Saturday 5 September 2015

Shadow Dancer for the Sega MegaDrive/ Genesis

They say art reflects back a society's image of itself. You could say that was certainly the case with Shadow Dancer, a sort-of conversion - of which in a minute - of Sega's 1989 coin-op. Not that ninja vigilantes were rescuing hostages or cleaning up New York's mean streets, but the game play theme was of asserting oneself against anxiety and dread by way of offing oodles of bad fellas.

Like a large number of action games in a contemporary setting, many an arcade-style shooter/ninja/beat 'em up around the late 80s and early 90s, coincident with the rise of the 16-bit video game systems, were all about crime and fighting crime. This was the era of the war on drugs, endorsed by such luminaries as the Grange Hill cast - when they weren't toking on joints themselves - and a near ceaseless climate of fear of crime, in equal parts fanned and sensationalised by the press. Criminality of some form or another also pervaded film releases. RoboCop and Total Recall were about crime and corruption, among other things. The popular and nearly-forgotten weepy Ghost saw a spectral Patrick Swayze save Demi Moore from the creepy predations of a crooked friend who had had him murdered. On Saturday morning, kids' cartoons - whether aimed at boys (Transformers, Mask, Centurions) or girls (Care Bears, Rainbow Brite, Jem) - all dealt with hoodlums and/or thwarting criminal masterminds.

Games were no different. The scrolling beat 'em up genre popularised by Double Dragon were all of a type. Someone gets kidnapped (usually a girlfriend) and it's up to the player(s) to smack, stamp, and slam their way through swarms of baddies to the inevitable crime boss face off. The Streets of Rage series, for example, exemplified this perfectly. In fact, come to think of it, of all the action games released during this time I cannot recall a single title of this ilk that does not revolve around the forces of (vigilante) justice squaring off against the power of crime.

Shadow Dancer was a sequel to Sega's widely influential Shinobi, a hit that proved so enduring it even found its way onto the Nintendo Entertainment System. Shinobi and a clutch of contemporaneous games, particularly Ninja Gaiden in the US and The Last Ninja here in Britain, helped make the ninja a ubiquitous figure in gaming. Titles featuring martial arts were also popular thanks to the cultural residues of 1970s kung fu movies and their 80s renaissance in the form of the Karate Kid movies, and assorted Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles. Hence ninja games became an established sub genre in video gaming more widely. Players knew that any game so themed was likely to be a hard edged, no-nonsense action fest.

By the time Shadow Dancer graced the arcades in 1989, ninja games were ten-a-penny. Its game play was very similar to the prequel - run from left to right, a little bit of platforming, pick up bomb components (instead of hostages), kill baddies, face down the boss, rinse and repeat. What caught arcade goers' attention was the gimmick. Your character sprite was accompanied by a dog who could be set on enemies to temporarily immobilise them while you jumped in with a swipe of your ninja sword or a flash of a shuriken. It wasn't a massive innovation by any means, but it gave the game that stand out appeal and ensured healthy sales and money spinning home conversions for various computer formats.

As a Sega game, it was bound to make its way over to the MegaDrive. After all, one of the machine's killer apps was the brilliant Super Shinobi/Revenge of Shinobi. Another Shinobi game was bound to do well and help shift units as well as machines. Therefore in 1990 Shadow Dancer emerged in Japan, and was released in short order in North America and Europe. But something was ... different.

Shadow Dancer for the MegaDrive/Genesis is a curious game because it is completely different from its arcade parent, relatively speaking. The same core mechanics were the same. A limited bit of platforming in the hunt for hostages, the same quantity of shuriken-flinging fun, the ubiquitous end-of-game bad 'uns. And yes, the trusty hound is along for the ride. Yet, for reasons known only to themselves, Sega completely redesigned the game and its premise. In the arcade and its home versions, you were squaring off against terrorists who wanted to hijack a space shuttle for nefarious nuclear naughtiness. In this, the setting has been changed up. You're up against Union Lizard, a criminal outfit-cum-cult who've invaded New York after they murdered a mate of yours. Subtitled The Secret of Shinobi, we don't actually find out what that is, but over five levels of occasionally very tough action we take in a city coming apart at the seams.

In the opening stage, the city is afflicted by earthquakes and lawlessness. An arresting panorama of burning tower blocks shimmers in the background as you dodge falling masonry, opening chasms, exploding manhole covers, bullets, and evil minions guarding hostages. The level boss is a fire breathing samurai (similar to Shinobi's first nemesis). The second level takes in a bridge (not Brooklyn Bridge, sadly) and an abandoned warehousing area, where you meet a wall dwelling demon. The third takes the action to a fight with enemy ninjas as you take an elevator up the side of the Statue of Liberty. And on it goes until you've cleared New York of evil doers and you get a nice twee ending cinematic of a becalmed, sunny-looking Manhattan skyline with the promise 'to be continued ...'.

At only five levels, the game is short but it can get very hard going. The energy bar of Revenge is abandoned for the one hit deaths of Shinobi, and some areas of some levels are set up to be really tricky traps - especially when you're having to fend off leaping ninjas who take three hits to kill. Another way of padding out an otherwise short game by ramping up the difficulty? Perhaps.

Ultimately, Shadow Dancer - now hailed as something of a must-have for the MegaDrive library, hence its relatively steep price - was back then treated indifferently by most British gaming mags. At £34.99 in 1991, it must have come as a bit of disappointment for anyone expecting Revenge-style goodliness, albeit with a mutt. And this is the most baffling aspect of this game. The tradition of releasing pretty different games with arcade titles was an established practice as far as NES games were concerned. For instance, our friend Double Dragon went from being a straight two-player beat 'em up conversion into a single player platformer with punching and kicking on Nintendo's machine. Here, Sega produced an exclusive iteration of Shadow Dancer (that looked much better than other 16-bit home versions) but didn't add anything to the original game. It may have looked more swish. It might have had better music (which was influenced by Revenge's storming soundtrack, but is but a pale imitation), but what's on offer is a depthless experience. The only mystery the game contains is why Sega didn't produce a straight arcade version, or better yet had offered an arcade and original mode as they later did with Mercs.

Never again was a dog featured in a Shinobi game. From the perspective of the mid-2010s, Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi is part of the early background noise of the crime-fighting, ninja-ry cultural wave that has only partly dissipated. Ninjas are as fashionable as fluorescent socks, while falling crime rates across the West has seen criminal player characters take central stage in modern gaming. Worth a visit, but not one to go out of your way for.

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