10 May 2018

Shinobi: Is Less Truly More?

When an attack hits the enemy, he dies - it should be as simple as that. But it rarely is.
Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, when describing the look and feel of his designs, noted the motto “less is more”. He used only the absolute necessities, with each part of his constructs having more than a single use. It is a working method that lives in all crafts, so what about Action Games? With each game we’ve been looking for the depth, the variation, the combination of attacks and how it all works in complex ways to motivate us: but what if a game strove to do the opposite, how would that work? Maybe 忍Shinobi for the Playstation 2 is one such game.

As a series 忍Shinobi has been a long running Sega franchise. While not as big as Sonic The Hedgehog, it has had nine titles released before Overworks took the series in a new direction hoping to leave a mark on the newly released Sega Dreamcast. Focusing on a new character and world this game was to usher in a new era of action titles. Sadly due to the downfall of the Dreamcast, production was shifted to the Playstation 2. In the meantime Devil May Cry would instead make its mark on the genre, leaving 忍Shinobi to finally release one year later in November of 2002, greeted by silence.

In 忍Shinobi you play as Hotsuma(秀真), a ninja wielding an accursed blade. He is extremely mobile, having a double jump, a dash that leaves mirror images to distract foes and can even run along walls. When fighting he can slash (攻擊), charge up an attack (集氣), kick enemies to daze them (踢), throw a limited supply of kunai to quickly stun an enemy (苦無 ), use a few magical Makimono Scrolls (巻物) and toss out eight kunai at once for an area of effect stun(八個苦無): that’s all. You won’t get any new weapons throughout the game, nor will new attacks be unlocked or improved upon. Combat is, on the surface, very simple. But complexity isn’t the goal here; 忍Shinobi is a game that streamlines its approach. Without the kick, you’d have to focus on the limited kunai. Run out of kunai, you’d still have the kick. The kunai also deal minor damage and can destroy locks. You can dodge, but also use its afterimage to distract enemies to attack them from behind for bonus damage. If you dodge to the sides while locked on to an enemy you’ll appear behind them. Hitting an enemy resets your air-dodge capabilities, allowing for tense and long aerial encounters. The "less is more" mentality is present here in how the options play out, with each move - like the dodge - having more than a single use and existing for a reason. Every option available to Hotsuma is essential. Though to reach this level the game requires a lot from the player. There is no in-game map displaying where enemies are; you have to remember where they are despite the speed of the combat. Complex save systems and checkpoints are absent; you die, you go back. There are no upgrade systems; you fight the battle, not Hotsuma. Every option in 忍Shinobi has been carefully weighed against each other and considered: can player ingenuity replace this, and if not: can this option not be interwoven in existing options? There is a sort of purity in its gameplay, with as a result that it can also be incredibly difficult.

The purity is lost on Hotsuma himself however with his blade Akujiki (妖刀「悪食」) constantly lusting for the Yin of lost souls. While playing a red meter will constantly drain and once it has emptied you’ll start taking damage. Kill an enemy and his Yin will be absorbed into the blade, its hunger sated... if only for a moment. This is where 忍Shinobi’s core mechanic comes to light: the Tate System. Every fight has a set number of foes, killing an enemy increasing the sword’s damage as it thirsts for more bloodshed. With each enemy killed you grow stronger and stronger until the final enemy of the encounter is killed or 5 seconds pass without bloodshed. Once the Tate chain is completed (or failed) a short animation plays out and the sword’s power is reset; the animation - while stylish - also allows players a short reprieve from the constant action and a moment to get their bearings. Killing enemies with a full Tate chain also grants extra amounts of Yin increasing your chance of survival. It, like many elements of the game, is simple as a concept but deep in its execution.

As such, enemies aren’t as much designed around killing you, as they are about blocking your attacks and challenging your Tate chain to fail and have you bleed out. The souls of fallen Oroboro Ninjas gang up on you, Ninken dogs try to keep their armored heads in front of you while Sennin Kunoichi throw kunai to stun you in hopes of slowing you down just long enough. Stages operate differently too, instead of being home to exploration or arenas like most action titles, each stage has a distinct theme. The first is a small maze that teaches the fundamentals of combat and platforming without hefty punishes. The second already introducing floating stones that need to be destroyed to continue. Later stages add more walls to run along than floors to walk on. Some are purely vertical, others are large areas filled with ranged enemies and pits of lava to hinder your progress.

Trying to take in the environment, enemy locations, certain items you want to pick up, attacks and improvising one seamless chain of death while under extreme time pressure and with great speed is 忍Shinobi in a nutshell; you can never sit still and take a breather to take in the surroundings.

In a way, its stages are a hybrid of Action, Racing, Platforming and Puzzle genres. A methodology that lets the game stay interesting despite its outwardly simple gameplay.
This style is also present in the bosses. While you can kill them with weak attacks and kunai, the real goal quickly becomes apparent when extra enemies appear: you have to kill them and use the final most powerful blow from Akujiki to kill the boss in a single stroke. These engagements then become a violent dance of you dashing from foe to foe, killing them with the boss breathing down your neck. Then, when the final hit is up, you’ve only got a few seconds to open the towering giant up for the kill, using smart positioning, kicks, kunai or all of the above. When it works, it’s a joy. To end a successful Tate Chain, seeing a boss’s entire life-bar drain in a single blow and having everything be cut to pieces is a spectacular sight. But that’s if it works, and it tends not to. More often than not you’ll end your chain too far from the boss, or he’ll be in one of his invincible attack animations, some lasting nearly 8 seconds. The further you get in the game, the smaller these openings become. Some are also immune to stuns, others are hyper aggressive or at times the game just doesn’t want to play ball. While frustrating does keep the bosses and the stages themselves interesting on subsequent playthroughs. No matter how good you are, a single enemy out of place can throw an entire game-plan upside down forcing you to quickly adapt. And without checkpoints, it’s that...or die. The camera does a sizable job keeping up but can get in the way. While wallrunning it tends to lock into place and the turningspeed is slower than one would want. Resetting the camera by pressing L1 quickly becomes the default way of orientation. Thankfully there is always a checkpoint before the boss, though this does somewhat ruin their adapt or die mentality. Instead of watching a Tate go up in smokes and waiting for the next perfect opportunity, bosses turn into a player pressing retry if things aren’t going their way. A playstyle promoted by relatively quick loading times.


This is even further motivated by the scoring system. The game gives out rankings based on the amount of enemies killed, Tate score, how many hits you kill the boss with, the amount of Makimono Scrolls you have left and grants bonus points if you did the whole thing without getting hit. Perform well enough and you get the vaunted S-rank. As a whole the system motivates you to use the game’s systems, having you kill every enemy using the Tate system, not use magic, complete every single fight and kill the boss in a single stroke, while taunting you to do it all without taking a hit. Strangely enough, the timer doesn’t play into it; a notable omission considering just how badly the game wants to rush players.

This rush is amplified on higher difficulty settings however. While they don't remix or change enemies, they are made much more aggressive to up the pressure. Akujiki also drains your Yin much faster and bosses have more HP, requiring a full combo and at times a charged attack in their back to kill them in one hit. Higher difficulty settings change many of the game’s details, but leave the surface untouched. Aside from killing there are also Oroboro Coins to collect, some hidden in devilishly dangerous places with some being exclusive to higher difficulties. Collecting enough will unlock things like artwork, a movie gallery and even new playable characters: Moritsume (守恒) and Joe Musashi (ジョー・ムサシ). Instead of offering different movesets these characters play the same as Hotsuma, but - again - their details are different. Moritsume’s Yin drains even faster than Hotsuma - fully draining within 20 seconds on the highest difficulty - takes more damage, but brings 250% more pain to his enemies. Musashi on the other hand wields a regular katana and thus doesn’t have to deal with the constant pressure, a trade-off for his lowered damage output. Finally, his kunais are infinite and can damage some bosses that the other characters’ can’t, but they do lack the ability to stun.
This change of characters is interesting as it, like many elements of the game, plays into the "less is more" ideology of 忍Shinobi. While the basics remain the same, their subtle changes to mechanics make them feel very different. 

With the three characters, difficulty modes and ranks players can get a huge amount of hours out of this title. Those looking to procure the highest attainable rank -  S-Rank and No Damage on the highest difficulty - with each character are looking at at least 50 to a 100 hours of playtime filled with experimentation, quick reflexes, research, sweat drops, on the fly thinking, intense pressure, platforming, plenty of retries and some glorious kills with a final hidden stage as their reward. Others might be done with the "less is more" approach after one playthrough but will still find a short, but intense little game that tries some new things. 忍Shinobi is a title that shows that “simple” isn’t necessarily bad, but can be a asset to a game that builds around it, showing that it can stand on its gameplay alone and can do without the many additions the genre has gained over the years. That’s what 忍Shinobi offers. A unique, deep and also simple title that doesn’t pull any punches.

Less can indeed be more. 


★ opinion style ★
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In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.

This is one of those games that just clicks with me on an almost personal level. I can always boot it up no matter what I’m doing and have a blast. I think that’s because it is so simple in its methods and inputs, but so deep in the underlying surface. I can always learn something new, but I can also always pick it up again. The threshold to pick this game up and play it again isn’t that high, unlike some other games that are far more complex. Its sense of style, the music, the way the camera pans out to show all your kills; the game just oozes entertainment for me and whenever I play it I can’t get enough.
It does have its ups and downs for me though. When the enemies die the game pauses for a second to show you the kills, while great, it gets old fast. Same with having to retry the bosses over and over to get that perfect kill, it feels very trial and error at times. Lastly, some stages never sat right with me. 3A is a nightmare to do, while 6A’s platforming and orientation just make my head spin; though respect for the developers for trying to make a completely vertical level. Enfin, there’s a lot to like here, and some things to dislike. One thing’s for sure, no matter how old I am, there’s a good chance I’ll stick this game in again at some point just to feel like a ninja again. Nothing is as tense, as fast or as satisfying to play than this game...at least to me!

★ wishful thinking ★
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With this little section, I'll explore what small things could easily be added in a patch that would improve the game.
  • The camera can be turned fully while hanging on walls;
  • Add an option to increase camera rotation speed;
  • Allow players to switch the camera option from inverted to normal;
  • Enemies killed during the boss don’t count towards the Tate-score;
  • Allow us to skip the Tate animation;
  • Ranks are assigned to the difficulty they are gained on;

★ postscript notes ★
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  • Ironically, when attending the HKU University of the Arts, one of my teachers once violently noted “no, less is fucking less” when hearing a student make the famous remark to defend his work. This is the first time, nearly a decade later, since that occurrence that I’ve used the term;
  • Despite only selling around 800.000 copies, the game was considered a success and thus spawned a sequel. Kind of hard to imagine in this day and age that such an amount of copies sold could be considered a success; smart budgeting and knowing your target audience goes a long way;
  • Akujiki’s kanji 妖刀「悪食 can be translated to “meat eater” and “evil eater”. The former a possible reference to a monk that breaks his vow and eats meat, the latter translation is pretty obvious;
  • Depending on the region of your game, certain functions may differ. Coins will unlock things in different orders, and the difficulties are changed. The American version has Normal, Hard and Super difficulties, while the European version adds an Easy mode, while removing Hard and renaming Super to Hard. Contrary to popular belief, European Hard isn’t the same to American Hard, it is the same as American Super difficulty;
  • The game runs at 60 frames per second, and allows NTSC 60hrz even on PAL copies of the game. This is paired with a 480p SD resolution, the game does not (fully) support widescreen. Outside of a single fight there isn’t that much lag to be found;
  • Probably due to memory limitations, the Japanese voices were removed from the European release in favor of other languages;
  • Like many of the action titles at the time, 忍Shinobi’s camera is inverted by default and this cannot be changed;
  • With such a simple setup, one could wonder where they’d take the sequel. I’ll leave that up to a future article. Nightshade is a very unique title;
  • The "less is more" aesthetic can also be found in Hotsuma’s appearance and that of Akujiki. Hotsuma is a generic ninja, but his scarf - a simple red haze - sticks out and leaves a distinct mark on an otherwise bland world. Akujiki is also a very simplistic looking sword;
  • The game won 6th place in Gametrailer’s “Top 10 Most Difficult Games”, winning out over Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening, but losing to Ninja Gaiden;
  • The game actually sports quite a nice selection of magical abilities, but it doesn’t promote their use, both in the Tate system and the ranking system. Enemies killed, or even harmed by spells, won’t give points;
  • Sadly, because of the way the game is structured, you can skip most of the stage and go directly to the boss and farm the enemies they spawn until you’ve gotten enough Tate points off of them for an easy S-rank, reducing its value. Finally, the ranking system strangely enough doesn’t apply your ranks to a difficulty, but instead to the stage. Beat a stage on Easy with an S-rank, and it will stick despite you getting a C on the hardest setting; making the ranking-screen a bit deceptive;
  • Special thanks to my partner in life for supplying the kanji! 謝謝!

★ sources ★
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1 comment :

  1. It is precisely because the game looked too simple that I never even gave it a chance, when I look at the gameplay it looks like a mediocre with simplistic mechanics, and thus I never touched it.

    I assume this game is like those super hard platformers or maybe like the excellent dustforce in playstyle, atleast that's what I got reading your article.. Need to try it now.

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