After the last article about Ninja Scooter Simulator - which featured no ninjas at all, despite the promises of its title - I feel like I owe you some actual ninjutsu action. Well, today's game definitely has plenty of that, delivered in a manner that you might not be expecting. It's Almanic's 1994 SNES release Shien's Revenge! I'll try to keep track of how many times I misspell that as "Shine's Revenge".
This title screen isn't giving me much to work with. It's dark and mysterious, much like a ninja or a stain on a bus seat. Nice gradient work on the "Shien" part, mind you. Very Transformers. Okay, let's get a story going here, shall we?
A pair of young ninja lovers named Shien and Aska are living a life of simple ninjahood, slaying all those who stand against them and doing tricks with ninja stars, which Aska can supposedly control with her mind. They're good ninjas, damn good, and according to this intro text they are "proud of their invincibility." Spoiler alert: Shien is not invincible. Not when I'm controlling him, at any rate.
Having been set up as a nigh-unstoppable slayer of men, Aska is promptly kidnapped. Shien sets out to find Aska, and get his revenge on those who abducted her. Hey, that's where the game's title comes from!
Here's Shien now, sporting a classic Beatle cut and eyebrows that could choke an elephant. Some interesting trivia for the manga fans amongst you - the characters in Shien's Revenge were apparently designed by legendary manga artist Go Nagai, creator of Mazinger Z, Devilman and many others. I was hoping this meant there would be giant robots in Shien's Revenge, but sadly there are not. Just Nazis. We'll get to that soon enough, but let's begin, as is customary, with stage one.
When you think of 16-bit ninja action games, I'm sure your thoughts turn to side-scrolling platform adventures in the vein of the Shinobi titles or The Ninja Warriors. To its credit, Shien's Revenge goes for a different approach, with the gameplay taking the form of a crosshair shooter. You control Shien's floating, disembodied hand, and by pressing the attack button you can fling ninja stars at distant enemies. Someone at Almanic must have really enjoyed the shuriken-slinging minigame from the original Shinobi, and that's fine by me.
You have projectiles, but for some reason they don't work on enemies who pop up right in your face, like these lanky masked ninjas. No reason is ever given for the fact that you can't kill enemies with your shurikens once they're close enough to read the "Made in Taiwan" sticker on their bootleg Ultraman masks, but it means you need another way to defeat them. Luckily, Shien has a knife in his grasp, and if you swipe your cursor / severed hand across an enemy you'll slash them. The knife can also be used to block incoming attacks, both projectiles and melee, by holding it in the path of the thing that's trying to kill you. Just to reiterate, despite his boasting Shien is not invincible and blocking is a vital skill to master if you plan on getting any further than the first stage.
That's the basic flow of the gameplay - block attacks, dispatch close-up enemies as quickly as possible by hacking at them and try to pick off as many distant foes as you can. This sounds like it could be rather awkward to control using a SNES controller, and indeed it is - the developers did a decent job of making it responsive, even offering the use of two buttons to make the cursor move faster or more slowly, but it still feels rather imprecise. It's a good job that you can use the SNES mouse to play Shien's Revenge, then. Not only is it smoother and more accurate, but it makes you feel better about spending all that money on a SNES mouse just to make obscene nine-frame animations in Mario Paint. You can even control the game using the Super Scope. Don't use the Super Scope. That's just a good general rule, of course.
As always in such matters, reaching the end of the stage means it's time for a boss battle. Guarding level one is Sawtooth, although looking at his profile I think Snaggletooth would have been more appropriate. What's the matter, don't they have dentistry in... hang on, when is this game set? Seventeenth century Japan? No, I suppose they didn't have dentistry then. Carry on.
Fighting Sawtooth is like fighting the game's standard enemies all at once, thanks to his ability to jump towards and away from the player. When he's at a distance you can chuck shurikens at him and deflect his energy blasts with your knife, and when he comes close you can block his attacks and then counter with a slash of your own. It's rather good fun, all told, and if I'm honest I'd say it's more enjoyable than the stages themselves, especially later in the game. For now, though, let's bask in the warm glow of Sawtooth's defeat and his expositionary dialogue.
For a slash-em-up starring a usually-taciturn ninja, Shien's Revenge has a surprisingly large amount of text in it. Sadly a lot of it is very "anime," in that Shien is thicker than a lead ingot sandwich and twice as dense - he's constantly repeating the last thing he was told, he doesn't "get" context and he has to have things explained to him five or six times before they sink in. For example, Sawtooth informs Shien that he'll have to travel through a Time Gate in order to save Aska. Shien travels through the Time Gate, yet is still incredulous when this makes him travel through time. Towards the end of the game, he still seems confused by time-travel despite having experienced it several times. It's a good thing Shien found a line of employment that doesn't require much brainpower, is what I'm saying.
The Time gate sends Shien back through time, all the way to Manchuria in the year 300BC, where he is immediately set upon by a swarm of mermen who look like hitherto-unrevealed Stands from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. The shape of their heads makes it look as though they got a bucket stuck on there and just drew eyes on it in an attempt to bluff their way through life with their head wedged in a bucket. They're a proud race, these mermen.
The bucket-headed gill-beasts are the most interesting thing about stage two, which is just stage one with a different dress on.
Not a particularly elegant dress, either - half of the stage takes place against this drab backdrop of repetitive grey mountains. Sometimes deadly fish jump out of the water at you. Here you can see me throwing a shuriken at one of these fish, a futile endeavour because they're always on the front plane and thus must be slashed with the knife. I'm only on the second stage and Shien's counter-intuitive inability to kill nearby enemies with ninja stars is already starting to grate a little.
Well, just keep it to yourself, Shien.
Oh, right, it was the boss approaching. It's a Chinese dragon, only a living one and not a load of blokes crouching under a long blanket. The dragon has two methods of attack: it either opens its mouth to shoot fireballs at you, which is a good opportunity for you to practise performing shuriken-based tonsillectomies, or it lunges forward and can be swatted away with your knife for even more damage. The pink things in the screenshot above are the remnants of my ninja magic, a screen-clearing attack that you can perform by clicking the right mouse button as long as you have a magic scroll, and once again ninjas cement their second place status as "gaming classes who use a ton of magic", just behind wizards. I bet Ninja Hogwarts has an even higher student mortality rate than the non-ninja version.
So, I killed the dragon. It wasn't difficult. Where to now? Or should I say when to now?
I should say both, because it seems the Time Gate is also a Space Gate and now Shien's landed in 20th century France. To be precise, he's landed in World War II during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Shien's not blessed with great luck, is he? Girlfriend kidnapped, attacked by a giant dragon, dropped into battle with the Third Reich. I can't help but feel this is karmic retribution for choosing a career as an assassin.
Halfway through the stage there's a battle against an armoured car. To defeat the armoured car, throw small, sharp pieces of metal at it until it explodes. Due to a shortage of materials brought on by the war, this particular car was armoured with wet newspapers and whatever plastic they made PS1 game cases from.
"It's really embarrassing! Wait until the Fuhrer hears about this, then we'll be for it!" Whaa whaa, sad trombone plays, the studio audience laughs, fade out on a shot of a pained Nazi being court-martialed and sentenced to death. Except I don't think these are authentic Nazis, they're the evil troops of the time-travelling villain who are simply dressed as Nazis to better blend in with their surroundings.
While playing as a Nazi-fighting ninja warrior sounds like something that will never lose its lustre, after a mere three stages Shien's Revenge is starting to drag. The main problem is that nothing changes, and every stage is functionally identical to the first. There are three types of enemy in each stage: normal troops who fire at you from the distance, less common palette-swapped enemies who do the same thing but faster, and the enemies who appear right in front of you, who can be of either colour. You move sideways through the stage, repeatedly disposing of these three threats until you reach the end of stage boss. It's the same in this stage is it is in stage one, or stage six, and while the unique control method and playstyle is fun and well implemented a little more variety would have gone a long, long way towards improving Shien's Revenge.
Here's the boss, standing off in the distance and dripping ectoplasm all over the place. His name is Wolfgang, he talks about himself in the third person and he fights just like the first boss: either in the background throwing projectiles or in your face trying to hit you. The fight against Wolfgang is much easier than the stage that preceded it, too. For one thing, unlike a Nazi soldier, Wolfgang doesn't have a machine gun. Also, when he uses his melee attack it seems he can only target the very centre of the screen, so you always know where to block. Not even being a ghost can protect him from Shien's blade - pretty lame, you'd think immunity to shankings would be a big draw for undead spirit warriors - and soon stage four is upon us.
Mongolia in the era of Genghis Kahn. All this land was conquered by the famous warlord, and frankly he's welcome to it. The developers set up a time-travel mechanic, and here I am traversing a barren brown desert with some brown rocks in the background. It's not exactly thrilling.
This is where I figured out I'd been playing the game all wrong, and instead of killing things I should be focusing on defence. Only enemies that appear in the front plane must be dispatched, and because you can't block while you're throwing ninja stars you'll last a lot longer if you deflect as many projectiles as you can and let the enemies wander off screen when they're done firing arrows / assault rifles / bolts of mystical energy at you.
This is Bangol. He says he's the commander of Genghis Khan's troops. And here I thought Genghis Khan was the commander of Genghis Khan's troops.
I like Bangol, he seems to be in the world-conquering evil business as an excuse to get into challenging fights rather than out of any real malice. He'll slaughter anyone who stands against him, but he does it with a smile on his face, like Ronald McDonald. His main attack is E. Honda's hundred hand slap, which you can block with your knife despite Bangol's hands being bigger than most two-door hatchbacks. Also, the sprite scaling in the boss fights is often ugly, but it does make Bangol's moustache even more impressive. It looks so solid, as though he could rip it off his face and use it as a billy club.
For the fifth stage Shien finds himself deep in the South American jungle, fighting the usual guerilla types. How did the beret become the headwear of choice for so many military units, anyway? Is there a big overlap between soldiers, artists and the French that I'm not aware of?
Also in the jungle are a great many vampire bats that are literally queueing up to bite me in the face. I don't think they're working with the guerillas, it's just a coincidence.
For those of us of a certain age, especially if you saw any wrestling at all while you were growing up, there is only one person you think of when you hear "The Undertaker" and it's not this guy. The Undertaker of Shien's Revenge is a wonderfully messed-up pile of spare parts in his own right, though - somehow he's the most powerful mercenary in El Dorado, despite having such obvious flaws as an exposed brain and a bare ribcage, which gives him the appearance of a monster that even the Umbrella corporation would have rejected as being too unsuitable for combat.
I wonder in what possible situation those trousers could act as camouflage. All I can come up with is a swimming pool that has been left unattended and has become clogged with algae. Mind you, when your hand glows like the neon sign over an Amsterdam massage parlour and you're wearing steampunk robo-goggles, stealth is probably not your priority.
With The Undertaker out of the way, Shien arrives in ancient Greece, cradle of civilisation and home to some very medieval-looking knights. I know the bad guys have access to a time machine and thus could have filled ancient Greece with Predator drones and woad-smeared Picts if they felt like it, but it still seems a bit incongruous. There's finally a tiny change in the gameplay here, because some enemies have shields that can't be penetrated by your throwing stars. If only the Nazis had armoured their vehicles using the shields of these ancient Greeks / mediaeval knights, World War II could have ended very differently.
"Have a look through the catalogue, fill in the order form and take a seat. I'll go and get your arse-kicking from the back!"
Ah nuts, only British people are going to get that. I forget about the global nature of the internet sometimes.
At least the boss sticks to the ancient Greek theme by being a minotaur. A really bloody cheerful one, if this screenshot is any indication. He twirls around the arena, hoping to catch Shien with his giant axe. Why do minotaurs always seem to have axes, anyway? I don't remember that being in the original myth. I suppose the prosaic answer would be that a giant bull-headed man would look daft using a rapier. Whatever weapon Argos is using, he fights the same as all the other bosses so you should have no trouble getting him out of the way. Onwards, to the final stage!
The final stage is a boss rush. A boss rush that seems to take place on Mario Kart's Rainbow Road, but a boss rush none-the-less. Things could have been worse, though - the boss battles are the most enjoyable part of the game, and fighting these freaks again is definitely preferable to another tedious slog through a bunch of rapid-firing, difficult-to-counter grunts.
After re-killing all the bosses, Shien reaches the mastermind of this sinister plot: Tempor, the octopus-bodied demon. It turns out that Aska has the power to do... something with the Time Gates - open them or strengthen them or whatever, it's not clear - which is why Tempor kidnapped her in the first place. Unlucky for him that Aska's boyfriend happened to be a deadly ninja assassin, really.
You will be unsurprised to learn that Tempor fights just like all the other bosses, only faster and more fiercely. I'm used to this kind of thing by now, so let's just cut Tempor down quickly and get ready for his second form, shall we. He's bound to have a second form. Demonic overlords always do.
See, what did I tell you? Don't worry, Shien, you've already beaten him once, and surely he can't be more powerful now given that you knocked the stuffing out of him, like, two minutes ago.
Our brave hero, ladies and gentlemen.
So you have to fight Tempor again, except now he's missing the octopus bits of his grim form. I have to be honest, I'd rather lost interest by this point, and it was a relief when Tempor went down the second time and Shien's Revenge was over.
Oh, for pity's sake, I've had enough of your nonsense, Tempor. This scene is much more enjoyable if you read Tempor's "I'm still here" line in the tiny, whimpering voice of someone who was brought to a party by some acquaintances who then ditched him and went somewhere else.
Then Tempor explodes, and the game really is over.
The explosion sets off the Time Gate, which kindly deposits Shien and Aska on a tropical beach. That has to be the best possible outcome of an evil extra-dimensional creature exploding two feet away from you.
And so the ninja lovers are reunited, the world is safe from Tempor's machinations (more of a happy side-effect of Shien's rampage than its main goal) and I can say that yes, this game definitely had ninjas in it.
It also had some nice ideas in it, too, the most obvious being the central gameplay mechanic. It's just... cool. A nice change of pace from the usual ninja games, and excellent use of the SNES mouse. What's holding Shien's Revenge back is a lack of ambition and diversity - every enemy in every stage is essentially interchangeable and there's no real surprises. There's a lack of polish to the presentation, too, and while the music is okay the graphics are slightly on the bland side, especially the backgrounds.
There are some unlockable options to increase the fun you can wring out of the game, which is nice - extra difficulty levels and even a mode that lets player two control the bosses - plus a training mode and a password system, so while it does get pretty difficult towards the end there's some leniency, too. Shien's Revenge is definitely a game you should try if you're looking for something a bit different, and it's a solidly above-average game - just one that feels as though with a bit of extra work it could have been something much better.
I only spelled it "Shine's Revenge" three times, for the record.