It’s a great time to be a retro gaming fan. Nostalgia for 8-bit games is at a fever pitch, and there’s no shortage of ways to play old NES games thanks to services like Nintendo Online. Beyond the classics, developers are continually finding novel ways to create new games that retain a retro feeling while updating the less flattering parts of the era.
Sometimes it can be tough to sort through a sea of intriguing throwbacks, but one brand new 2021 release particularly stands. Cyber Shadow is one of this January’s absolute best games — and it’s available for free on Xbox Game Pass for console and PC right now.
Published by Shovel Knight studio Yacht Club Games, Cyber Shadow is a modern 8-bit game in the vein of Ninja Gaiden. Players slash their way through levels collecting upgrades and taking down big robots. Without knowing it’s a brand new title, it’d be easy to mistake as something straight out of the NES library.
Making a faithful retro game isn’t easy. While it may seem less complicated than a modern 3D game, old games have tons of weird behaviors due to the limitations of the time. Movement can often feel stilted, character hitboxes are all over the place, and game-breaking glitches are very much part of the experience in some communities. That’s not to mention that NES games are notoriously difficult, an outdated design holdover from an arcade era that used difficulty to get more quarters out of players.
Creating a new retro game is a tough balancing act between preservation and reinvention. Cyber Shadow is the rare example of a game that manages to tow that line with finesse. On an aesthetic level, it checks every box. There’s detailed sprite work, excellent 8-bit jams, and breakable walls full of secrets ala Castlevania. Even when the game gets mechanically more complex than an average NES game, nothing feels out of step with the past.
Below that surface, Cyber Shadow is doing a lot of work to avoid the frustrating parts that come with that territory. That manifests in a handful of subtle ways. The movement in particular is much cleaner than games of the time, sneaking in some changes that make it feel more fluid. Go back and play the original Ninja Gaiden and you’ll quickly notice how the main character stops moving entirely every time he attacks. That adds a stuttering pace that’s awkward to return to in 2021.
It’s best retro cleanup comes in its approach to difficulty. In something like Super Mario. Bros, there’s little room for error. Mess up a few times and it’s back to 1-1. That makes it tough to actually beat an older game without some level of mastery and a lot of patience. Cyber Shadow solves that by getting rid of lives entirely and adding frequent checkpoints to each level. Those little changes re-contextualize the game and make it feel closer to something like Super Meat Boy where the challenge comes from mastering individual sections rather than an entire game.
All of those tweaks straighten out Ninja Gaiden’s spine and that’s exactly what a game like this needs to do. Cyber Shadow takes players who are hungry for platforming action back to the NES era without forcing them to reckon with how faulty their memories of it are. It’s a game that let’s old school fans remain blissfully unaware of how poorly some of their favorites have really held up.
Cyber Shadow is available for free on game Pass for Xbox consoles and PC.