Shinobi 3DS review: The Atomic Sauce Challenge

It's tough being a ninja. Every time you put your feet up and try to relax after crisscrossing the globe in battle, your master betrays you or your girlfriend gets kidnapped or your village gets torched by a rival clan. Before you know it, you're leaping from rooftops again, sword in hand, dicing up rivals and chucking shurikens at levitating magicians.

As it was for Joe in Sega's 1987 arcade hit Shinobi, so it is for Jiro, his father, whose arc of the multi-generational plight we follow in Griptonite Games' 3DS prequel. Both games are conveniently titled Shinobi, and both would like nothing more than to happily accept your money and then kill you. Repeatedly.
%Gallery-131247% Even given its extra dimensions and fancy touch-screen magic controls, this year's Shinobi adheres to the conventions and tropes of the era that produced its forebearer. It is not groundbreaking but iterative, fulfilling its role in the way that everybody in the 8 and 16-bit eras fantasized future games could.

It is also a death trap. Although the difficulty settings range from Beginner to Very Hard, it's far more useful to think of them ranging from Very Hard to Seriously!? As enemies wait patiently for your arrival at house right, you're compelled forward by the allure of things to stab. Equipped with a sword, throwing knives and, because this is a game featuring a ninja, element-based magic spells. Magic makes success marginally more likely, so using it counts against your end-of-level point tally.

Oh, yes, there are points. There are points everywhere. You earn them for every blow you deliver, every block you execute and from items found in ubiquitous wooden crates. You lose points for pretty much everything else.

As an enticement to be a more perfect ninja, every blow you deliver contributes to a point multiplier that deflates to zero if an enemy so much as breathes on you. It feels like your enemies know this. It feels like your points anger them. It feels like they're just as happy to ruin your multiplier as they are to kill you. They will do both with a regularity that would make Old Faithful blush.

To survive, you must block, leap and attack with aplomb, which will come in handy while you dodge projectiles under a spiked ceiling as the ground underfoot crumbles. To succeed, you've got to do it quickly. To be well-compensated (points!), you've got to do it at approximately the speed of light, which isn't easy for human fingers to achieve.

To be sure, perfectly-timed and well-executed parries and attacks are possible, but the learning curve is steep, and mastery requires an extraordinary amount of technical proficiency. For example, Shinobi's blocking mechanism is limited in scope and timing. In things like video games and real life, you can sustain a blocked position indefinitely. In Shinobi, a block is as fleeting as the thrust of Jiso's sword. You can't block successfully in anticipation of an attack. Instead, you must block as just as you're about to be struck, a razor's edge of timing so thin that it often results in wondering if, perhaps, there isn't something wrong with your buttons.

In a game that demands precision, the controls are beautifully crisp and responsive. Platforming sequences so intricate that they're better understood as puzzles aren't lost to the unpredictable whims of the controls. You have capable tools, if narrow margins of error, and it's simply up to you to execute.

Thus, the gameplay will delight and infuriate often simultaneously. Lesser ninjas will begin by dying a lot and end by dying a bit less than a lot. For greater ninjas, the relatively sparse campaign is supplemented by a variety of challenge rooms granted as rewards for your accomplishments and designed to further mutilate your foolish ninja corpse by being even less forgiving than the campaign.

Unfortunately, although Shinobi begins with an art style reminiscent of The Great Wave off Kanagawa,the design peaks there. Later, whole sections seem to be copied and pasted, separated only by the brief diversion of deadly elevator rides (as if there's any other kind). As the final act approaches, monochromatic color palettes obfuscate your next objective, and in a game that so rabidly punishes failure, obscuring clarity of purpose seems less of a challenge than a blunder.

At the beginning, when everything smells fresh and new, the insanity of the challenge is rousing, but as Shinobi grinds on relentlessly, what once felt challenging begins to feel masochistic.Its difficulty is the best and worst that Shinobi has to offer, but after you're acclimated, there isn't any particular thrill to be had. The backgrounds change, but there is a staggering lack of variety in the core gameplay and enemy types. The brief interstitial challenges that punctuate the gap between levels are at least different, but none are particularly compelling in themselves.

Rather than variety, Shinobi embraces the daunting challenge leitmotif seen in games like Super Meat Boy, but it does so absent any particular charm. Fans of the genre will be happy to defend it as a return to old school challenges and the days when it was tough to beat a game. The more casual among us won't find the core experience compelling enough to fight through the slog as it will often seem like Shinobi conflates twitching muscle memory with skill.

However, for the adamant, Shinobi is tantamount to the "atomic sauce" at your favorite local chicken wing joint -- a violent explosion of metaphysical heat meant not so much to be savored as to be endured, conquered and then used for bragging rights.

This review is based on retail code purchased by the reviewer for 3DS.

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