It was hard to see the point in 2019’s near shot-for-shot remake of the Lion King. More than anything, it seemed like an exercise in nostalgia, or a ‘spot the difference’ with the original. Obviously the answer was ‘money’, but at no point did we find ourselves actually enjoying it on its own merits.
Shadow Gangs is the equivalent of 2019’s Lion King. It looks like Shinobi, sounds like Shinobi, and plays like Shinobi. It has the same opening-style crawl and character poses in the concepts. Levels play out in almost exactly the same pattern, and you’ll be able to anticipate enemies based on the original. Enemies are drafted in wholesale, and bosses reference their 1980’s selves too (although, inexplicably, the big-bad is modelled on Freddie Mercury, which makes it the second time this month that we’ve been defeated by Freddie Mercury on our Xbox One). It’s even got the same shooting range-like bonus game, just with a pistol rather than shurikens.
We had to dig out our Sega Megadrive Mini to check, and yep, the similarities are ‘noticeable’, if we’re being kind. Our next thought was ‘why?’. It would have been perfectly valid to produce a spiritual sequel to the Shinobi series, but instead we get a half-remake that never lets you enjoy the experience on its own merits. We kept getting dragged out of the game and any immersion it might have had, as we spent more time spotting the homages. We didn’t feel right using the ‘plagiarism’ word, but it got dangerously close.
Credit where it’s due, though, as when seen through the lens of a remake there’s a lot to appreciate here. It’s graphically on point, clearly evoking the 16-bit graphics of the era. The chunky, late 80’s action-movie vibe reminded of some old favourites like Two Crude Dudes, Final Fight and, yep, Shinobi. The music has the non-stop midi-rawk that you’d expect from a Streets of Rage. Shadow Gangs is some cracking cosplay of games of that period.
It plays pretty well too. There are no collision or timing issues – this is a straight-up side-scrolling brawler that gets the basics bang to rights. For those who haven’t played Shinobi, you have a single attack that is a shuriken at long distance, and a katana at close range. A few power-ups litter your path, allowing you to change – Altered Beast-style – into a bulkier costumed ninja, partner up with a drone or rain down landmines, among others. If you remember Shinobi, you can also jump up into the background elements of the game screen.
The story is best ignored (the crawl is a weird mistranslation – it’s a formulaic ‘save your family life’ plot), while the levels are a bizarre mish-mash of robot factories, ganglands, and lizardmen swamps. Nothing is coherent in the world that’s built here, but we suspect that few will care. It’s more a question of whether you will actually see these levels, however. Shadow Gangs is – in modern terms – ridiculously and obstinately difficult. On default difficulty, a single hit will kill you, and you’ll be sent packing to the start of the level. Lose all your lives and you will be sent back to the start of the world (each world has three levels). Even on easier difficulties, you will get three strikes before you’re sent to the start, and there are no health packs to replenish those strikes.
It might have been okay if the rest of the game felt fair, but Shadow Gangs will spawn enemies on top of you, drop them behind you, and generally ambush you constantly and at speed. Enemies will have bizarre rulesets that you won’t understand until you’ve died at least once to them: a prone sniper needs you to jump on his back; some enemies can’t be shurikened. You will die, and making progress means you will just die even more.
It’s a game that expects you to memorise its enemy placement and timings, then. There’s a wee joy in mastering a level in this way, making it all muscle-memory. We can probably draw the first few levels for you on the back of a napkin. It won’t be for everyone though: only you will know whether you have the patience to get there. If you have experience of playing games like Shinobi on launch, you’ll be prepared and battle-worn. If you’re used to modern design principles like lives, continues and saved progress, well, this might not be for you.
On a similar topic, it should be noted that the levels are reasonably substantial; longer than you might expect. It only makes the punishments for death even more stark: if you run out of health, you’ve got a long way to go to get back. For this reviewer, it pushed hard on the edges of my patience, and I’d likely have given up early on if it wasn’t for the review. Again, each to their own, and there are likely Shinobi fans out there who have been crying into their ninja masks, waiting for something like Shadow Gangs to come out.
As a love letter to Shinobi, Shadow Gangs on Xbox One gets a lot right. It’s more of a remake than a spiritual sequel, but it looks the part and plays sweetly too. But as niches go, the one that Shadow Gangs wants to fill is incredibly small: we suspect that modern beat ‘em up fans will find it too wilfully unfair, while old-school brawler fans will have to overlook the complete lack of innovation and the £19.99 price tag. That’s not a big demographic to aim a shuriken at, but if you’re in it, then Shadow Gangs might have what you’re after.