There was a time in gaming's distant past when difficulty and challenge for a player were the norm in a game. It took more than just a weekend to finish a stellar non-RPG title - not because of length, necessarily, but because of the challenging nature of a game.
In some ways, we may be seeing a revival of the 'tough' game. Ninja Gaiden has been one of the more difficult games of this generation, and the soul-crushingly difficult Dark Souls (which we absolutely loved) are just some titles that quickly spring to mind that challenge the player in an almost mocking way, but are undeniably compelling to play. Shinobi on the 3DS is quite the surprise package in that it comes close to joining their ranks. There are some definite flaws to the game, but make no mistake - Shinobi is an old school punishing, but highly addictive, and one of the most compelling and worthwhile additions to the 3DS to date.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of Shinobi is not as much a priority as the gameplay itself. It basically boils down to a group of rival ninjas attacking your village, causing Joe Musashi to once again go forth and lay waste to them with his own ninja skills. Much of the story is told via custscenes with varying levels of animation and narration. The narrative also appears to be split across time for some reason. But that's okay - the game is constantly changing things up for no apparent reason, yet strangely it works in its favour and is very reminiscent of the kind of manic alterations you'd see in a game twenty years ago.
Shinobi is mostly based around platforming action of a highly precise nature that will delight some and infuriate others. At your disposal, you have a katana to slice and dice enemies with, alongside kunai daggers that can be thrown at distant enemies. On top of this, you are also in possession of four different elemental magic attacks that can be utilised to deal out even heavier damage to your foes. Your trusty ninja is also equipped with a grappling hook that can be used for both latching onto ceilings and unleashing a sneak attack on an enemy who is unfortunate enough to have his back turned on you.
All of these capabilities come together as you navigate both enemies and terrain - and both can work against you and be quite unforgiving. Early on, you will have to jump onto platforms that are no wider that your character's footspan. Some of these platforms will also be moving. At the same time, you will often be fending off enemies who can easily knock you off balance and to your death, whether they are using swords or throwing kunais. It's this kind of precision that will likely drive a lot of people away as, quite simply, you will die. A lot. However, once you gain a sense of rhythm and call on all the might of your reflexes that your thumbs can muster, things are not quite as difficult as they may seem. You'll still die after dropping into a river or off a platform or off any number of items into pits of doom, but it will become less frequent.
Outside the normal platforming sections, there are also a few non-standard travelling segments of the game. In one you'll ride a horse bareback while slicing down approaching enemies and avoiding trees in the middle of a road, while another has you jumping on the rooftop of cars and using your kunais to kill enemies who are toting guns. If you crash into a tree, you will die. If you don't make a jump onto a roof of a car, you will die. Again, death is as frequent occurrence as whipping out your sword, but with a bit of patience and skillful reflexes you will make it past these areas. They're not quite as hard as that infamous jetski level of Battletoads which bested many a player back in the day, but they will certainly evoke similar memories.
Visually speaking, Shinobi on the 3Ds is quite a perplexing case. On the surface, a lot of the in-game action looks as if it could have been produced for a DS. The environments are distinct enough, but they could have used a bit more smoothness and fine-tuning - when we've seen just what kind of graphical grunt the 3DS can have with the previews we've had of Resident Evi: Regeneration it definitely seems a bit lacking. However, when the 3D mode is engaged, the game comes alive a bit more. The backgrounds always seem to have something going on of interest and there is a real sense of depth, with all the manner of pillars falling over, enemies being flung about and random explosions. It definitely makes for a much more satisfying visual experience and among the best uses of 3D on the console. The cutscenes, on the other hand, are not 3D-activated at all, but they are of an appealing anime style, with plenty of detail and effects. They would probably be better served if they had full voice acting and animations, but you don't exactly play a game like Shinobi for its story, and they way it is presented works well against the game's general backdrop. On the other side of the audio-visual coin, the sounds of Shinobi are the kind of cheesy yet apt sounds for a game featuring ninjas. There are a lot of oriental music tracks, replete with pan flutes and a few xylophones chucked in, and the general action is a mish-mash of slicing, dicing and cries of terror from the saps which are your enemies.
It's hard to gauge the lifespan of a game like Shinobi. The time you take to complete each state is tallied up and most people will on paper get through the game in a few hours, but that doesn't really reflect the true play time. Due to the many times that Joe Musashi will meet his grim demise, you will be playing certain parts of the game many times in a row before nailing them, meaning that your actual play hours can blow out big time compared to that which is recorded. There are also a lot of other bonus coins and items to get along the way, which can be extremely tricky to find in some cases, giving a bit more longevity to the title.
Shinobi is a game that is not for the faint of heart, or for those that have a dislike for old-school action platformers. Its uncompromising difficulty, changes of pace that sometimes don't make much sense and its graphical variance will likely put a lot of people off. However, if you're looking for a challenging game that doesn't hold your hand, has a manic sense of energy about it and makes some good use of 3D, then Shinobi is a game that would be worth mastering the ancient art of ninjutsu for. It's one of the more unique and interesting games to grace the Nintendo 3DS so far, and will hopefully be successful enough to warrant a more refined sequel.