Revenge of Shinobi – 2003 Developer Interview
Noriyoshi Ohba was a Sega developer responsible for classics like Streets of Rage, Revenge of Shinobi, Dark Wizard, and Clockwork Knight. In this fun interview from the Sega Meisaku series, Ohba reminisces on the creation and design of his favorite game, Revenge of Shinobi (aka The Super Shinobi in Japanese). I’ve also translated the short “replay comic” that features Ohba playing through his creation after many years.
—How did the development of Revenge of Shinobi begin?
Ohba: Sega was upgrading their console hardware from the Mark III to the Megadrive, and in tandem with that we were trying to think of something new and exciting to do. At that time in America, the arcade version of Shinobi had become a huge hit. In fact, ninjas in general were all the rage in America then. And so we decided our next game would be ninja-themed.
On the technical side, since this was going to be on the new Megadrive hardware, we wanted to use as much parallax scrolling as we could. We wanted every stage, if possible, to have over 3 layers of background scrolling. Our idea was to come up with a style of gameplay that actually made use of those multiple backgrounds.
We had this feeling that, with Revenge of Shinobi, we wanted to upturn American’s traditional image of Japan. (laughs) But we didn’t want to simply port the arcade version of Shinobi. We wanted to do something completely different. The reason why is that console games have their own playstyle, distinct from arcade games. Arcade games were built around the concept that “if you pay 100 yen, you get to play for about 3 minutes.” And that was reflected in the way those games played, too. On the other hand, for a console game you’d pay something like 6000 yen (around $60), so you needed a gameplay system that would make players feel like they’ve got their money’s worth.
One easy example is how in arcade games, it’s usually a “one hit == death” system, whereas console games will use a lifebar. In a console game, you have to let people experience the full game to the end, even if they make a mistake.
As such, we knew Revenge of Shinobi would need a brand new system, and only the setting/world would be carried over from the arcade Shinobi.
—So the games do share the same backstory, then?
Ohba: Yeah. Just by glancing at the naming, you can see there’s Joe Musashi, Zeed, the Oboro Clan… all those come from Shinobi. Revenge of Shinobi takes place 3 years after the first game. And as for new characters, there’s the heroine Naoko.
—Naoko has a different feel from the other characters. Her name, too, seems different somehow.
Ohba: Naoko is the name of my wife’s younger sister. (laughs) When we were making Revenge of Shinobi, I often was so busy that I had to stay overnight at the office. On one of those nights, the other developers overheard my calling my wife, saying, “Naoko, what’s wrong?”… After that they were joking amongst themselves and said, “Hey, let’s call her Naoko!”, and so it was decided. (laughs)
By the way, as for the title of the game (“The Super Shinobi” in Japan)… at the time, a lot of Sega games had “SUPER” in the title. We didn’t just want to go with plain old “Super Shinobi” though, so we (quite meaninglessly) added “The” in front of it. (laughs) Those were the days!
—By the way, this game is called “Shinobi”, but the hero never does anything stealthy! Why is that?1
Ohba: Hmm, it’s probably because we wanted to show how cool and badass ninjas are. They can jump higher than normal people, they’re physically stronger… we wanted to show them off, I guess? (laughs)
—You were the director for Revenge of Shinobi, but what kind of work did that entail, specifically?
Ohba: The planning, designing the gameplay system, art (which backgrounds to use, etc). Everything, really. The only planner/designer was me, so I basically had to be involved in everything. (laughs)
—Of all the different work you did on Revenge of Shinobi, what were some of the things that occupied your attention most?
Ohba: Being a 2D action game, naturally I spent a lot of time getting the player character’s (Joe Musashi) movements and controls right. I also really tried to perfect the game balance.
In a 2D action game, the jumping is very important, and I thought that adding variety to the different kind of jumps you could do would lend some depth to the gameplay. The somersault jump was something, therefore, that I knew I wanted from the beginning.
Of course, without levels designed to take advantage of it, having a new jump is meaningless on its own, so we came up with the idea of using the somersault jump to switch between the foreground and background layers. In other words, while all 2D games use the dimensions of width and height, with this I wanted to add the third dimension, “depth.” At the time, I don’t think any game had used such a play mechanic before.
—The game balance for Revenge of Shinobi is undeniably difficult in places, but it felt like if you practiced, you could clear it.
Ohba: I actually did very extensive simulations—on paper. We imagined a very good player and asked ourselves, how many points could this player get by X stage? How much life would he need to get through X part? I had mapped everything out and knew the item locations—plus, the number of enemies was limited by the hardware, so with all these variables in hand, I could actually simulate and predict a lot of things on paper alone.
Of course, I did actual playtesting too, and if a part felt too difficult, I’d thin out the number of enemies or make other adjustments. Many people have told me that the wharf stage, 7-1, is the hardest in the game. I think stage 8-1 is the most difficult, personally. I intended for it to be the hardest stage, at least, when I created it.
—Players frequently mention some of those crazy jumps…
Ohba: Yeah. The jump in that steel beam section of the Chinatown stage is really hard to make. That part is supposed to be training for the wharf in stage 7! People often complained to me, “hey, Joe Musashi is a ninja, shouldn’t he be able to swim?!” That was a tradition we carried over from the first arcade Shinobi though, that falling in the water kills you. Even on stage 5 of the new PS2 Shinobi, you die in the water. Like I said, tradition! (laughs)
I really like games with pitfall deaths though. I love the tension they impart, and how sometimes the section won’t even be that hard, but you get nervous and fall to your death. In those times I always feel, “wow, I suck!” But then, when you conquer that part, you feel like you’ve become stronger, and it’s all good again. (laughs)
—Ohba, have you beat Revenge of Shinobi?
Ohba: Back then, I was able to do a no-miss clear! By the way, the four demo playthroughs you see at the title screen? Those were all recorded by me.
—Revenge of Shinobi also featured cool new techniques, like the fire shurikens and the mijin ninjitsu.
Ohba: If you get better and can advance using only your sword, the game will get easier, because you’ll be able to stock shurikens and use them on enemies you find hard. For players who aren’t very good, though, and still want to get further in the game, the fire shurikens are there for them to use. I created them as a first “line of defense” for such players.
Then, as a second backup, for players who are still having problems, I created the ninjitsu. If the shurikens weren’t enough, players can try the lightning or fire magic. Finally, as a last desperate measure, there’s the mijin ninjitsu. That was the order I had in mind when I balanced the game.
The ability to set the shurikens to infinite was just a little bonus I threw in. We can call it an “emergency intervention”…
—How did you come up with the idea for the mijin ninjitsu?
Ohba: It’s from an earlier game I was designing that got cancelled. In that game, there was an item called a “One Down Continue.” With this item, in exchange for sacrificing one of your lives, you’d be allowed to continue from the spot you used it. I thought it was an interesting idea, so I brought it back for Revenge of Shinobi.
Many arcade games allowed you to continue from where you died, but at the time, there weren’t any console games doing that. I thought it was boring if the game just automatically allowed you to continue, and mijin ninjitsu was my attempt to come up with something more creative and interwoven with the gameworld itself.
—I remember strong-arming my way through some of the bosses, using the mijin ninjitsu on them multiple times…
Ohba: Right, but that was something I intended from the beginning, as part of the game balance.
For example, take the Brontosaurus boss of stage 7. He takes 3 Mijins to go down. I wanted players to feel like, “If I can just get here with four lives, no matter what, I can make it through.”
By the way, that boss wasn’t made with the scrolling background layer—he’s composed entirely of sprites. I actually wanted to add one more scrolling layer to that boss fight. If I had put it in the immediate foreground it would have made for 4 scrolling layers, but when I tried it the boss was a little hard to see, so I dropped the idea. (laughs)
—(laughs) It’s amazing though, that you worked out the details of the game balance down to the number of lives the player might have at that boss.
Ohba: Yeah. We devised specific strategies for each of the bosses. We’d also always try and place bomb-throwing enemies in especially annoying places. In that sense, Revenge of Shinobi is a very tightly made action game.
For example, take the Karyu (flame) and Mijin ninjitsu. Both do 8 damage, but the Mijin is calculated to do 8×1 damage to an enemy, while the Karyu ninjitsu does 2×4 damage. That’s why that technique is so effective on the stage 2 boss, Shadow Dancer!
—Well, there’s one topic that I just can’t avoid asking now. How did you get away with including all those copyrighted enemies? (laughs)
Ohba: We didn’t! There were, in fact, four different versions of Revenge of Shinobi released. v0 and v3 were released in Japan, and I believe v4 was released in the US. Back then, copyright wasn’t as strictly enforced… but still, we had to keep making changes, until finally there were four different versions of the same game.
On the other hand, they aren’t exact copies. The “brontosaurus” boss of stage 7, for instance, doesn’t have the characteristic fin on his back that Godzilla has, right? (opens the instruction booklet, points at enemy who looks like Rambo) See, we named this guy here Rocky. Perfect! (laughs)
—I understand you actually had permission to use the copyright for Spiderman; how did that happen?
Ohba: Sega had already acquired copyright permission for the Spiderman arcade game they were developing. We were actually asked by Sega to include Spiderman as part of the promotional effort for that game. In that case we were actually told to make him look more like Spiderman. (laughs) That’s also why he doesn’t die when you beat him, he just runs off.
—In Japan v0 is the first, and v3 is known as the one that came later. What are the differences between these?
Ohba: I believe it’s only the sprites. Actually, wait… Spiderman might have some different animations too. The quickest way to tell the difference between the two versions is by the title screen: v3 has a (c) copyright symbol added. There were less carts produced of v3, by the way.
—Changing the subject, I wanted to talk about Yuzo Koshiro’s music. It was a big hit, wasn’t it?
Ohba: Yeah, it’s really a collection of some of his most famous songs. The Chinatown stage theme, in particular, is amazing. I remember getting goosebumps when, during the development, I listened to a demo tape of the Chinatown theme for the first time. I was impressed by his work, and we worked well together, so I asked him to do the music for Streets of Rage the following year.
—Did Koshiro do the sound effects for Revenge of Shinobi, too?
Ohba: He did. You may notice they resemble the sound effects in Streets of Rage… well, he re-used some of the same ones. (laughs)
—Revenge of Shinobi was very popular overseas too, I hear.
Ohba: That year I was able to go to CES (Computer Electronics Show, the forerunner of the current E3 event) in Chicago in June, and then again in Los Angeles in the winter. I was just an underling at Sega, so I didn’t go to events like that every year, but for the promotion of Revenge of Shinobi I was allowed to attend. Both the title screen, which had a lot of animation (for its time), and the game’s graphics, with all the parallax scrolling, were very well received at the show.
Last year I went to E3 to promote the new Shinobi game. So many games journalists came to our booth! Many of them had played Revenge of Shinobi with great zeal when they were in high school, and now that they were all grown up and working in the games industry, they visited us to pay their respects. I was so happy!
And they gave us a lot of good press. (laughs)
—Why are the female ninjas (kunoichi) in stage 2 wearing nun’s habits when they first appear?
Ohba: That was just my personal fancy. (laughs)
—(after playing through game) So, how was it?
Ohba: …I couldn’t remember where any of the secret items are located! I thought the difficulty was such that anyone could beat it if they put in the effort… but now that I try it—it’s really hard! But it’s still quite playable! (laughs)
After we finished Revenge of Shinobi, the same team started working on Streets of Rage. We worked really well together as a team.
—In closing, please tell us what Revenge of Shinobi means to you.
Ohba: I’ll never forget the time I spent creating this game. I know that sounds kind of cliche.
But the way we were making games back then—you see, the hardware limitations for the Sega Mark III were so restrictive, I had long dreamed of being able to make something new, something you couldn’t play on the Famicom or even at a game center: an, original, high quality console exclusive for the Megadrive. I wanted to do everything I could to help popularize Sega’s hardware.
And I think, indeed, that Revenge of Shinobi became one of the key titles on the Megadrive. The Megadrive never did that great in Japan, but in America, the Genesis became a huge hit. Revenge of Shinobi, for me, is a part of that time and those memories.
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In Japanese, Shinobi is a noun-form of Shinobu, a verb that means “to hide.”↩