Monday Nov 07, 2011
Shinobi, Swinging Swords Like—
In which Joe Musashi saves hostages and teaches a generation the art of jumping with great precision.
So — let’s talk about SEGA’s history. Let’s talk about arcade games.
SEGA was, first and foremost, a company bred in the arcades, with a history that dates back a mind-boggling seventy years, to 1940 (when they made coin-operated games for servicemen overseas). These were mostly “coin operated amusements,” arcades pre-electronics — all of that is just the past, of course, and the past is prelude: the SEGA that I grew up with made its name in the 1980s with games coaxed masterfully from games like Hang-On and After Burner.
Talk to anyone who played games in the 1980s – games were hard then. I know everyone says this — us increasingly old gamers, with kids all over our lawns, who remember putting quarters into machines in dark rooms that smelled like cola and sweat — but it’s important to understand. This was for a reason: these early games were bred in the arcade, where games had to balance being fun and being challenging. If they were too easy the games didn’t collect enough quarters; if they weren’t fun, people didn’t play.
Enter Shinobi: In 1987 SEGA released this side-scrolling platformer. It stood out for two reasons:
1. It had ninjas.
Built for SEGA’s “System 16” arcade board, the original game had bright graphics, smooth animation, and a killer soundtrack. Controlling a ninja in a video game is about, you know, feeling like a ninja — which means whatever the difficulty, having controls precise enough to make you feel like you are making skill-based decisions as you fight off waves of terrorists, helicopters, and advancing walls made out of some sort of cybernetic spinning Shiva thing.
Some other fun facts from the original game:
I had the Master System version of the game, and it was hard – I recall beating it once, maybe twice, and there were no cheat codes (or if there were, I never learned them). I got pretty good at it – but when I ventured to try the arcade version, it absolutely defeated me. For one thing, the arcade version subscribes to the “we take your money” theory of gaming – one hit and you died. No life bars for you, young ninja!
I finally played further into the arcade version thanks to the Ultimate Genesis Collection – save points and unlimited virtual quarters helped a lot. It’s as demanding a platformer as has ever been made and the emotional payoff for fighting through a difficult series of enemies and jumps is pretty huge.
So why this discussion of arcades and platforming and difficulty? I’ve been playing the new Shinobi — oh yeah there’s a new Shinobi coming out did we tell you?— and it draws from all of these things. There’s a ton of throwback nods to old-school Shinobi goodness, including the break-your-controller difficulty of the bonus stages (tossing ninja stars at ninjas as they do ninja flips at your ninja, ninja-like), as well as the all-time classic, ‘bald-guys-with-pony-tails who throw some sort of boomerang thing at you.’ Just like in Feudal Japan.
More than anything – the new Shinobi is incredibly challenging. You can play it on its more “toned-down” settings, which is fun for sure — but you can also approach it at that ninja-level of difficulty which demands perfection. In my opinion, it speaks not just to my own sense of nostalgia, but to arcade history – that balance of fun & difficulty which is why a generation of us grew up as gamers in the first place.
Stay Ninja-tuned — there is more to come this week!
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