Guilty Party – Retro Redress
Crime – Getting to the last boss of Shadow Dancer then giving up
Redress – Play Shadow Dancer again and finally beat that last boss!
I’ve got a great affection for Shadow Dancer, the 1990 follow up to Revenge of Shinobi. Shadow Dancer may not have garnered the critical acclaim of Revenge of Shinobi but for me it’s an important game. I first played it in 2002. At this point in time, I was disillusioned with games and had fallen into a gaming malaise. My only console was a PS2 and I used it solely to play Pro Evolution Soccer. Nothing else.
That autumn, I was getting bored of Pro Evolution Soccer and having been talking to my friends about games, decided to buy some older consoles. One of my pick ups was a Mega Drive 2, Altered Beast (we’ll get to Altered Beast another day) and Shadow Dancer. I wasn’t expecting much from Shadow Dancer – I’d owned the Master System version as a kid and hadn’t been impressed. However Mega Drive Shadow Dancer captured my imagination right away. Several late nights were spent fighting through the Union Lizard army until I finally got to the last boss. Then I stopped playing Shadow Dancer. I can’t remember why I stopped playing, I just quit. Cold turkey.
It’s time to put that right. I’m going back to Shadow Dancer and I’m going to complete it.
Before I dive into Shadow Dancer, I should probably give some background, for those not too familiar with the game. Shadow Dancer is part of the Shinobi series and has a bit of a confusing place in the series timeline. The original Shadow Dancer arcade game (released in 1989) follows Shinobi and was ported to home computers and the Master System in 1991. However, the Mega Drive version of Shadow Dancer (subtitled ‘The Secret of Shinobi’) actually came out in 1990, after 1989’s Revenge of Shinobi and is a different game to the arcade original. While the core gameplay and mechanics are similar, the levels were completely re-designed. The Mega Drive version of Shadow Dancer doesn’t continue from Revenge of Shinobi either, serving as a sort of prequel. Instead, the sequel to Revenge of Shinobi was 1993’s Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. It’s not quite at Wonderboy/Bubble Bobble levels of sequel confusion, but it’s not too clear either. I’m ignoring the Game Gear Shinobi games and The Cyber Shinobi on the Master System to avoid confusion. General rule of thumb – always ignore The Cyber Shinobi, easily the worst Shinobi game ever.
So, on to the game. The protagonist of Shadow Dancer is another source of confusion – different regions give the protagonist different names and backstories. In Japan, Shadow Dancer’s hero was called Hayate, while the EU release notes that the player character is series regular Joe Musashi coming out of retirement. I’m not sure ninjas can really come out of retirement – you’re either a ninja or not and I imagine Joe wasn’t collecting a ninja pension between Shinobi and Shadow Dancer. Regardless, I live in Europe, so I’m referring to the main character as Joe Musashi. To add to the confusion, the original arcade game and related ports of Shadow Dancer also give various names for the protagonist. The Master System version even gives the protagonist two different names within the game to confuse matters more…
Anyway, let’s start the game. Shadow Dancer is set in New York in 1997, a city destroyed by the evil Union Lizard group, who have taken all the survivors hostage. I haven’t played Shadow Dancer in fifteen years and I’m surprised at how pretty it is. The sprites are very detailed and the destroyed city landscape is excellent. I’m also surprised that I’ve never doubted Joe’s ninja stealth abilities before. He’s dressed in white, throwing shurikens at anything that moves, while pursued by a big white dog that barks constantly. Sam Fisher would shake his head at that…unless it gave away his position to enemies, then Sam would probably just make a mental note to do it later. The above soldier gives me some problems until I remember how to beat him – set the dog on him! By holding down and B, you charge up the dog’s attack meter (the grey picture of a dog at the bottom of the screen), then release it to send the dog to wrestle with opponents, so you can chop them or lob a shuriken at them. Again, I question Joe’s methods here – the logic of trying to reclaim a city from an evil gang with a dog at your side seems flawed. I imagine Joe doesn’t have a poop scoop with him for a start. Maybe Joe couldn’t find anyone to dog-sit for him.
Shadow Dancer is broken down into five levels, each with a number of rounds. The final round of each level consists of a boss battle. After a few mishaps fighting the soldier, I glide through 1-1 and 1-2, straight to the boss battle on 1-3. The main way to play through Shadow Dancer is to memorize each level, almost like you would a school test. I really like Shadow Dancer, but what stops it being one of the great Mega Drive games in my opinion is the need to memorize it to progress. A lot of games are based off trial and error, but Shadow Dancer seems offer little thought beyond almost choreographing the action. There is a later section (3-1) where I use to say the routine out loud as I played the level. It’s something like “Jump. Duck. Wait. Charge Dog. Release Dog. Shuriken. Jump over box. NINJA MAGIC!”. The Ninja Magic feature was seen in Revenge of Shinobi previously – press A and Joe uses a special attack to destroy all enemies on screen. I think the point I’m trying to make is, if you remember the routine for Shadow Dancer’s levels, you’ll fly through the game. I can’t remember the above boss’s routine, so I need to figure it out. It takes a few lives, but eventually I remember how to do it. Ninja Magic, then duck (not jump…I learned the hard way) over the boss’ fireball and keep firing shruikens into his face. I’ll remember that for next time. No dog on the boss stages – I imagine Joe has tied him to a lamp post round the corner.
After each stage, we get a bonus round. Joe jumps off a building (without the dog, thankfully) and has to shoot all the ninjas that bounce up towards him. My tactic on the bonus stage is to stay in the corner and keep firing. It’s an effective strategy this time – I hit all the ninjas and get three extra lives. I’m sure the ninjas are faster in later bonus stages, so we’ll see how effective this strategy is as I play on. I’ll apologise now for the pause signs on some of the screenshots too – Shadow Dancer is a fast game and Snipping Tool is not a fast tool. Trying to take a screenshot of Level 1’s boss cost me three lives, so the need to take screenshots is actually holding me back. I’m suffering for my art here. I’m using art in the loosest sense of the word.
As I play through 2-1 and 2-2, I’m surprised at how quickly the game’s levels are coming back to me. I’m not the best at video games, but I look pretty good breezing through Shadow Dancer. It’s a very graceful game – the above screen shot sees me crawl up to the enemy with the green shields, chop him down, then press Up and C to backflip over the fence and take out the enemies on the other side. Shadow Dancer is certainly the easiest Shinobi game I’ve played though. Infinite shurikens, enemies that don’t press you too much and can be avoided or taken out indirectly (ninja magic, dog) see a easier Shinobi game than usual. I’m not sure if this is a bad thing – I like a challenge, but I find that Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi itself can be frustrating games, so it’s nice to simply enjoy a Shinobi game.
The boss of stage 2-3 is this wall monster, which instantly makes me think of the Family Guy skit with Steven King (“Look, a lamp monster!!!”…”You’re running out of ideas, aren’t you?”) The wall monster isn’t too inspiring – he stretches his stone hands out then tries to drop them on your head. Simply use the Ninja Magic, then wait for the stone hands to materialize, avoid the drop and throw shurikens at the wall monster’s head. The next bonus stage is up next and I stick with my tactic of hugging the left of the screen and firing shurikens non stop. Alas, one ninja sneaks through…it’s not really explained what happens to that ninja. Does he go back to Union Lizard HQ to give an update? I like to think he’s still bouncing around New York aimlessly. I still get 2 extra lives, which is a generous bonus. You get 3 lives for shooting all the ninjas, 2 for getting most of them and 1 even if you fail horribly. It’s a very generous bonus scheme – there are four bonus rounds, so that potentially is 12 extra lives, the equivalent of two and a half continues.
Stage 3 is the Statue of Liberty. After the aforementioned 3-1 (based inside the Statue), Stage 3-2 is based on a lift climbing the Statue of Liberty. I’m convinced that it was gaming law in the 80’s/90’s that an action game had to have a lift stage. I find them all dull and a bit silly, I mean, the hero must know it’s a trap, why not take the stairs? Lift levels are all the same too – lift moves up, lift stops, enemies pile on, you beat them up, repeat. To be fair to Joe, the Statue of Liberty is huge and I wouldn’t fancy taking the stairs, especially with a dog in tow. This lift level can be a little tricky due to the enemies involved, jumping ninjas who require two hits to beat them and a helicopter who fires at the platform you’re standing on. Joe dies when he gets hit so you need to take the ninjas out quickly before they recover and attack you again.
The boss of Stage 3-3 is a large woman who attacks by a) leaping vertically off screen and landing on you and b) throws sawblades at you. Which of these attacks sounds more devastating to you? If you selected b), well done. However, Sawblade Lady constantly uses a), which leads to a long fight of her jumping on Joe’s head and pushing him back. Sure she throws some saw blades, but she would be better off doing that the whole time as Joe struggles to jump over large sawblades and I am useless of aiming shurikens at Sawblade Lady’s head, her only weak point. Eventually after a long three minutes, I defeat Sawblade Lady and hand cramp and move on to the next bonus stage. The ninjas are faster this time, but I just mash B and somehow hit all the ninjas. That’s 3 extra lives and damaged tendons for me.
Level 4 is called ‘Into The Darkness’ and appears to be in a cavern, not the 2000’s British hard rock band. 4-1 is the most irritating stage in the game thus far, a stair case like ascent/descent into the caverns where Joe’s biggest problem is red ninjas that keep jumping on his head. They do this on the last screen on the stage too, angering me no end. It’s a relief to finally finish the stage. 4-2 is even worse though…it’s partially in darkness and I am forced to literally dance through the shadows. Shadow Dancer becomes a lot more difficult when you can’t see where you’re going and I’m feeling like the challenge of the game has really ramped up. I make it through 4-2 though thanks to my faithful canine companion, determination, guts and save states.
The boss of 4-3 is a big wheel that rotates the falling ledge Joe is standing on, then throws fire at him. It takes me a while to work out what I need to hit to defeat him – I spend a good five minutes trying to hit one of the three cat heads until I realised that I needed to hit the gold axle in the middle of the wheel. I promptly did that to end the level…thanks to the wheel neglecting to throw fire at me. It’s almost like the wheel gave up once it only had a few hits left. Onto the final bonus level and in a nice touch, the background is dark, like level 4-2. Thankfully you can see the ninjas, though I still miss three of them…only 1 extra life.
Stage 5 is Union Lizard, so we’re on the home stretch now. Personally, I preferred it when Neo Zeed were the bad guys. Union Lizard sounds like angry reptiles looking for better working conditions and I’m not sure I want to get involved in a work based dispute. 5- 1 is actually divided up into five rooms. The first one is just full of blue soldiers, but I’ve learned by now that they are dog fodder so I swan through that room fairly quickly. Room 2 is full of the stupid red and black ‘rolling’ ninjas who have yet to figure out that rolling only blocks shurikens, not Joe’s katana. The weird green lizard men (above) are guarding Room 3, fresh from negotiating dress down Fridays and flexi time with Union Lizard bosses. They offer no resistance at all….absolutely none. All the weird green lizard men can do is crawl and jump at you, so they are fodder for Joe’s katana. Room 4 is full of flying ninjas, who take more pride in working for Union Lizard than the lizard men. Unfortunately for them, I’ve got a sneaky plan – run forward so the ninjas materialize and chase me, then use Ninja Magic to wipe them all out. The final room, Room 5, is filled with super tough black ninjas, who can take three hits. However, I’ve dealt with so many flying ninjas at this point that I’m thinking of adding it to my CV. The trick to try and take them out of the sky with shurikens or, if they jump at you, move out of the way of their landing spot so you get a free katana shot at them.
So…Stage 5-2 is the final boss, Sauros. I don’t really remember him or why I stopped trying to beat him, so I’m interested to see how this goes. His main weapons are a) summoning black ninjas and b) making fire fall from the sky. As weapons go, I’d say they are pretty good ones. You can only hit Sauros when he’s making it rain fire, as his head floats off his body, exposing his weak point, his neck. Even Ninja Magic is only effective at this point. I’m starting to realise why I probably quit trying to complete Shadow Dancer originally – this will be a long frustrating battle, as I have to ward off ninjas and fire just to get a hit in. The fire is a nightmare to avoid, as there is only a small gap between the flames and the ninjas have a tendency to jump on you while you’re trying to avoid the fire. Even though I’m getting good at handling ninjas by now, they can take over the screen if you don’t kill them quickly enough.
I decide the best strategy is to use save states after every time I hit Sauros. Sure, it’s cheap, but otherwise this battle could get very frustrating. Even with save states, I’m struggling. It’s not until a fortuitous piece of playing, where I kill all the ninjas, dodge the flames and get two hits in on Sauros exposed neck that I start to feel confident again. However, legions of ninjas and my tiring eyes cause me to struggle…until a new strategy is developed – use save states after I make any progress. It’s cheap, but my logic is Sauros would do the same if he was playing against me, right? Regardless of morals, the new strategy pays off as I manage to clear all the ninjas and get two more hits off Sauros. With one hit needed on Sauros to complete the game, I’m prepared for an epic battle…and am disappointed as Sauros throws out two ninjas, then goes for his fire attack. I throw a shuriken at his neck instantly to end Union Lizard and their grip on New York…
Verdict – I’m pleased that I went back and completed Shadow Dancer – that’s a game off my list of ‘games to go back to’. Sure, I had to really abuse the save states, but that last boss warranted it. Sauros is easily the most difficult part of Shadow Dancer, so any advantage I could use to complete my goal, had to be used.
So, how do I feel about Shadow Dancer after completing it? I enjoyed it, but I don’t feel any need to ever play it again. If anything, Shadow Dancer has made me want to play the other game in the Shinobi series. I’ve never played much of Shinobi and Revenge of Shinobi. I’ve never played any of Shinobi III or the Shinobi games on other consoles. There are lot of Shinobi games to experience and now I’ve beaten Shadow Dancer, I feel like I can move on and experience them.