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iPhone Game Review: Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master

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Sega has quite clearly found an emulator  that they like to bring their old Genesis games to the iPhone and consequently we’re getting rather regular releases of old Genesis titles.  One of the latest of these is Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, and while the game is still an enjoyable retro experience, it does serve to highlight a serious flaw or two in the way these games are being brought to the iOS.

A side-scrolling action title, Shinobi III finds our here, Joe Musashi, rather distraught (as distraught as anyone can be in 16-bit and without any major explanation of the story as it opens or progresses) to find out that his enemy, the Neo Zeed, and their leader, Shadow Master, have returned.  As you may expect, being an honorable ninja, Musashi—the Shinobi—goes off to save the world once more. 

Although that can be a daunting task, Musashi handles it all with just three simple buttons at the your disposal.  The first makes him jump; the second has him attack by firing shuriken from a distance and using a sword, punches, and kicks when up close; and the third is the ninja magic button.  These ninja magic attacks are incredibly powerful but you’re severely limited in how often you can use them (you’re given one per stage).  The game does build upon these controls, allowing for double jumps and giving out power-ups, but on the whole it’s a pretty straightforward setup.

As you progress through the title you’ll take on regular old ninjas and a whole bunch of weird, super-powered guys too–it’s definitely not your traditional, ninja-only, ninja game. Far more traditional is the level organization, where, more or less, you’ll grow through a level fighting basic characters until you reach the end when you take on a boss.

Shinobi III has the exact sort of touchiness  to the controls and requires the exact sort of perfect timing one would expect of a classic side-scroller.  There aren’t a ton of enemies that come at you, but there are enough, and you need to be ready within a split-second to fire a shuriken so as to not get hurt and rundown your life.  While running around on horseback, the game is nice enough to give you a warning when you’re about to have to vault a barrier, but the timing can still be exceedingly difficult to get down perfectly.

As stated, that really is to be expected from these sorts of side-scrollers, but the way the Genesis emulator works makes it all that much more difficult.  The emulator can be set to run the game in two different visual fashions, the first giving you a fullscreen picture and superimposing the buttons over the image and the second giving you the in-game visuals picture-in-picture with the buttons sitting outside them.  While I think everyone would choose to play with the fullscreen visuals, that is nearly impossible as enemies tend to appear on the right side of the screen in the exact spot your thumb needs to sit to operate the A, B, and C buttons.  In a game that requires precise timing, not seeing the bad guys for that extra half-second leads to Musashi taking a whole lot of unnecessary damage.  It’s both frustrating and exceptionally disappointing.  The game operates perfectly well picture-in-picture, but it feels severely limiting to not have the fullscreen view as an option that you can’t really use.

Shinobi III is still a good experience today, but it also feels very simplistic in terms of its setup.  The game requires as much skill and concentration as any game does today, but all of that is placed on a far more basic frame.  You have a couple of weapons, a little bit of ninja magic bonus powers, and the ability to jump – that’s it, but it still works.  It is a great game to pickup and play for a few minutes here and there on your iPhone, at least it is if you don’t mind having to play picture-in-picture.  The Genesis graphics and sound remain hugely unimpressive—the iPhone is clearly capable of handling far better—but it might be even more upsetting to have your thumbs cover up good graphics than it is to have your thumbs cover up bad ones.  I’m not entirely sure how Sega can go back and fix the organization of the emulator, but I would certainly like to see them try.

Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Animated Blood, Fantasy Violence. This game can also be found on: Mac, PC, and Wii.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.