Shinobi’s Fighting Mechanics Drive You to be a Panicked, Relentless Killer
Shinobi (the PS2 one) was a relentlessly stylish game at the time of its release in 2002. It gave you endless dashes that would leave clones in your wake. Mini-cutscenes would play if you managed to kill a handful of enemies in rapid succession. You had a flowing scarf that made your every move look so impressive. You also had a sword that devoured life force, growing in power as you killed enemies. More disturbing, though, was how that same sword, Akujiki, would feed on you if you weren’t constantly taking out foes. This element added a bit of horror to the experience as you fought to stay ahead of your blade’s relentless appetite, turning you into a frantic killer lest you die yourself.
Hotsuma (that’s you) had been training with Moritsune under the Oboro clan. The two were vying for leadership of the clan. Unfortunately, an earthquake hit Tokyo and left it in shambles. During this disaster, a golden palace appeared in the middle of the city. With weird palaces come nasty spellcasters, and this particular sorcerer brought legions from hell with him to decimate what was left of the city. With your clan now in ruins, and carrying a sword that eats life, you head out to avenge your clan and restore order. It’s more likely that your own sword will devour you instead, but we’ll get to that.
Shinobi has a couple of mechanics at work in its combat (which you can check out in this ancient trailer). Most useful is your dash, which shoots you forward a short distance. This leaves a clone behind you, which can fool some enemies and buy you a few moments to breathe. It’s also handy for stabbing folks in the back while they’re occupied with your clone. You can also fling kunai at foes to stun them, although you have a finite amount of these. You’ll use both of these tools to backstab and paralyze foes so that you can build up lethal combos. If you can finish at least four enemies all together, you’ll sheathe your katana with a flourish as all your enemies die (called Tate). It looks as cool as it sounds.
While looking cool is a noble goal, it’s more important to do this because of Akujiki’s lust for life. The sword needs a constant feed of life force to keep it from chomping on its owner, so you need to kill things fast. You may have seen something similar in Nightmare Creatures, which had an adrenaline meter that you had to fight to keep filling. In this game, each fallen foe will drop a red ball or two that will stave off the weapon’s thirst, which is represented by the Slash Gauge. It has twelve segments that start full, but drain at an alarming rate. A Tate, however, will often refill the whole gauge and get you out of danger. So, don’t just do it because it looks good. Do it because you don’t want to die.
Akujiki is probably sounding like a massive hindrance, but it does have its uses in Shinobi. If you can really keep up the pressure on your foes, the sword will build up cutting power. It has three levels represented by colors, and each one increases the damage you do. So, if you can maintain your assault and kill things quickly, you’ll do more damage. This makes it easier to kill more things, so you can build up a real momentum with the blade. This is vital against bosses. Which is a shame as that’s when a Tate is hardest to pull off.
So, you have a sword that gives you incredible power for being stylish. If you’re not a cool ninja, it’ll kill you quickly. This is where things get a bit unnerving, though, as Shinobi rapidly teaches you to be afraid of missing strikes. Dropped combos can be a disaster when your sword is at full power or when you’re desperate to refill the Slash Gauge. Worse, that gauge still drains when there’s no enemies around, so you’re always desperate to find a new victim when things get quiet. You’re in real trouble if you get turned around or lost for any period of time.
This causes a constant unease the whole time you play Shinobi. When you’re not killing things, you’re the one dying. If you’re in an empty arena, you need to hurry to find the next set of foes. If you get yourself lost, that feeling gets even worse. You start to get nervous at every empty street or area you come through. You watch the Slash Gauge dwindle, knowing Akujiki will start chewing on you soon. Likely the moment you finally find some enemies, too. I’d often start dying just as I ran into a group of enemies, putting me in a rough spot.
This mechanic also throws you into a panic as you fight, filling you with a dreadful need. I’d often find myself swinging wildly to try to catch an enemy to get the sword to stop draining my health. I’d fling myself into the middle of groups of enemies so I could kill something. ANYTHING. I’d take risks I couldn’t afford because I needed the sword to stop draining me. This would make combos harder to get, though, which kept me in danger. You have to keep a cool head to do well in this game, but your own weapon makes it very difficult to do that, putting you at constant war with your panic.
This mixture makes Shinobi feel special. There’s always a push for style in 3D action games. You want to look good while fighting things, and this game excels at that. However, it also has a weapon that pushes you to panic and make mistakes. It makes you take risks you probably wouldn’t normally take so that you can stay alive. In doing so, it forces this frantic need on the player. You share in Akujiki’s lust to kill, but out of fear for your own life. You WANT to look cool and do great combos so that you don’t end up in that state, but often, you’ll become a wild-eyed killer looking for anything to stab to keep yourself alive.
Like I mentioned previously, this is especially terrifying during boss fights. You need a constant supply of corpses to stay alive, but bosses don’t die quickly. They often have small enemy groups they summon, but these add extra hazards to the fight as well. You need them to survive (or hopefully build up to high damage sword levels), so you end up praying for more danger and trouble as you fight. The bosses are hard enough on their own, but you wish for extra dangers because you won’t live long without the extra foes to kill. You end up scared when you’re alone with the boss as you watch that Slash Gauge drain, feeling that incessant need to kill building up in you along with a fear of death.
Shinobi does a fantastic job of making you act like a stylish ninja with its killer sword, Akujiki. However, it also excels at turning you into a bloodthirsty killer driven by a panicked fear for your own well-being. It frequently leaves you in a terrified state as you rush around looking for victims or recklessly throw yourself into danger to kill something. It creates a special sense of panic and bloody need I’ve never seen anywhere else, and weaves its own kind of terror at the idea of being anything less than a fast, efficient killer.