Shinobi is polarizing. On the one hand, the throwback to arcade-styled gameplay and difficulty is refreshing. Unfortunately, it all comes wrapped in an uneven package littered with rough edges, strictly limiting its appeal to dedicated fans of traditional 2D action sidescrollers only. The story is, quite literally, ridiculous, starting in feudal Japan, flashing forwards to 2056 AD, and ending on an alien spaceship. In between you fight on top of moving cars, jet fighters, and face off against a lava shark. Again, absolutely and intentionally ridiculous. Believe me, it's more enjoyable the less you think about it.
The gameplay holds up fairly well; jumps, double jumps, parrying, kunai, grapple hooks (handy for traversing the levels), magic, sword slashing, and combos - it's all in there. You can even employ trademark ninja maneuvers, like jumping off of walls and performing ground slides. Additionally, there are context-based attacks sprinkled throughout the levels. Triggered by stealthily sneaking up on a foe and pressing the X button, they result in Jiro executing the poor guy by jamming a hook into his back, or pushing him off the ledge, or some other similar fatality.
Although it is straightforward and satisfying, the combat never evolves. All of your moves are present at the beginning of the game, so there's no sense of progression to the gameplay. It would be far better if your abilities were unlocked gradually over the course of the game. The magic is never put to any specific use, instead you use the four different kinds of magic at your own discretion. There are undoubtedly instances when all of the magic types are useful (for example, water magic makes Jiro move faster and jump higher, while thunder will make him impervious to environmental hazards such as spikes), but I found no compelling reason to use any besides fire.
Some levels feature multiple boss encounters, of which only a few are memorable (ninja vs. shark, anyone?). The rest consist of repetitive and easy-to-counter boss battles. The variety of enemies, however, is commendable. Jiro faces off against several different types of ninjas, futuristic soldiers, and even aliens. You can parry most enemy attacks but there are times when you'll be unable to evade cheap shots, especially when being assaulted from multiple directions.
Shinobi is a very challenging game. There are four difficulties and I suggest you take the accompanying descriptions of each to heart before diving in. 'Beginner' difficulty grants you an infinite number of lives (meaning you won’t have to return to the beginning of a level unless you quit the game without saving at a checkpoint). The 'Punishing' difficulty requires real life ninja skills and focus. There is something endearing about the retro style of the challenge on offer, but that doesn't prevent Shinobi from feeling downright frustrating at times - there are a few spotty instances of bad collision detection, and sometimes you'll simply have to guess if there's a platform below the screen or a bottomless pit. There's a scoring system which rewards you for landing attacks or collecting coins and penalizes you for dying, using magic, or getting hit by a foe, and at the end of each level you're graded on your performance, with the lowest possible grade being a C (grading is so lenient these days). You can also save your replay to watch later, although I cannot fathom why anyone would want to do so.
Shinobi’s story mode consists of 8 stages, each of which can be completed in 10 to upwards of 20 minutes, depending on how many times you die and have to restart. The latter half of the game flies by, and all aspects of originality in the game's design tapers off, from art direction to level construction. The penultimate stage features a lengthy maze involving specially marked doors that will have you repeating rooms if you enter in the wrong order. It's not really a puzzle, rather it's an excuse to extend the game, placing the correct doors so far out of the way that most people wouldn't think of exploring them first because of the lack of on-screen visual cues.
Shinobi packs a host of extra features, some of which feel genuinely rewarding. There are galleries for concept art, music tracks, and cutscenes. There are also a series of retrospectives that detail the history of the franchise while providing some intriguing pieces of trivia. There's a rather useless Dojo mode where you could conceivably hone your ninja skills, but it's unstructured and dull, and an additional 8 challenge missions which can be unlocked by paying with play coins. Those missions will push your skills to the limit, consisting as they do of very tricky platforming sections and ruthless enemies that can kill you in one hit. Finally, you can toggle cheats on during free play through the story missions. These allow you to make things even crazier, with options for a chibi jiro, infinite health, and the ability to swap out your sword for a chainsaw (among other things).
Overall, the 3D adds very little to the experience because only a few sections seem to have been made with 3D in mind. The hand-drawn cutscenes, for example, are completely unavailable in 3D. The visuals aren't bad, and at least they don't detract from the gameplay, but the 3DS is capable of much, much better. Textures stand out as flat and at times pixilated. Levels are aesthetically unique at least, but the art direction becomes ever more generic as the game progresses. At least the combat animations are smooth for the most part, despite some issues with collision detection, and the soundtrack is decent action game (even if the in-game audio comes off as unsophisticated and 'clangy').
Shinobi is not the triumphant return for the series that it could have been. The adventure is so short that it could have been a downloadable release; at least then the you would come away feeling as if fewer corners had been cut during development. The 3DS is still new enough that Shinobi doesn't have much in the way of competition in its genre, so those looking for a nostalgic action game fix have something to hold their attention for a few hours at least. Everyone else is better off waiting for something fresher and more fulfilling to come along instead.