts of damage to bosses.
“The biggest difference between those two titles was the introduction of health points,” he explains. “In the original Shinobi, you died when you are hit once, but in the sequel Joe has HP. We designed it this way because while Shinobi was designed to be played for about three minutes with one coin, The Revenge Of Shinobi was a console game and cost considerably more. It was also a much bigger game, so introducing a damage system was much more suitable.”
“Nobody took credit for dropping the hostages; it just happened as a result of the idea to use the story as the backbone of the game,” continues Ohba, referring to the first game’s hostage-rescue mechanic. “We thought doing so would add depth throughout the game. And so the story of The Revenge Of Shinobi was to rescue Joe’s fiancée, a much more important hostage!”
While all hostages bar one were removed, all other aspects of the original Shinobi made it across relatively unscathed. During certain stages Joe could hop between the foreground and background to get around and attack enemies, and his main method of attack remained his signature throwing stars – although now they were limited in number, which made the game far more challenging – only pulling out his sword for close-quarters attacks.
Joe also kept his useful ninpo magic, but this was tweaked to offer a far greater influence on the gameplay, with players given the choice of which particular ninja art they wished to summon. The new selection of spells came in four flavours: Karyu, the art of fire, which caused several flaming dragon columns to emerge from the ground and sweep across the screen; Mijin, the art of pulverising, a powerful magic that causes Joe to explode at the cost of a life but replenishes his ninpo stock; Fushin, the art of floating, which heightened Joe’s agility; and finally Ikazuchi, the art of thunder, which creates a shield of lightning that can absorb four enemy attacks. Each offered Joe a useful tool – and sometimes not always an obvious one – for certain stages and getting out of sticky situations. This is something that becomes especially pertinent when we broach the topic of the game’s harsh difficulty level, which Ohba told us was intentional, as he wanted to design the game in such a way as to make the player think about how they could beat it. He then went on to explain to us how the magic assisted Joe and made finishing the game easier for players.
Early versions of The Revenge Of Shinobi feature a number of
very familiar bosses…
“Stage 2-3’s boss, Shadow Dancer, can be beaten very easily using Karyu, as this technique inflicts damage eight times. Alternatively, the player can also use Mijin, which again causes eight damage hits. Stage 7-3’s boss, Ancient Dinosaur, can be beaten using three hits of Mijin, but if playing in a higher difficulty you need eight. No matter how hard it is to beat, the Ancient Dinosaur can be easily defeated if you have four lives left at that stage. It is difficult to complete stage 7-2, but it is made easier if you use Ikazuchi. Finally, stage 6-1, Chinatown, is where you need to perform some of the longest jumps in the game. This stage was therefore designed so that you do not die if you fall. It’s also made easier if you use Fushin.”
One of the most iconic aspects of The Revenge Of Shinobi, and what many fans remember most, is its memorable cast of enemy characters, many of which famously impersonated pop-culture icons of the time. Enemies in the game sent up movie stars (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone), comic book heroes (Batman and Spider-Man) and even a famous rubber suit (Godzilla), and as permission was never sought by Sega at the time, these contentious bosses would force the developer to release numerous revisions of The Revenge Of Shinobi over the years, each having the offending boss sprites gradually altered and changed. This bizarre practice actually went on as recently as 2009, when a completely sanitised version of the game finally appeared on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service. So why did many of the characters resemble familiar faces? Well, we can finally reveal the answer.
“I made some rough sketches of characters from my mind and from some photos due to my lack of drawing ability,” reveals Ohba. “They were meant to be used as a rough example. Unfortunately, the designer of the sprites reproduced my drawings a bit too faithfully and you know the end result. I personally think that if the designer had tried to show more of his own personality in those characters, they would have looked a lot different to the originals. Those bosses were created by taking each one’s weak point and how to kill them into consideration. We created each of them considering what you specifically need to do to kill them, what movement you need to use to avoid the boss’s attack, and then arranged them in order of difficulty.”