This is a comparison and tribute page for the various versions
of Shinobi. While most of the screenshots were taken through emulation, I own
the SMS, NES and PC Engine versions of Shinobi and the systems they were designed
to run on. I do not own the arcade cabinet. All written comparisons were made
while playing the games on the actual console, while the arcade game was played
via MAME and my Sidewinder gamepad. As such timing comments are limited to the
console versions, as the arcade game's timing is messed with via Emulation and
the use of a different controller type than it was designed for.
The original Shinobi is a perfect example of pure genius in game design. Contrary
to popular belief, such perfection is not ineffable. Shinobi begins with a lot
of similarities to games such as Bad Dudes and the later Altered Beast, as well
as having similarities with numerous run-n-gun style games. When a player in
1987 popped in a quarter for the first time, he would feel immediately familiar
with the controls, hold right, press one button to shoot shuriken, another to
jump, and watch for power ups. However, those similarities only go so far due
to Shinobi's numerous innovations and excellent execution.
Like Bad Dudes, Shinobi has two levels to fight on, the ground and typically
the top of a wall or other object standing in the background or foreground.
In the process of working your way past armed gunmen, ninja's and the like,
giant warriors with shields known as Mongo must either be defeated or circumvented
in an effort to rescue their good ninja hostages. All enemies can be defeated
by frontal attack or by 'stealth' of a sort by leaping up or down from another
level behind the unsuspecting enemy. Hostages can also be rescued by stealth
rather than force by simply jumping up or down to them and then immediately
retreating back to the other level. Rescuing hostages results in numerous power
ups for long and short range weapons which increase the power and effectiveness
of your attacks.
Unlike Bad Dudes, enemies are not constantly running from one end of the screen
to another shelling out cheap shots and getting clobbered by button mashing.
Shinobi is a one-hit and you die game, and this when combined with the variety
of enemy designs makes for a much more sophisticated game. Requisite thugs in
the first level will run straight at you and attempt to knife you first, while
gunmen will be standing, kneeling or laying when they come on screen, and you
must either dodge bullets in order to kill them, or retreat to another level
to get closer before making the kill, and the variety of ninja which appear
out of thin air are something else entirely. Green ninja may run straight at
you, or may jump to another side, or retreat to a different level in an effort
to attack you off guard while you're occupied with another enemy. Blue Ninja
frequently show up in greater numbers, and primarily leap off the screen only
to land sword down on your position a second later. Those are only the basic
enemies, but adding the fact that you are often times fighting all of them at
once makes proper strategy a must in this game.
The bosses are certainly no pushovers either, having to fight a dual fireball
throwing Shredder look-alike (before TMNT ever existed), a helicopter with blue
ninja jumping out of it, or Level 3's Mandara boss are all likely to be challenging
experiences for many plays. The addition of screen clearing Ninja Magic is very
necessary for novice players, but offers an additional point bonus if the player
completes a level segment without using it. The player will also receive a point
bonus for completing a segment without shuriken, using only close attacks instead,
making the highest score possible much higher than the average player could
Sega was thoughtful on the difficulty, which is self scaling, and the game rewards
the player for playing better. Once you rescue a hostage, that hostage stays
rescued and his Mongo guard is gone as well, even if you have to start the level
over. By doing this the player is not required to restart the level proper,
but merely has to fight the regular enemies back to the area where he was defeated.
However, any power ups gained throughout the level up until that point will
be lost, and will not be gained again in that level segment, but power ups cannot
be brought to the boss fights anyway. Boss fights themselves scale in difficulty,
with the first fight having nearly double the energy level as subsequent retries
would have. Finally, the Bonus Rounds, which offer the player additional lives,
are necessary to master in order to beat the fifth and final level, which does
not allow you to continue. All of this creates a game environment friendly to
the beginner, rewarding to play over and over, and very difficult to master.
A player who can beat this game at all is skilled, but a player who can beat
all five levels with one continue is truly a master.
Facts and Release Dates
The arcade game is 1024 Kilobytes, the equivalent of an 8 Megabit cart such
as Strider on the Genesis in size. The PC-Engine game is 384 Kilobytes, which
is a 3 Megabit card, smaller than the Genesis versions of Altered Beast, Golden
Axe, or Revenge of Shinobi. The Master System and NES games are 257 Kilobytes,
which are 2 "Mega" bit cartridges. The lack of an entire level and
several enemy types in the PC-Engine game need not be attributed to sloppy programming
on Asmik's part. The fact that the PC-Engine version has at least twice the
animation and colors on screen at all times than the SMS and NES versions is
amazing in light of the card only having 1.5 times the memory to work with.
Similarly, the comparison between the PC-Engine version and the Arcade version
favoring the Arcade in colors, scrolling backgrounds, enemy characters, and
the presence of Level 2 can be attributed to the Arcade ROM having an extra
640 Kilobytes, or 5 Megabits, to work with.
While the PC-Engine would eventually be capable of 16 Megabit game cards, this
was not an option at the time of this game's release. Memory was very expensive
prior 1989, and Sega was the only company offering 4 Megabit carts up until
that point, which frequently cost more at retail than normal size carts of 1-2
Megabits. The first cartridge game to enjoy the relative roominess of 8 Megabits
was Strider in the US in September of 1990, and the first card game to reach
8 Megabit was the SuperGrafx version of Ghouls N Ghosts in Japan in July of
1990. So attempting to make a home conversion of that size in 1988-89 was just
not feasible. Apparently making them all 4 Megabits was too much to ask for
as well, but this certainly would have made significant differences in each
game. The PC-Engine version came out in 1989, the same year as the NES game
did and the NES game appears to be a port from the SMS version, which came 2
years before both.
The differences are easy enough to see in screenshots. The comparison goes downhill
in color count from the Arcade, to the PC-Engine, to the SMS, with the NES being
the lowest color count possible, as should be expected. The Arcade game is the
only one with two scrolling planes, one for the ground and a separate plane
for the far background, with the home ports of the game having only one scrolling
plane. The Arcade and PC-Engine games share almost 100% percent of the animation,
while the SMS and NES versions don't animate like the Arcade version at all,
with the SMS game having more frames of animation than the NES game.
Level design differences:
Level 1 is virtually identical in all versions, though gameplay differences
exist in the NES game due to flaws that will be discussed later.
The PC-Engine game does not have this level in it, while the Arcade and SMS
version are virtually identical in design. The NES game's round 2_2 only has
one level, while the SMS and Arcade versions travel up several levels to the
Virtually identical in the Arcade, PC-Engine and SMS versions, while the NES
version's 3_2 only has one level, and does not travel up or down as the original
does. There is a new enemy, a Bazooka carrying soldier, that is only in the
Arcade, SMS and NES versions of the game, and is not in the PC-Engine game.
Instead, the PC-Engine version substitutes a new palette swapped ninja which
does not attack differently than other ninja. The boss fight is also significantly
different in the PC-Engine game, as the Mandara boss's protective statues are
only one level, rather than stacks of five as the other versions have. They
compensated for this by making the individual statues harder to defeat.
This level is virtually identical in design in all versions, with very little
level design differences. There is an undead samurai character in the first
part of this level that does not appear in the PC-Engine version, and the jumping
frogmen in the two middle levels are replaced by green "spiderman"
ninja's in the PC-Engine version. The Lobster boss fight is different in the
SMS and NES version than the Arcade game in that he only walks towards you at
the same pace while swinging his sword from the wrists at a consistent interval.
The PC-Engine version is closer in that he will dash away from you at times,
and keeps his guard up by his head as he does in the Arcade game unless he's
taking a swing at you. The Arcade version is more difficult because Lobster
will run at you quickly to swing at you, and you must hit him in the head while
running to stop him from killing you.
I have not completed Level five in any version, the bamboo thickets and super
flying ninja of 5_2 polish me off every time. However, the only significant
difference between the home versions is the addition of a new enemy character
in Level 5_3 which is a bo carrying Samurai type, replaced by another palette
swapped ninja in the PC-Engine game. Also, the Masked Ninja boss fight is significantly
more difficult in the PC-Engine game due to him varying his pace, and his odd
reaction to Ninja Magic. Both the NES and SMS games have the Masked Ninja simply
jumping at you, and providing a simple pattern of being vulnerable before a
jump. I have not seen the Masked Ninja boss fight in the Arcade version, to
make a comparison.
The Arcade version is the only one with digital voice which is a major part
of the experience, all of the other home versions use analog sound effects in
place of the voices, and make no attempt to emulate them. The PC-Engine game
is the best of the three home versions in audio, with music that is extremely
close to the Arcade original, and being the only version to have all of the
Arcade game's music. The Sega Master System game is limited to only BGM_A, the
Boss fight music and the Bonus round music. The NES game plays BGM_A through
the levels and the boss fights, and also has Bonus round music.
PC-Engine game has no power ups, no close-in attack animations, no Level 2,
and no Bonus Rounds. Whether this is a crippling limitation of this version
is entirely up to the individual player, as the PC-Engine version is also the
only version with the arcade version's sprites, animations, music, and has the
best resemblance to the Arcade game overall. The lack of power ups doesn't affect
gameplay as much as one might think, but it does limit the game's replayability
and increase the challenge level. The lack of close-in attacks is the most crippling
loss, next to the loss of Level 2. Fighting ninja becomes incredibly difficult
when all you can do is throw shuriken at them until they drop their guard to
attack, when in the other versions you can just get in close and beat them to
the attack. With the addition of boss fight patterns not present in the other
home versions, and the overall feeling of similarity with the Arcade version,
the argument for this version being a good additional copy of the game can easily
be made. Fans of Yuzo Koshiro music should find this version a must, as it's
got all of the good music over the other home versions.
Sega Master System:
The SMS game is a very faithful translation of the original Arcade title, but
is limited significantly by the cart size and 8-bit nature of the system. Graphics,
especially animation, and sound suffered the most in this version. However,
this version has the addition of an increasable energy bar, added power ups
such as the nunchaku and ball and chain close weapons, and high jumping ninja
magic, that the PC-Engine and Arcade games do not have. The addition of the
energy bar is supplemented with the added difficulty of losing energy with most
collisions with an enemy, while the arcade and PC-Engine games allow you to
bounce off the top of most enemies, which can position you better for a quick
kill. These additions make for a much more interesting home title that would
otherwise not have been possible on 8-bit hardware.
The NES game is a port of the SMS game, and as such contains many of the additional
gameplay aspects, but none of the polish of the SMS game. Most glaring amongst
its flaws is that enemies will attack you while you're jumping up or down from
a different layer, while the other versions give you a split second to at least
move before they start shooting. This means that if you jump up in front of
another character, it will hit you before you land almost every time. Secondarily
to that flaw is that your character will get stuck inside enemy sprites and
simply bounce around while losing energy, and this usually does not stop until
the energy bar is depleted. This almost entirely negates the usefulness of the
energy bar, as one hit will often times result in eventual death due to being
bounced around without end. The SMS game allows an instant to move after being
bounced off an opponent.
Obviously the Arcade title reigns supreme, even compared to other games in general.
Few games approach its beautiful level of gameplay complexity and polish, least
of all in the 3D generation of consoles and arcade titles. Beyond that, playing
Shinobi via MAME is only a partial solution, because the availability of save
anywhere slots makes for a totally different experience that almost eliminates
the innovations Sega made in the area of scaleable difficulty.
Among the home versions, it is a toss up between the 1987 Sega Master System
game, and the 1989 PC-Engine game. These two also absolutely must be played
outside of emulation to be truly appreciated, as the temptation to save and
ruin the gameplay balance will ultimately ruin the experience for most players.
Replaying either home version from the beginning, and mastering each level is
the core of Shinobi, and the timing of each version is very specifically set
to make it possible to master either version. Owners of the SMS version can
rest assured that they have the version with the most faithful gameplay of all
home versions, while PC-Engine fans can enjoy an experience which looks and
feels closer to the Arcade game most of the time.