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Shinobi – Sega Master System

Shinobi – Sega Master System

shinobi-sms-cover-front-1494Platform: Sega Master System

Developer: Sega-AM7

Publisher: Sega

Release Date (NA): 1988

Genre: Action

Nerd Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Shinobi is an interesting game. It’s slow and thoughtful – a stark contrast to the fast-paced, reflexive action you’ll find in its contemporary Ninja Gaiden. Regardless, it’s still a very difficult game. It requires patience, careful timing, and skillful precision. While this could have easily been eclipsed by Ninja Gaiden, it not only delivers some unique gameplay elements but also has an entirely different feel.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 11.48.19 PMShinobi is a sidescroller, but each stage is comprised of multiple levels. I’m not talking levels as in substages, I’m talking actual levels as in platforms. If you are standing in the right spot, press up and jump to do a gravity-defying leap up to a higher plane. Press down and jump to fall below. It doesn’t always work, and this is not a fault on the programmers’ part; sometimes there’s an area you simply cannot hop through, and sometimes the upper floor is out of reach from where you stand, forcing you to find higher ground. I mean, a ninja can only get so much air. Do you really expect him to clear anything taller than the Empire State Building?

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 12.01.16 AM

Jumping to the next level…literally

I didn’t think so.

This improbable jump is a little slow, but such is to be expected, considering the deliberate nature of your ninja. You control a character who steps carefully, moving at a reserved pace. Interestingly, this comes from the company who would later bring us the fastest Hedgehog around. While you may feel as though you’re moving through molasses, this won’t deter your enjoyment. A healthy supply of enemies, who hurl all sorts of projectiles your way, gives you enough to feed your racing and impatient mind. A run button would be nice, but Shinobi isn’t that kind of game. It’s more about dodging, striking when the time is right, and careful approach.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 11.54.55 PMYour standard attack is a projectile, such as a shuriken, throwing knife, or grenade. When you’re close enough to an enemy you use your short-range weapon. Oddly enough, sometimes you can be a good distance from your victim and still kill them with this melee attack. There’s no way to switch between close and distant strikes; it’s simply determined by how near you are to your foe. And the weapon you carry is based on how much you’ve powered up your ninja.

Now there’s a method of powering up that is kind of odd. You rescue…children.


What is this, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker?

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 11.49.23 PM

“Help! I need an adult!”

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 12.02.26 AM

Grenade upgrade

Collect enough children (not exactly the kind of sentence you pride yourself with as a writer) and you level up some aspect of your ninja. Sometimes it’ll restore health, sometimes you’ll get an extra life, sometimes it’s an increased health bar, but primarily you’re upgrading weapons. Also, you earn bonus stages after a certain number of children (ugh, I shudder with every passing mention of this subject).

Your struggle will be substantially mitigated by the upgrading system. If you play your cards right, you can attain more powerful/effective weapons and greater health early on, carrying them with you throughout the game. Unfortunately, if you die you are back to square one and the difficulty rises exponentially. Even your health bar returns to where it began.

In fact, the difficulty is kind of a problem.

While the challenge here, for the most part, is genuine, there are a few things that artificially inflate the difficulty curve.

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 12.06.05 AM

This is the beginning of the level.  Notice how your life bar does not replenish after completing a stage

For one, no continues. I personally feel like this oversteps the fine line between balanced and unfair. Health is earned, not collected, and you only have three lives to take you through the entire game. More can be secured depending on how well you do, but they just don’t come fast enough. And, you carry whatever health you had with you into the next level.

What’s worse is you’ll frequently be at the receiving end of off-screen projectiles without warning. This is plain unfair and a total cheap shot on the part of the development team. Really, what skill does this require other than to commit to memory what is coming up next? This is no way to make a game good. It’s simply a means of racking up a player’s damage to hinder his or her progress through the level. Basically, you’re going to have to be careful…simply moving forward. Make use of that crawl feature; Shinobi was at least gracious enough to give us this ability that wasn’t present in all games back then, so take advantage! It’s very handy.

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 12.22.07 AM

The controls are fine, aside from some platforming issues. The first time I noticed this was on the dock stage where you have some jumps that are a little difficult to clear. And I know what I said earlier, but this is one instance where a run button would have helped significantly. You land on water as if it were solid ground, so you may try the jump again and again without consequence. Later on, you don’t have such a luxury.

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 12.16.30 AM

What are you, Jesus? Seriously, you can walk on water. And before you tell me it’s shallow, there are diver ninjas leaping out from below. So, yeah, you are actually controlling a ninja Jesus in this game.


The bonus rounds are fun, simple, but nearly impossible. Though I was only able to complete the first of these stages, IScreen Shot 2016-02-19 at 11.53.52 PM enjoyed them as a little diversion from the routine. Basically, your disembodied hands slide around the bottom of the screen, hurling shurikens at opposing ninjas. Apparently you win some “Ninja Magic” if you are successful, but such a feat is as impossible as Lou’s Cafe in Back to the Future for NES.

Shinobi looks decent. It’s a pretty good example of the Master System’s graphical leg up on the NES. With more colors to work with, the world is richer and fuller than your standard 8-bit game. Despite the embellished graphics, it suffers from a stiff and uninspired look. Backgrounds are utilitarian, completely lacking in style and depth. Characters are nicely detailed aside from their rigid/awkward movements and gestures. Colors are indeed good, but not great. It’s pretty average looking overall.

I really like the music in this game. It fits the tone pretty well. The only problem is it doesn’t change much. The main levels have the same theme, the bonus stages have the same theme, the boss rounds have the same theme… It’s not a big deal since I didn’t find myself growing tired of what I was hearing, but it does make the whole experience feel a little empty. A solid soundtrack is important to the overall video game experience, you know? And variety is the spice of life.

So that’s Shinobi for you. A fun, manageable action/platformer that does a solid job of showcasing the Master System’s capabilities. I would definitely recommend this game. Maybe not so far as a reason to buy a Master System, but if you own one or are planning to purchase this console sometime soon, I would say Shinobi is worth having in your library.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 11.54.14 PM

Written by ZB


Since the tender age of four, I have been playing video games to occupy my free time. Raised on Nintendo and Sega Genesis, I have an extensive knowledge and enthusiasm for the classics. Also an avid collector, I have accrued such consoles as the Atari Jaguar, Super Famicom, Odyssey 2, Sega Nomad, just to name a few.

Got any questions, comments, concerns, or threats? Feel free to email me at I am happy to hear your feedback!


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  1. Dude really excellent review, and for a game I have never actually played but always admired. The difficulty sounds like more than I can handle haha

    • Haha, it was more than I could handle! But it was my duty to play as far as I could on my Master System, and then use save states on an emulator afterwards. No way in hell I’d ever beat my actual cart of the game!


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