Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Prized Gems: The G.G. Shinobi (Game Gear)

"I don't need that oversized hunk of plastic in my life," I'd say with a sneer across my face whenever I'd finish watching one of those obnoxiously antagonistic Game Gear commercials. To me, the Game Gear was the "other." It was yet another Sega system whose value was based not on the quality of its library but instead its alleged "coolness" factor and overstated technical qualities that were sold as being antithetical to those possessed by Nintendo's unhip, "kiddy" systems. And since that was the path Sega chose in marketing its new portable device, again, I had no problem with instantly disregarding it, as I did the Genesis. I didn't need to see the Game Gear on my TV; I didn't need to read about or think about it. As far as I was concerned, the Game Gear didn't need to exist; it had nothing to offer to someone who already owned a Game Boy, which was currently hitting on all cylinders.

For about a decade in following, that remained my prevailing attitude. "The Game Gear has nothing going for it beyond its image," I'd tell myself.

Had I known about The G.G. Shinobi, however, I might have thought differently.

I was introduced to it by the Youtuber Cornshaq, who in November of 2011 posted a Let's Play of the game. Truthfully, I was overcome with apathy when the subscription page loaded up and my eyes happened upon the video in question ("Eh," I thought). I clicked on it only because I was short on entertainment options that night. Otherwise, there was have been no impetus for such; I would have been apt to skip the video entirely.

The fact was that I wasn't much of a fan of the original Shinobi in any of its incarnations. I regarded it as a lesser version of Rolling Thunder. Really, I'd never played more than two stages of the game. It just didn't do much for me. That's why I was expecting a similar lack of stimulation from the video that was about to play; it was my belief that I was about witness the action of a compromised port of a game that already been severely downgraded on systems like the NES and the Master System.

To my great surprise, G.G. Shinobi turned out to be a completely unique creation and a rather intriguing one at that. It looked and sounded great. Its action was observably fun and inventive. And it conveyed a sense of console-quality polish that was normally absent in portablized franchise games. "This is way better than it has any right to be," I kept thinking to myself as I watched Cornshaq play it.

By the time the video had ended, I was wholly convinced that I needed to play this game as soon as possible. Unfortunately, though, there was a major roadblock: G.G. Shinobi wasn't commercially available anywhere, and, in the era of Virtual Console, I had no interest in turning to Windows-based emulation, which had become difficult to justify. So I was out of luck. It looked as though I had no other option but to forget about the game--push it to my mind's back burner--and hope that the two of us would have a chance meeting sometime in the future. "Maybe in a decade or so I'll pick up an old Game Gear and snag myself a copy of the game," I thought.

It turned out that I didn't have to wait long at all! Approximately three months later, Nintendo announced that it was partnering up with Sega and M2 to bring Game Gear games to the 3DS' Virtual Console, and G.G. Shinobi was slated to be one of the debut titles! I was thrilled to learn of this happening! I couldn't wait for the game's March, 2012, launch! I jumped at the chance to download it as soon as it became available. I was excited for the game and at the same time eager to reward M2 for its effort; I wanted to do my part to convince the parties involved that it would it would be a viable strategy to continue releasing Game Gear games.

Sadly, after an initial burst, the pickings grew increasingly slim (likely due to lackluster sales figures). All told, M2 ported only sixteen Game Gear games. Come July of 2013, its efforts had ceased.

Still, one of those releases was indeed G.G. Shinobi--one of the shiniest of hidden gems. Since the day of purchase, I've derived tons of enjoyment from it. In fact, it's been one of my most-played 3DS titles!

It's also true that I've long been waiting to talk about my G.G. Shinobi experiences on this blog--to talk about why I find I find this game so endearing and discuss my processes for extracting value from it.

So let's get going already! Let's put an end to all this yappin' and take a look at the wonderful G.G. Shinobi!

The game's storyline is the standard video-game fare: A vaguely defined enemy force has been causing terror in Ninja Valley, prompting "The Master of Oboro school of Shinobi" to send his best students to look into the matter. Their investigation takes them to Neo City, the enemy's base of operations, which is shrouded in mystery; unfortunately, the team disappears into the city's mists and are presumed to have been captured. Now desperately short on available options, the master has no choice but to call upon the services of the legendary ninja Joe Musashi, who finds himself tasked with rescuing his Shinobi brethren and helping them to infiltrate the heart of Neo City ("The City of Fear," as it has now become known).

Actually, I had to look up scans of the game's manual to learn about the plot's exact details, since the game, itself, doesn't provide any textual explanation. I mean, it's obvious what the game is trying to communicate, but still--I like to go into a game knowing about its backstory, which helps me to form my conception of its world. That's how it was back in the day, after all.

Now, this isn't Shinobi you know. The G.G. Shinobi doesn't follow the lead of its predecessors, which were straightforward Rolling Thunder-style action games wherein you trek across largely horizontal stages and hop between their upper and lower levels. No--G.G. Shinobi has a broader ambition; it's bold in how it deviates from the formula--in how it endeavors to impress you with its sprawling, multi-directional stages; nonlinear, exploration-encouraging level design; and visually interesting settings. There's nothing else quite like it in the Shinobi series.

G.G. Shinobi diverges most in terms of how it handles player-advancement. It features a Mega Man-style level-selection system that affords you the option of navigating the game's initial four stages in any order you so choose. I liken it to Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge, to which it's most structurally similar. However, G.G. Shinobi's system isn't as arbitrary; it has to it an element of strategy. This is, you might want to rescue your allies in a preferred order--plan your mode of progression around their unique special abilities, which can strongly impact how you advance through the multi-routed stages. There exists an optimal order that will allow you the opportunity to procure all of the game's most useful power-ups, but this, the most fruitful succession, won't be immediately obvious; discovering the most productive path it will require some exploration and experimentation.

I mean, you don't have to collect the power-ups. The game is certainly manageable using only base-level heroes. However, their augmentation can prove to be quite a luxury in the final stage, which I'd classify as an endurance-testing marathon.

Me? I always choose the optimal path, whose starting point is the city stage. This is the path I'll be covering here.

But before we get into that, let's first take a moment to talk about the game's main mechanics.

At our command is the red-hued Joe Musashi, who functions as our "standard" Shinobi. His main weapon is the Ninja Slicer--a short-range sword that inflicts an average amount of damage. His special power, as selected from the inventory screen, is the earthquake attack, which damages all onscreen enemies and destroys certain types of blocks. Though, he will soon be rendered obsolete by his rescued comrades, who are physically identical but possess superior fighting qualities; theirs are uniquely functioning, ranged striking weapons and more-useful abilities and special powers. Otherwise, they share commonality in that they can all execute fully controllable jumps, a crouch-walking maneuver, and a ninjitsu-dependent special power (the activation of which is preceded by a cool little animation in which they can be seen invoking it).

You'll want to collect the game's specially placed items: Heart icons restore two units of health. Ninjitsu symbols fuel the ninjas' aforementioned special powers (like Musashi's earthquake attack); you can accumulate a bunch of these in your inventory, but be warned that you'll lose every one of them if you die. 1ups increase your life stock. And each of the hidden cube-shaped Power-Up icons extends the team's shared health meter by two units; procuring all four of them requires proper navigation of the previously discussed optimal path-selection.

Now that you know what's up, let's hit the big city!

The City

It quickly becomes apparent that G.G. Shinobi is a graphically rich portable game. The vehicles on display in this opening highway scene are impressively rendered--some of the best animated cars and trucks I've seen in an 8-bit game. They're detailed, their textures have a certain sheen to them, and, most importantly, they're actually proportional (which isn't always the case with vehicles in these older games). Yet what resonates with me the most is the area's background work. Now, sure, the buildings seen scrolling across the backdrop are nothing more than a collection of simply-drawn sprites--a bunch of haphazardly dotted geometric shapes on solid-blue canvas--but therein lies the appeal; their assemblage never fails to draw my attention and make me think about what life is like in Shinobi's world. This scrolling cityscape tells such a great story, and it does as well as any to stir my imagination--to invite me to fill in the missing details and visualize what could be going on back there and what the atmosphere is like.

If you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know that these are the types of visual touches I greatly value. And G.G. Shinobi is packed with them.

I can't go without mentioning the stage's rockin' musical theme, which makes a terrific first impression. The energetic piece, with its hot beats and jammin' percussion, does a great job of setting the tone and establishing a tempo--of communicating the situation and reeling you in with its enchanting 8-bit strains. Really, it's a fantastic piece--a true 8-bit classic; I became a fan of it the instant it began pouring out from my speakers as I watched that Let's Play video. In fact, the soundtrack in general was a major draw for me, which speaks of the composer's success.

This opening highway scene has us hopping from vehicle top to vehicle top while dealing with the surrounding dangers, which include enemy ambushes and the moving road's damaging surface (contact with it will result in instant death). It works in G.G. Shinobi's favor that vehicle-hopping is one of my favorite side-scrolling gimmicks. Here we're jumping between a number of different truck types and normal-sized passenger vehicles.

You'll learn right away that G.G. Shinobi's brand of action demands a certain amount of discipline and some measured movements; heedlessly charging forward will only result in being damage-chained and summarily killed. Also, you'll soon become painfully aware of the game's favorite trick: hiding bombs in the destructible canisters that you'd otherwise presume to contain helpful items. This, the designers' little psychological ruse, will fill you with the sense that canisters are best approached with a level of caution; ideally you'll want to be pulling your ninja away as you strike a potential bomb-holding canister--to get a head start on escaping from the blast, which spreads quickly and over a fairly large area. It's an especially troubling trick here, in this perilously unstable highway scene, since the bombs are placed on the cars' roofs, which already offer little movement space.

The scene introduces three enemies: You'll meet the kamikaze spider-men who climb up the trucks' sides and blow themselves up, the explosion's fiery, cone-shaped plume rising up into the air and enveloping a considerable amount of horizontal space; failure to safely retreat a half a screen back will surely result in a loss of health. You've got the masked thugs who seek to inflict contact-damage via their lunging and pouncing attacks. And then there are the rifle-toting rangers who kneel and place and fire successive shots before briefly pausing.

Basically the highway scene is about learning to time your leaps and deal with enemy attacks while you're in motion.

The highway exits into the actual city area. Our destination is the buildings' rooftops, to which we ascend by platforming back and forth between the ledges of two particular buildings. In a cool little effect, masked thugs will sometimes burst out from the building's windows for a surprise attack, their aggressive arrivals leaving behind shattered frames. Also, we're introduced to a new minor enemy: a hammer-wielding maniac who dives in, sometimes from out of view, and attempts to flatten you with a mighty hammer slam. As do others of his class, his lunging attacks put your reflexes to the test. I don't know if the designers intended for such a tactic to exist, but you can minimize certain threats, like our hammer-wielding friend, by picking them off from below--by jumping up and striking their legs from the safety of a building's lower level. It's a cheap tactic, yes, but it works. And, really, it's not game-breaking; it's only useful in a small number of instances, so it's not ripe for abuse.

Be sure to grab the health-meter-boosting Power-Up located on the top of the right building. You can get to it by leaping down from the edge of the left building; or, if you're feeling bold, you can reach it a bit earlier by swiftly springing off a conspicuous collapsing girder. No, really--you've got to be super quick; the window for input can't be more than a millisecond. Along either path, you'll have to contend with another new danger: pairs of bow-wielding ninjas who use the favorable vantage point of higher ground to effectually fire down arrows in any of five directions, their aim altering depending upon your current position. The arrows rain down pretty rapidly, so you'll have little time to react and find cover yourself, and locating safe spots might prove troublesome; your best bet is to place yourself directly between the pair, jump when they fire their diagonal shots, and cagily put to use the previously mentioned pick-off attack. Otherwise, you can nullify their threat by finding a way to reach even ground, at which point they'll tactically vanish.

Be aware that any surviving ninja will reappear if you drop back down to the level below. Oh, and make sure not to accidentally scroll the Power-Up icon off the screen. If you make that mistake, it'll permanently despawn!

This entire area is really well-designed: The buildings are striking in appearance (and again wonderfully proportioned!), and the platforming action is nicely plotted. Really, the entire stage is well-designed: The locations are interesting to look at and interact with, the platforming and fighting action is fun, and the music fills me with energy. Also, it does a good job of right up front showcasing for you the game's forward-thinking mechanical elements, like drop-through platforms and lenient enemy collision (you merely bounce off of them). It's likely that all players will choose the city as their starting stage, and because of that, their first impression is bound to be that G.G. Shinobi is truly something special. That's how it was for me, at least.

Exiting the area via the left building's rooftop will take us to the boss.

And suddenly we're standing atop a plane as it flies high above the city! There's no time to wonder about how we got here, since the boss has no intention of giving us time to breathe. Our helicopter-commanding target immediately swoops in from the screen's right side and attempts to damage us with direct contact; he exits in the same motion, so you have only a small window of opportunity to strike. (It's important to note that a damaged boss will enter into a short "damage phase" wherein it can neither suffer further damage nor inflict it. For once, this winds up benefiting the heroes more than it does the enemy; for that reason, I'd qualify it as another one of those "forward-thinking mechanical elements.")

Thereafter he'll continue flying in from offscreen, his point of entry alternating between the screen's right and left side up until the sixth cycle, whence he'll begin to mix it up. While this is going on, you'll also have to deal with the threat of the kamikaze spider-men, who will continue to spawn directly beneath you and promptly explode (the blasts this time limited to a smaller radius, thankfully). It'll take eight strikes to neutralize this flying fiend.

It turns out, though, that the helicopter boss was actually one of our missing friends; he had apparently been placed under some sort of a mind-control spell. Now that we've severed the source of this external control and brought him to his senses, he's ours to command. This is the pink Shinobi, whose ability-set includes tossing bombs and clinging to/walking along ceilings. In a typical play-through, I play mainly as him, since his bombs hit for high damage, which helps to expedite the process of defeating bosses, and their arcing trajectory makes it easy to pick off foes that are lurking below. His special power is a blinding flash that temporarily incapacitates all onscreen enemies, who you can then freely destroy or safely pass through.

The Harbor

Next I head on over to the harbor, which is broken up into three separate areas. This first is comprised of metallic port facilities; it's a wide-open area through which you can navigate by traveling any number of paths--many of them interconnecting. Essentially you're working your way around its troublesome steel beams, crates and girders. Certain paths are shorter, but those of its nature are likely to require that you shakily platform your way across horizontally- or vertically-moving cranes, which are of course situated over bottomless pits.

The best environmental touch, again, is the scene portrayed in the area's background, whose animated ocean stretches far into the distance, wherein lay another one of those imagination-stirring cityscapes. Yeah, I know--theirs are merely another collection of simple, scantly detailed sprite formations, yet they do so much to help complete the harbor's atmosphere. Their presence creates a real sense of distance and remoteness--a feeling that we're far away from civilization and completely removed from the unwitting populace's consciousness. As a kid, I loved when games conveyed a sense of seclusion or made me feel as though my activity was being done clandestinely. G.G. Shinobi reminded me why that was. It had been a long time since a game had captured my imagination that way.

This area introduces a couple of new enemies. First you have what I can only describe as knife-wielding demons (they appear to possess both wings and devil tails). There are two variations of this enemy: those that suddenly dive out, vertically, from a given structure and swipe at you, and those that patrol platforms and swipe their weapons when you move to within proximity. Next you have dynamite-throwing goons who station themselves in front of crates, which they use as cover, and lob explosives at you. And then you'll encounter flame-breathing freaks who can dynamically alter the direction of their flame-spew depending upon your point of approach.

The pink Shinobi's abilities are particularly useful here. His bombs can kill just about any of these nasties in a single blow, and their range and arcing trajectory render them the perfect tool for dealing with dynamite-throwers, who you can simply pick off from higher ground, and the flame-breathers, who can strike from a distance while standing just out of the range of their flames. And his ceiling-walk ability will prove to be an invaluable maneuver: For one, it'll allow him to safely pass over certain enemies and attack them from above, Grant Danasty-style (he'll drop bombs on their heads, basically); and it grants him the means for accessing sections of the harbor that are otherwise beyond the reach of his comrades--mainly those rich with items. It might even be worth it to explore the entire area for the purpose of stockpiling ninjitsu; defeated enemies don't respawn, so tactically eliminating all of them will grant you free reign of the area.

I like to stick to the middle-of-the-road paths for the express purpose of avoiding crane-hopping. Given the choice, I'll always choose solid ground.

The harbor leads us onto the exterior of a cargo ship. It's a rather small area, the whole of which measures in at only five or six screens in length. Still, it works effectively as an atmosphere-molding transitional scene; its defining feature is one of the game's coolest environmental visuals: a violent storm characterized by its fierce downpour and its screen-filling, backdrop-illuminating lightning strikes (unfortunately, the visual's rendering entails the use of a layer-swapping trick, so I can't depict it without sacrificing the sprite layer). If you're willing to engage in some tricky platforming along the ship's derrick and bridge, you can pick up some more helpful items.

The short trip takes us to the ship's bridge, where we find an entrance.

The ship's interior is mostly linear save for a particular point where we'll want to take a slight detour. Immediately drawing our attention is the visual of a barrel stack, which foreshadows the appearance of a new enemy: a Donkey Kong-like heavy who likes to roll barrels two at a time. Dodging the barrels isn't terribly difficult, but still it'll prove safer to pass over them using Pinky's ceiling-walk ability. Joining him is a newly introduced ninja type who stands on the ceiling and tosses down pairs of explosives in either direction. For whatever reason, he won't attack if we approach him using the ceiling-walk; however, since you can't utilize bombs while clinging, you'll have to employ an attack method of moving in close, releasing your grip, and immediately tapping the attack button. Hesitating for even a moment will afford him the opportunity to execute his attack--toss his explosives, into which you'll collide as you fall toward the ground.

So about that detour: It's encountered pretty early on. It'll come into view as we approach the area's very first gap; we'll want to use Pinky to ceiling-walk our way over to it--to the clearly visible platform on the other side. If you screw up and fall into the gap, or if the pink Shinobi isn't currently in your party, it's over; you'll miss your chance to procure the area's most desirable goodies. Specifically, this portion of the ship is home to a Power-Up and a 1up.

The interior's textural character is further enhanced via another one of my favorite little visual touches: the circular windows that give view to the storm as it continues to rage outside; theirs provide only a glimpse of the storm's torrential rainfall and violent lightning-strikes, yes, yet their presence does well to continually remind us--to keep in our heads--that the environment around us, though we can no longer gauge its full scope, remains dangerously turbulent. This is a classic example of how a little can go a long way.

The music continues to be inspiriting. It's so effective in how it engages the player and delivers its message. A lot of it has to do with the Game Gear's unique brand of MIDI, which has a certain magic to it; there's a remindful quality to the way it provides character to the game's 8-bit environments, which are all intriguingly designed and well-rendered. It becomes apparent around this point that a big part of the fun of G.G. Shinobi is absorbing it.

Once we're back on the intended path, we'll have to deal with more demons, upside-down ninjas, barrel-throwers, and those aforementioned hammer-wielders. Though, with some tactical use of our bombs and ceiling-walk, we can cleanly navigate our way around this place. The winding path therein carries us up and around to the bridge's top-left exit, which empties unto the boss' darkly lit quarter. Here we locate our magically brainwashed yellow friend, who commands a treaded mech; it has an extendable arm, which is tipped with a spike balls. The mech's is a simple pattern: It swiftly extends its arm twice in succession--diagonally upward or downward at varying lengths, the direction chosen at random--and then retracts it; in following, its head is temporarily withdrawn into the main body, which affords its commander the opportunity to unleash a three-directional fireball attack. After momentarily exiting the scene, the mech wheels its way back into view and then repeats the pattern.

Our objective is to climb up the arm when its extended at a low angle--and preferably during the second strike--and toss some bombs at our enchanted pal. If you find that to be too much work, you can instead cheese your way to victory by persistently clipping into the mech's head and repeatedly tossing bombs in the yellow guy's general direction; thanks to some kind hit-detection, even remotely tossed bombs will register as having made direct contact. (Note, also, that our three other comrades, all of whom come equipped with long-range weapons, can inflict damage on the yellow fellow without having to climb the arms. It's just that their services will be unavailable to us if we're taking the optimal path.)

After we land a number of blows, the mech will explode and our yellow friend will be freed from enemy control. We waste no time in welcoming him to our party.

The yellow Shinobi's main weapon is the fireball attack as demonstrated during the previous boss battle. However, it functions a bit differently in the playable context: When under our control, his default attack is one fireball; though, he can charge it up two additional levels and fire two- and three-directional fireball attacks, respectively, each level of charge hitting for more damage. While the fireballs have excellent range, they're in any form weak in attack power (much like Alucard's fireball attacks in Dracula's Curse); Pinky's bombs, though much more limited in range, are still highly preferable.

His special power is the Lightning Barrier, which affords him temporary invincibility; it sounds like an ideal power, but it's not really useful outside of the final stage.

What'll be most useful to us is his remarkable ability to walk on water! It will prove to be a tremendous asset in the stage we're going to tackle next.

The Valley

Now we head toward the valley, which is comprised of two separate areas. The first is the valley, itself, whose visuals are quite striking, the richly animated streams and waterfalls working to render another impressive-looking setting. The path through this valley is fairly straightforward, though reaching its northeast exit demands some tricky maneuvering. As the stream is deadly to touch, we'll have to negotiate our way over its waters by riding on logs, which spawn from the screen's left edge at different levels and speeds, and snaking around the mountain's jutting cliffs, which are interspersed throughout the area. We have to alternate between the two modes of travel to effectively deal with all of the water- and land-based threats. The former's include demons that suddenly dive out from the water and deadly whirlpools that swallow up logs; for the latter, it's pairs of patrolling demons and a new enemy: a scantily clad amazonian who strikes with a two-directional knife attack.

But while the path forward is observably linear, there's more to this valley than meets the eye. That is, there exists the occasional opportunity to stray from the path and navigate series of remotely placed cliffs, most of which hold valuable items. Some of these outlying sections are inaccessible under normal conditions; reaching them will require the services of certain aerially proficient Shinobi.

The biggest hazard is the water, itself. Falling into it is instant death. Luckily, we can completely nullify its threat by taking command of our yellow comrade, whose ability to walk upon both the stream's surface and the normally obstructive whirlpools will completely trivialize the platforming element. The only resistance, now, will come from the swiftly emerging diving demons, who will surely inflict damage if you fail to immediately blitz them with a fully-powered fireball attack (it'll help to memorize their spawn points). You can cheaply eliminate the surrounding cliff-dwelling foes by using the charged-up fireballs' considerable verticality to your advantage--attack their lower extremities without ever nearing eye-level.

If you know what you're doing, and item-procuring is of no concern to you, you can use Mr. Yellow's water-walking ability to zip through this opening area in a matter of seconds. However, you might want to slow up a bit when you reach the area's midpoint, which is located a few screen's past the second waterfall drop; here you can grab a Power-Up from a low-lying cliff without having to exert much energy (whereas molecularly sound Shinobi have to platform their way here--find this location via a few blind jumps/drops).

Once you reach the stream's end, you'll have to quickly jump up the cliffs above, lest the stream's current will carry you into the bottomless abyss. There you'll find the entrance to the next area.

Within the mountain is a cave--a "dark labyrinth" through which you can travel using any number of paths; basically, navigation entails finding a route that's most convenient for you. Though, the cave's new enemy types will attempt to hinder your progress. Their selection includes an amorphous blob that when approached suddenly mutates into humanoid form and tosses a shuriken; an armored armadillo-type foe who curls into a spiky ball and bounces twice before uncoiling, its movement-pattern particularly troublesome in this cramped space; and yet another freaky-looking dynamite-throwing baddie--this one programmed to toss three explosives in succession, each with a different trajectory (far to near), before pausing. If the level design and enemy-positioning allow for such, you can use Mr. Yellow's far-reaching fireballs to sneakily pick off the latter two while they're just offscreen.

Really, G.G. Shinobi does a great job of encouraging you to put the entire team to work--to creatively combine their powers and abilities. Every Shinobi can contribute in some way.

A good example of which: Joe Musashi's earthquake-summoning power proves to be valuable here, since some of the labyrinth's walls are composed of a brick type that's vulnerable to violent tremors. As most of the routes are roundabout, his quake power can help to carve a straight path through the cave's center; also, this middle route passes through some normally-blocked-off cave pockets wherein some useful items are hidden.

This area features another cool effect: Certain portions of the cave are obscured by stretches of fencing, behind which you can maneuver; whenever you do this, the screen darkens to reflect the heroes' compromised view! I always love it when 8-bit games incorporate these types of layering effects (like the foreground cave pillars in Trojan). This one works to convey an appropriate sense of dankness.

All routes inevitably converge at the cave's northeast exit, which leads us out into a watery alcove.

This vertically extended recess, its raging waterfall the dominant visual, is where our enchanted blue friend assails us. He does this by continuing to emerge from different sections of the waterfall, from which he dives out with his scythe outstretched. As he takes up a lot of space, he'll quickly tear you up if you're late to get a handle on his pattern. But, really, we don't have to bother to learn his spawn pattern; rather, we can take advantage of the fact that his pattern resets every time he takes damage and summarily get him caught in a much-shorter cycle. For me, it's a matter of positioning Pinky on the right edge of the room's lower-left platform and striking the boss the moment he appears. If confined to this cycle, he'll be unable to touch us. There are a couple of positions from which you can employ a similar strategy, yes, but the one I utilize is probably the safest.

Of course, you can also employ a tactic of using Mr. Yellow to stand on the water directly below lower-left platform and opportunistically pelt the boss with fireballs as he drops down. It's not worth it, though; the other method is cleaner and saves a bunch of time (since the fireballs are so weak in comparison to bombs).

When he's been sufficiently roughed up, Mr. Blue will come to senses and join our team. His weapon is the extending Crescent Blade, which serves a dual purpose: In addition to allowing him to strike enemies from a distance, it grants him the ability to grapple onto certain objects--most of them obvious in appearance--and swing over large expanses; his swinging motion can't be interrupted, since he becomes invincible once the animation has been triggered. Also, he can use ninjitsu power to temporarily transform into a living tornado and freely maneuver about the open space; the twister's whirlwind will destroy any enemy in its path.

The Woods

That leaves the woodland stage, which is formed by two separate areas. The first area, the forest, is my absolute favorite. What grabs me is its visual design--mainly its verdant backdrop, which blankets the entire area with a lush web of rustling foliage. Its leafy, impenetrable shroud imbues the area with feelings of seclusion and secrecy. It creates a sense that we're cut off from the world beyond its veil, not a single person wise to our activity. Truly this is one of the best-looking, most-atmospheric scenes in 8-bit history.

The G.G. Shinobi, man. It really is something special.

The forest is also one of the game's most-wide-open areas, its construction allowing for multiple paths of traversal. Specifically, you'll want to carve a path to the forest's northeast exit by craftily ascending up and hopping between the trees via their branches. Naturally the forest is crawling with danger. You'll meet resistance in the form of three new enemy types: dual-scythed executioners who suddenly phase in and lunge toward you; tree-climbing goons (whose sprite design and behavior remind me of the aforementioned Grant Danasty) who stalk the heroes and toss daggers at them whenever they move to within eye-level. And stationary white ninjas who throw boomerang-like bladed discs toward your current position. There's also a troublesome environmental hazard: certain branches break off the moment you land on them, the knowledge of which compels you to tread carefully.

If you're looking to carve the shortest, most-convenient path, Mr. Blue's Crescent Blade might be of use to you. That is, tactical use of the weapon will allow you can skip portions of the forest and avoid entire platforming sections. You can do this by locating a forward-facing branch stump and latching onto it, the result of which will be your safely swinging over a large expanse and landing upon a waiting tree limb. You'll actually need to put this ability to use if you want to procure the stage's Power-Up icon, which can be seen sitting on a secluded branch in the forest's north-of-center point.

Some crafty tree-scaling will carry you out of the forest and drop you at the doorstep of the enemy force's nearby base. Their chosen fortress is an abandoned pagoda, a multi-level temple that you'll have to ascend via its exterior and interior compartments, between which you'll alternate. The navigation of its exterior requires that you negotiate your way across the pagoda's dilapidated roofs, parts of which will crumble if you walk over them (damaged tiles are obviously rendered)--the resulting drop potentially setting back your progress. Mr. Blue's grappling ability will also come in handy here, since he can latch his weapon onto the walls' jutting poles and swing over the roofs' missing sections; this will allow for the bypassing of some of the interior compartments.

Looking to halt your progression are the area's two enemy types: the bouncy armadillo guys with whom we tangled back in the valley, and the newly encountered evil monks, who demonstrate skillful command of their spears. The monks are at first stationary, their ceaseless spear-whirling working to block long-range attacks, which might give you the impression that they're purely defensive foes; however, you'll learn otherwise when they suddenly charge forward and swipe at you when you move to within proximity. You'll want to engage them using a bait-and-strike strategy. Monks relegated to totem tops exhibit a different pattern: They twirl their spears for a bit before stopping to deliver a swipe; as they're unable to charge forward, defeating them is a matter of getting close and waiting for the moment when they cease their spear-twirling.

Advancement from one roof to the next requires moving indoors and engaging in some vertical platforming; the interior compartments' recurring danger are the demonic-looking statues whose heads continuously fire lasers toward your current position. You can permanently disable the statues by destroying their heads, which ideally you'll want to do from a distance, since their laser-fire is too accurate and too rapidly produced to chance getting close.

The boss' chamber is accessed via a door on the right side of the pagoda's fourth roof. Before entering, though, you might want to ascend to the fifth roof and strike the top portion of the pagoda's finial, out of which will pop a 1up.

Our boss is a giant hovering mask (the "Mask of Death," as the manual refers to it). This grotesque demon swoops about from one side of the room to the other and then proceeds to break apart into three green ninjas, all of whom leap to the right in succession before reforming into the mask; only the ninjas are vulnerable to attack. If you're paying attention, it'll soon become evident that the mask's is a very simple, predictable pattern--a mere a two-step routine. Once you've realized as much, the battle then becomes a matter of dodging the mask's swooping attacks by finding safe spots and positioning yourself in a way that allows for the deft assault of the leaping ninjas as they appear. Basically you'll want to remain near the room's left side, preferably in a crouching pose, and bombard the ninjas the moment they hit the ground.

Defeating the Mask of Death will release our green friend from his subjugation, and thus our team will be wholly formed. The green Shinobi will show himself to be the most versatile of the group. His best attribute is his ability to double jump, which helps to simplify some of the tougher platforming challenges. It also effects how he utilizes his weapon: Normally he throws single shurikens in rapid succession, but if he executes the attack during a double jump, he'll instead unleash a five-directional spread-toss that will strike any enemy standing at eye-level or below. His special power is the "Self-Blasting technique," a self-destructing burst whose explosive net destroys all onscreen enemies; at a price of only one ninjitsu, it seems like the most ideal of weapons, yet its usefulness is somewhat negated by that the fact that you have to sacrifice a life to use it. For me, an obsessive stock-gatherer, it's a non-option; I ain't givin' up these things for free.

But now that the team has been fully assembled, it's time to infiltrate Neo City and destroy the source of evil!

Neo City

Finally we arrive at our destination--the enemy complex in Neo City! The stage's gimmick is certainly distinct and interesting, though I'm not really a fan of how it's executed. When you see it for the first time, Neo City appears to be a perplexingly assembled, labyrinthine gauntlet through which you aimlessly travel from one room to the next. There are so many entryways and branching paths that it's be easy to become lost and find yourself in a cycle wherein you're continuously looping back around and revisiting the same series of rooms over and over again. Only through experimentation and pure trial will you discover the nature of the rooms' connectivity and how you can meaningfully advance through them. 

Our goal here is to scour the city in search of its guardians--somewhat-less-potent doppelgangers of the four bosses we encountered in the earlier stages--whose respective defeats remove the corresponding barriers that obstruct the pathway to the ultimate evil. The mission entails negotiating your way through a number of rooms, each of which features a unique trial.

While I'm not a big fan of the stage's gimmick, I appreciate how its design encourages the use of all five team members. Now, it's true that many of the trials can only be overcome by specific Shinobi, but still there are those that invite you to creatively combine their talents, which is what you'll have to do if you hope to clear some of the stage's nastier challenges. In either case, conquering these challenges demands ingenuity and a solid understanding of the Shinobis' abilities. Such mastery will help you in, say, a vertical room whose scaling requires that you use the yellow Shinobi's water-walking ability to leap onto waterspouts as they periodically emerge from the surrounding pipework. There's a trial in which the blue Shinobi must carefully use his Crescent Blade to ascend a towering room whose innards are mostly comprised of Mega Man-like disappearing-reappearing blocks and grapple points.

Another tasks the green Shinobi with making a series of long jumps from one pillar to the next while simultaneously dealing with the spear-twirling monks who are stationed atop them; eliminating these robed nightmares requires expert use of the aerial-shuriken attack, whose diagonal fire is your only means for making contact with their lone vulnerable point--their skullcaps. Also, there's a room in which the pink Shinobi must use a skillful combination of crouch- and ceiling-walking to avoid the discharges of laser-firing turrets. And then there are others that require that the Shinobi use their ninjitsu-fueled special powers to destroy rocky barriers, tornado your way across large expanses, or use blinding flashes to temporarily repel deadly encroaching shadows. (A neat little touch is that a room's background color hints as to which Shinobi you should be using.)

After much experimentation, I was able to discover an optimal path through this stage (it's reflected in the accompanying images). Strangely, it allows me to skip the helicopter boss, which I don't believe I was meant to do. Then again, the game doesn't require that I visit every room, so maybe it is an intentional design choice. Who knows? I'm just grateful that G.G. Shinobi allows for this level of improvisation!

When the pesky barriers have been cleared away, you'll find access to the city's ruler--an unnamed black ninja whose repertoire consists of attacks as borrowed from our heroes. As he jumps about, he emits pairs of wavy fireballs and strikes directly with a Crescent Blade; after absorbing some punishment, he'll forgo these attacks and begin tossing bombs, five at a time, the achingly narrow space separating them leaving little in the way of safe ground. There's also a troublesome quirk to this battle: For some reason, the boss is susceptible only to Musashi's short-range sword, which prevents us from efficiently pounding on him with our own bombs.

When he's been sufficiently damaged, he'll flee from the scene and leave us in the hands of the true boss, which comes into view after the background wall collapses. Awaiting us is a giant cyborg that looks like somethin' that wandered off the set of a Robocop movie. Its nightmarish frame is formed from a grotesque amalgamation of metal and bloody organic tissue. In keeping with the trend, its pattern is pretty simplistic; it has only two attacks, between which it alternates: (a) it fires off its horn, which cuts across the room in a downward motion before boomeranging its way back into position, and (b) throws open its shoulder plates and spews two purple globules, which upon hitting the ground burst into flame and wave along the surface. Once again, only Mushashi's sword can inflict damage.

The metallic horror hits hard, yes, but it goes down surprisingly quickly, falling to a mere eight hits. Also, figuring out how to avoid its attacks proves to be easy. All you have to do is stay close to when it executes the former attack and tactically jump when it releases the latter. No problem.

And once we've struck the final blow, our mission will be complete. The ending is communicated via a cut-scene that shows the team escaping from the Neo City stronghold right before its self-destruct sequence finishes initiating. Ah--that classic video-game storytelling; a journey can't be said to be over until everything gets blown up.

In Conclusion

And that's the anatomy of The G.G. Shinobi, one of the finest portable games I've ever had the pleasure of playing. It truly is, as I expressed at the start of this piece, one of gaming's shiniest hidden gems. I simply adore it. That I've been playing it nonstop since the day or purchase stands as testament to that sentiment.

The G.G. Shinobi appeals to me on two levels: It speaks to my enthusiast brain, which regards it as a fun, creatively designed, and visually/aurally pleasing action-platformer. And to the nostalgia-hound in me, it's an effective portal; it features the type of aesthetic that works wonderfully to capture the spirit of the era--to transport me back to the old days and remind me what I loved about them.

It has its issues, sure: The bosses' patterns are noticeably simplistic. It's way too easy to pick off enemies when they're positioned above you or lurking just offscreen. And Neo City has its share of head-scratching level design. Yet I'd disagree with the notion that any of these flaws detract from the experience. They don't. G.G. Shinobi is a pure success. It marvelously performs its job, which is to keep the player entertained and engaged for a half hour or so. That's what portable games are supposed to do.

My only regret is that I missed out on playing it as a kid--that its indelibility isn't as deeply rooted as the memories I hold of all of those other 8-bit classics. I would have loved to have had G.G. Shinobi, which I consider to be a quintessential portable video game, in my collection. It would have been a top-tier "road game," Sega's little gem apt to join the likes of Tetris, Super Mario Land and Daedalian Opus.

Really, I think of G.G. Shinobi as the Game Gear's Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge, with which it shares more than a few similarities. I consider them to be linked in spirit.

For that matter, it's also intrinsically linked to two other titles: The first is the similarly relevatory Tails Adventure, which I purchased on the same day. And the other is the fantastic Game Boy version of Bionic Commando, which I discovered around the same time. In particular, the duo of G.G. Shinobi and Bionic Commando helped to make 2012 a high point in portable history. They showed themselves to be shining examples of the types of amazing experiences the medium's history is hiding.

And still there's a whole lot more to discover. I've since become interested in catching up with all of the Shinobi sequels--particularly those available on the Genesis. Whenever I watch people play them, all I can think is, "Man--I've been missin' out!"

But what excites me most is that G.G. Shinobi has a Game Gear sequel titled Shinobi II: The Silent Fury! And I'm so very eager to play it! It's just too bad that it never came to the 3DS Virtual Console. I would've been there day one. That's OK, though; I'll find a way to play it. At this point, I've given up on the hope of seeing Game Gear return to Virtual Console, but I'm not defeated; somehow--some way--I'll make it a part of my life.

And if it's anything like its glorious predecessor, I'll surely be in for a treat!