Excellent old-school ninja action with enough modern niceties.
When making a retro-inspired action platformer, it’s very easy to lose the thread of what makes those old games memorable. The best course of action is to try to make a game that feels like a memory of an old game and not just the old game. This is something that Yacht Club Games absolutely nailed with their debut Shovel Knight. That game succeeded largely because it felt like vintage NES-era classics, but was thoroughly modern overall. That’s why my hopes were high for Cyber Shadow, a game developed by Mechanical Head Studios that Yacht Club took under their wing in 2019. Whereas Shovel Knight was clawing at the memories of the likes of Mega Man and Zelda II, Cyber Shadow seems more interested with Shadow of the Ninja or that awesome NES Batman game. While it doesn’t ascend to the highs of Shovel Knight, Cyber Shadow is a well-paced, challenging platformer that manages to not lose the thread of what makes those old games memorable. It does that by nailing the overall feel and staying fresh at every turn.
You control Shadow, a mysterious cybernetic ninja who awakens in the wreckage of Meka City. The narrative is almost shockingly ever-present, with gorgeous cut scenes that evoke the style of NES Ninja Gaiden cinema sequences. While there are some novel twists, the story is one of the weaker parts. Thankfully it’s never too overwhelming and a lot of the finer details are told through optional computer terminals and character memories. But in all honesty, the text could have been in a different language because I was so smitten by the visuals and the soundtrack. The animation of Shadow, the various enemies, and multitudes of bosses is gorgeous, especially when combined with the ambitious layered parallax backgrounds. The soundtrack is by Enrique Martin (with some production help from Shovel Knight composer Jake Kaufman) and is dripping with memorable melodies and blood-pumping beats. I did not know of Enrique Martin before this game, but I will now pay attention to any game soundtrack he works on after Cyber Shadow.
But stellar visuals and music is overall a small part of the experience. The feel is the most important aspect, and while it takes some getting used to, that’s the element that shined throughout my playtime. There’s a bit of recalibration that I had to go through while playing this. While I (and the rest of the world, seemingly) shouted “looks like Ninja Gaiden!” at the screen when I first saw a trailer, this is a much slower and methodical action game. The developer actually cites Shadow of the Ninja (available on Switch via Nintendo Switch Online) and Shatterhand as core influences and it shows, because this is a game focused more on deliberate movement and precision than plow-ahead action. It’s certainly hard, though friendly checkpoints make it more a series of tense sprints than a marathon. Checkpoints are frequent and offer boosts if you want them (using collected in-game currency) that refill your health or special meter as well as give you a powerful secondary weapon, ranging from an extended sword blade to a temporary shield. However, these elements are somewhat under-explained. While I liked the sense of discovery with a new secondary weapon, I also often wouldn’t know how to use it properly or if it was even something I wanted to mess with. The game is also friendly in the sense that if you defeat a boss or a major enemy, that foe will stay dead when you die. Speedrunners who like a good challenge will likely salivate at this game, but it’s structured in a way that makes it palpable for those who are less skilled.
Levels are split into chapters that flow linearly, though going back to earlier sections with late-game powers can unlock secrets. The various permanent upgrades you unlock deepen your attack and movement options, including a ranged shuriken throw and the ability to sprint and dash through the air. Like Shovel Knight, Cyber Shadow also features achievement-like Feats that vary from defeating bosses in specific ways to just overall game completion. The whole experience lasts around 5-10 hours depending on your skill level and expediency. Flowing through the game is easy to do because it keeps adding in new obstacles and enemies at a regular clip, aided by the fact that every boss battle is a bad-ass pattern-heavy challenge that expertly mixes visual spectacle with difficulty.
Through it all, Cyber Shadow knows why people have fond memories of NES-era action platformers, whether it’s the thoughtful level layouts, unforgettable boss battles, or eye-catching visual embellishments. This is not a game for the faint of heart, but more for the persistent. I came away from this retro romp satisfied, primarily because it harkens back to the classics while still carving out a distinctive game that rightfully deserves to enter the pantheon of stellar 2D ninja games that includes the likes of Ninja Gaiden and The Messenger.