it’s really something to transpose the action platformer from 2d to 3d. there’s the mythologized narratives of how nintendo did it with mario or zelda, but there’s something special about the cases outside that. perhaps that is because, in the realm of SEGA and specifically shinobi, the aim was less to transpose the fiction and more to replicate the same high concept and broad stroke play sensation in a new space.
in this sense it’s interesting to compare shinobi to the character action game concept emerging in parallel, set into motion by devil may cry around a year earlier. devil may cry started as a resident evil game and, both mechanically and tonally, worked its way back to an action platformer from there. the result is a highly complicated, unfocused and messy genre tradition. it emerged in concert with the ‘variety game'(the template for what would be AAA), games which collage vignettes with distinct modes of play together along a plot, and often had some sort of permanence or upgrade system associated.
action games previously acted in the arcade tradition. play sessions were succinct and self-contained, the games very clearly-defined collections of rules and play spaces. in contrast to now, when a game diverged from this it would be particularly designated rather than the norm, as an action rpg or an adventure game, etc. the variety game would introduce the concept of mystery, an inflated wonder at not knowing what random thing the game might throw at you next. the character action game normalized capitalist upgrade mechanics (meaning you had to play a LONG time to have the ‘complete’ ruleset), puzzles, and complicated spatial layouts. this is the onset of a game trying to selfishly be all things–casual, complex, lasting, varied, epic–instead of trying to be a single thing very valuably. perhaps this is the poisonous influence of western game design tradition.
the 2000’s brought with them a tradition of overcomplicating every little interaction you would have with a game, lending to the coming insularity and calcification of the gaming audience. only recently has AAA begun the remedial process of simplifying their obtuse value system, yet what they seek to recapture has been under their noses all along.
the long tradition of arcade and SEGA design carries virtues which have since been devalued and forgotten. the qualities which are remembered are the ones which fit into the current narrative of videogames. arcade games are remembered as being luxurious and skill-oriented, but have been forgotten as elegant, joyous and unimposing things. the tradition of presenting a simple, worthwhile experience for a general audience has been marginalized in favour of volume, complexity and insularity.
that’s why my heart’s set aflutter when I encounter a game like shinobi, which puts at its front a humanist simplicity. levels are constructed in a way which feels directly inspired by its 2d counterparts. you’re a badass cyber ninja with a cursed sword on a mission of retribution. you have a simple sword attack combo and throwing knives. you can dash, jump, and run along walls with ease. every action has an inherent consequence if made carelessly. defeated enemies are dispatched in batches with tate, cutting apart and spurting blood all at once like an anime. this is your score mechanic. your cursed sword grows in power the more enemies you defeat before they become puree. and that’s really the entirety of it. there’s an overwhelming simplicity to it, a defiance to include anything more than necessary to be compelling and expressive–this is the nut of SEGA design that I have been getting at.
its easy to imagine shinobi in the company of the dreary and vapid standard of its time, but it carries a vibrance and levity. each action has an inherent joy, and the satisfaction of perfecting your routine from platformer and arcade traditions has been retained. skillfully dispatching groups of enemies is exhilarating and mortifying, the carnage somberly reflected on subtextually and contrasted against the lively surrealist levels you hop through. it takes advantage of being played at home instead of an arcade not by expanding itself but by creating a nuance that would be unreasonable to expect of anyone paying per play. it is a game you are meant to play as much or as little as you want. the rules are on their face and the promise of the game is direct, so any play session is a ‘complete’ experience. rather than the goading of variety games to press on for hours on end to supposedly achieve some sort of catharsis, shinobi gives it right to you. to me that signals a confidence in design, as today’s games are so messily cobbled together that the promise of what’s to come is leaned on for lack of substance.
shinobi is a glistening example of much of what’s believed to be lost in games existing in modern design spaces, and it deserves to shine proudly.