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You need to play the best retro ninja game on Nintendo Switch ASAP

Shinobi strikes again!

Originally Published: 
shinobi 3 cover art

From American Twitch streamers to animated movies based on Danish building blocks, the ninja now has very little to do with the unrest that roiled 15th century Japan in what’s known as the Sengoku period. The ninja aren't associated with the Hōjō clan or the Siege of Kawagoe Castle. Throughout the years, they’ve become catch-all warriors who can perform amazing feats — and that includes sneaking onto your game console as part of your Nintendo Switch Online subscription via a Sega Genesis classic.

First appearing in American culture in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, and then being associated with the type of martial arts Bruce Lee showcased in Enter The Dragon, the ninja really took off in the Eighties. The martial arts magazine Black Belt, looking back on a decade of ninja fever in 1989, noted that as the “increasingly technical, regimented, and pragmatic decade moved on, people saw the image of the ninja as an escape, a doorway to danger, mysterious power, and adventure.”

The omnipresence of ninjas in the American ‘80s started with Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja, a 1980 best-selling novel that John Carpenter tried and failed to adapt. Then came the 1981 movie Enter The Ninja, the NBC show The Master, and so on.

The video game industry of the 1980s never saw a trend it didn’t like and jumped on ninjas with a passion. By the late ‘80s, the Sega arcade game Shinobi stood out amongst the competition.

Renowned shinobi Joe Musashi must once again defeat the Neo Zeed crime syndicate.


The side-scroller’s main character, Joe Musashi, became a Sega icon. The character spawned a series of sequels, the last of which, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, which is available right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.

The plot of Shinobi III is similar to the plot of Shinobi: Joe has to defeat the evil terrorist organization Neo Zeed. But the plot isn’t really relevant to Shinobi III, which focuses more on Joe—an intro scrolling text introduces him as “stronger than steel” and moving “faster than a whirlwind.” Pre-game options allow not just for difficulty settings, but a choice of how many throwing shurikens a player wants to start off with.

The side-scrolling action really kicks off in the second level, or as the game calls it, Round 2. After running and jumping through the forest, Joe moves through Round 2 on his trusty steed Kurenai. Side-scrolling on horseback makes for exhilarating gameplay, as the player sees the enemies first in the distance and then running quickly at them in the foreground. There's an exciting rush as Kurenai jumps over obstacles and enemies.

Joe even rides a horse!


Rounds in Shinobi III move between mystical references to feudal Japan and hi-tech dystopias, with Joe battling ghostly samurai and fire-breathing robot dinosaurs. Perhaps the most intense of these is Round 3, which earns the name “The Body Weapon” due to its boss, a hideous hydra who lurks in the background for most of the level. Hydra is one of the true grotesques of the 16-bit era.

Joe moves between these wildly different environments in stoic silence. He surfs, he knocks out machine guns, he wall jumps. His greatest advantage is going ninjitsu mode, during which he can perform a variety of collected abilities. They start off with lightning-based temporary invincibility and move on from there to fire attacks, super jumps, and enemy annihilation. These are granted sparingly, with most of Joe’s attacks coming from throwing stars and melee combat.

According to director Tomoyuki Ito, Shinobi III’s fast-paced horse-racing and surfing levels were meant to have “the same effect that a car chase has in an action film,” taking references from Treasure’s cult classic Gunstar Heroes. It’s fitting, considering that the most common understanding of ninjas these days comes from pop culture in the first place. But just because they’re based in movies and books doesn’t mean they don’t have power. Shinobi III is able to pull off the same larger-than-life feeling that made ninjas inescapable in the first place.

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