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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.