With all due respect to Michael Jackson, Max Headroom and rap music, nothing was more awesome in the 1980’s than ninja. The covert mercenary assassins of feudal Japan saw a boom of popularity in the 80’s due to the advent of schools appearing in the West professing to train ninjitsu in the 1970’s. Make a video game based on a ninja fighting to save his students from other ninjas, mercenaries, monsters, demons and other bad guys and you’ve got a pop culture phenomenon on your hands.
Sega’s Shinobi* changed everything for me. When it was first released in the arcades in 1987, it was the quintessential side-scrolling action game. You played Joe Musashi, a ninja (without a mask, mind you!) who took off on a number of missions through various stages with two objectives: (1) take down the boss villian of each stage & (2) rescue the kidnapped children from your “ninja clan”.
Joe Musashi is armed with a number of weapons: long-range shuriken (throwing stars) which, when enough power-ups are collected, becomes a gun that fires large explosive bullets, close-range kicks and chops, which when powered up turn into slices with his katana blade (shout-out to sword ratchetness!). Shinobi also had ninja magic, which when deployed would destroy every enemy on-screen. The cool thing with ninja magic is that it varied from stage to stage in the game. Some levels used lightning magic, others tornado, multiple ninja attacks, etc…
Shinobi also had one of the coolest arcade bonus stages at that time, comparable to Street Fighter’s bonus stage. You had to throw shuriken to stop hordes of ninja coming at you- if you cleared the stage of all ninja you got a score bonus, but if you fail, well…
Aside from awesome gameplay, a variety of cool villains (Ken-Oh! multi-colored ninja descending from helicopters! Sword throwers and Shao-lin monks! and is that Spider-man?) and well, ninja magic, Shinobi also rolled out one of the smoothest soundtracks in the arcades. The mixture of what sounded like a sped up track from a kung fu movie and the use of flute sounds over a slick R&B groove… maaaaaan. If you were playing or even watching this game, this was music to chill by, either way. How could you not love it?
Check out the rest of the Shinobi soundtrack via Renegade466isback’s Youtube playlist.
Shinobi spawned several sequels since ’87, including Shadow Dancer (which featured a new sidekick in pet dogYamato), Revenge of Shinobi (which had enemy bosses resembling Spider-Man and Batman!), and Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, which a spin-off game for the Sega Master System.
I used to tell my best friend back in middle school that when we grew up we would have arcade cabinets in our homes (like the Dad in Silver Spoons), and that this would be one of those games. Several years later, I don’t have Shinobi in my house yet, but then again, I don’t think I’ve grown up yet, either…
Classick Material is a big fan of 80s arcade games, particularly Sega titles. He tends to blast soundtrack music from various arcade, NES, Sega and some PS One games really really loud in the car. When he’s not at home being a family man or fighting the forces of evil alongside his trusty canine sidekick Spider-Dog, he co-hosts the Cold Slither Podcast show.
*”Shinobi” is the pronunciation of the word “ninja”in the traditional kun’yomi kanji reading. Thanks, Wikipedia!