Shinobi – Where it all began

by Pat B on December 8, 2012

Hello Everyone!
Oh yeah, shits getting real now. Anyone that was a big fan of video games back in the late 80’s and early 90’s knows the name “Shinobi.” It’s a legendary name in the gaming community, so much so that speaking ill of it, or the games that followed it, is considered blasphemous. Shinobi was one of the first ninja themed video games released in the arcades and on the home consoles. It helped build the foundation that almost every other ninja themed video game is built on. It’s influence was so great that games that followed it became legendary as well, Ninja Gaiden anyone?

Shinobi – Arcade, Sega Master System, NES, PC-Engine, PC

Shinobi was released in the arcades back in 1987. It was developed and published by Sega, who later ported the wildly successful arcade game to its home console, the Master System. Shinobi’s success only grew from there as it was ported to numerous other systems like the NES, PC-Engine, and even the Atari ST. The game still lives on today with numerous re-releases and remasterings of the original.

Just a few of Shinobi’s re-releases

The legend

With Shinobi being so successful, it didn’t take long for sequels and knock-offs to pop up. In 1989, Sega released “The Revenge of Shinobi” as a launch title for the Sega Mega Drive. It was a huge success as it maintained the high level of quality in both graphics and game play that the original was known for. As for the knock-offs, one in particular stood out from the crowd and even connected its story to that of Shinobi, Ninja Gaiden. Ninja Gaiden became so popular on the NES that it rivaled the success of its predecessor and spawned an entire franchise that still sees releases to this day.

Game Play
Shinobi follows the story of a ninja named Joe Musashi. Joe belongs to a clan of ninjas whose children are being kidnapped by Zeed, an organized crime family. Zeed is led by the masked ninja named “Nakahara” who, at one time, was Joe’s mentor. Things take another turn when the game alludes to the fact that Nakahara is actually Joe’s father. Why Nakahara is kidnapping kids from his son’s clan is never explained but I think it’s safe to assume there’s a Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker thing going on here.
The game itself is a pretty cut and dry 2-D side scrolling ninja brawler. You control Joe through 5 levels with each level containing two sub levels. Each level ends in a boss fight against various kinds of ninja masters and, at one point, a helicopter. You start the game out with three lives. There’s health power ups that can be collected as you work your way through each level. There are no continues in this game so if you lose all your lives, it’s “Thank you! Please come again!” There’s also special abilities you can gain if you pass bonus levels. In the bonus levels, you throw ninja stars from a first person perspective at enemy ninjas that jump at you from the background.

The first person perspective ninja star throwing bonus level. That’s a lot of awesomeness in one sentence.

For this review, I played the NES version of Shinobi, which is a little different from the original arcade version. In the NES version, you have an unlimited amount of shurikens that you can throw at enemies accompanied by a basic kick attack. You also have a super jump ability and later on in the game, you can pick up a pistol as well. In the arcade version, there’s a variety of weapons that can be used like swords and grenades. Tengen, the developer of Shinobi for the NES, cut those weapons out of the game. With it’s limited attacks, the NES version is still pretty damn good but I can’t help but wonder what this game would’ve been like with all of the weapons intact.

Shinobi Game Play for the NES

The controls are about as good as you could expect for an NES brawler. They’re responsive enough though to keep the game play flowing and allow the player to become immersed in the action. The problem is mainly with your shuriken attack, the further away you are from an enemy, the slower you throw shurikens. However, the closer you are to something, the faster you can throw them. Why the game does this, I have no idea. It’s a minor annoyance and it has a very minimal impact on the game play.
With good controls that allow the player to take on the game at full speed, Shinobi ramps up the difficulty. It’s not on a Super Ghouls and Ghosts level of difficulty but it’s not a walk in the park either. The enemies you face during the levels aren’t too bad but it’s the end bosses that make you earn it. The game doesn’t show you their weaknesses and bosses don’t change colors or alter their attack patterns the more you damage them. The game sends you in cold and makes you figure out how to defeat each boss on your own. One last thing about the bosses, they have fairly basic attacks but I promise you, they’re gonna hit you with something, oh yes, they’re gonna hit you.

This is the endboss, Ken Oh. He stands in one spot and shoots slow moving fireballs at you. This guy is harder to beat than you think.

How good the graphics look in this game depends on which version you’re playing. The arcade version was praised for its graphics but for the meagerly powered home consoles back in the day, Shinobi was tough to pull off. Consoles like the PC Engine and Sega Master System did a nice job of trying to stay true to the games arcade roots while the NES struggled a bit. Don’t get me wrong, the NES version doesn’t look bad, it just looks as good as it could look for being a late 80’s NES title developed by an unlicensed third party developer. This game in the hands of a developer better than Tengen could have looked a lot better. Still, the bland graphics of the NES version are forgivable once the action starts.

I’ll give Tengen credit, putting large Marilyn Monroe murals in the background is one way of sprucing up the graphics in a game.

I’ll start with the music first. I want to not like this games music so badly but the sole generic Asian inspired tune that plays repeatedly throughout this entire game is catchy enough that I don’t mind listening to it. It’s like Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, you hear it the first time and you’re like “What the fuck did I just listen to?” but then after the 30th or 40th time you break down and find yourself saying “It’s got a good beat.”
As for the game play sounds, it’s basic NES stuff. There’s nothing fancy to hear except for when you use your super jump ability, which makes a sound that seems a little out of place in this game. If you get tired of listening to the music, feel free to mute this one and put on your own music while playing.
Collectibility – Uncommon
In the world of video game collecting, Shinobi isn’t the most valuable NES game out there. However, money isn’t the reason why you should be adding this game to your collection. You should own this game because of its history. What this game did for video games in general transcends monetary value. If that sort of thing is important to you as a game collector, then this is a mandatory purchase. And if you’re not into games that inspired the creation of an entire genre of games, fuck you, this is a mandatory purchase.
Average Value – $7 loose, $24 Complete in Box
Rarity – Uncommon with a 36% rating on
Happy Gaming and Happy Collecting!
Follow Pat’s Retro Video Game Reviews on Twitter @PatsGameReviews or you can hear me on the Play On! Podcast right here on Planet Arbitrary or on iTunes!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

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espiothechameleon April 13, 2015 at 3:31 pm

This is so true! I am only 13 and I know that Shinobi was freaking awesome! Also I’ve played against the NES Ken-Oh before reading this article , and he really is harder than you think. Sheesh! Awesome job sir!


Pat B. April 13, 2015 at 7:30 pm

Thanks for the feedback! It’s great knowing that younger gamers like yourself are playing classics like this one! Keep it up!


Jim May 20, 2015 at 7:07 pm

This was one of my favorite arcade games of the 80s. Circa 1988-89 the pizza parlor up the street from me had this and Double Dragon (speaking of downscaled NES arcade ports), and I dropped a ton of quarters into both machines. I was about 10-11 years old at the time. Never played NES Shinobi, but got very good at the arcade version – while I can’t remember for sure, it might have been the first arcade game I ever managed to finish. Shame to hear about the music being so limited on the NES, because the arcade’s soundtrack was awesome for its time.


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