Review: The Super Shinobi (Sega Megadrive)

Although I initially agreed with the late Roger Ebert’s opinion that videogames aren’t, and can never be art, this game is quickly opening my eyes; quite possibly, they always were. I had planned a long post (or possibly a series) in which I would list the various reasons games aren’t art, and although I still agree with everything I was going to say, I feel I might have been missing something; I should draw upon my knowledge of both games and art in order to make a balanced conclusion, not just (as I was) my knowledge of games.

I started playing the game recently after feeling a little nostalgic for the amazing soundtrack by Japanese musician and DJ, Yuzo Koshiro, a man whose influences are rich and varied; and span much of the musical styles the modern world has to offer. However, I came upon a realisation or two about the game this time around.

One thing that always irked me was a level guardian which, in the original version of the game, was Spider Man – who took some damage and then left the stage to reveal The Bat Man. SEGA Enterprises at that point had the licenses to use the likenesses of these characters, but I always thought their inclusion was jarring and didn’t fit within the context of a ninja game at all. Maybe I was looking at it wrong.

It was fighting a (not ‘the’) Hulk at the junkyard that a certain inspiration took hold; the enemy’s death animation has the flesh of his torso explode to reveal what appears to be a Terminator-esque robot underneath. What if this game was actually a pastiche of Western society and the prevalent ubiquity that is the icon; much in the way pop-artist Andy Warhol did. Indeed this game’s prequel Shinobi was unabashedly proud of it’s influences and inspirations, as the first stage’s second mini-act displays:

Indeed, the protagonist Joe Musashi was by design an American-born ninja (if there were such a thing). Super Shinobi (and it’s prequel) were a commentary on Western consumer society, of this I have no doubt. And within Super Shinobi, there are a couple of things I thought were quite cleverly-done.

Firstly, the level progression starts in a traditional Japanese complex, possibly the sort of dojo used to train ninjas. There is a progression to Tokyo, and then what appears to be a Western installation; a plane journey over the Pacific Ocean, and then we’re firmly in the United States for the rest of the duration. Is this a light work of satire on the Americanisation of many elements of the formerly-insular Japan’s culture? Or is it actually a subversion on the traditional Chinese tale, Journey to the West (in this case, the journey is actually an Eastbound trip to the ‘new’ West)?

The other clever thing I liked about this game is that it actually very shrewdly lampoons Western attitudes and expectations about the East. The first boss is a Daimyo in full Samurai Armour; the ninja protagonist has access to mystical powers and enemy ninjas appear from nowhere in a puff of smoke; and there is a Chinatown stage. Not China, but Chinatown, that ever-so-Western appropriation of all the associated cliches, which is further satired by Yuzo Koshiro’s score adding a dance beat to the very familiar and cliched motif one would expect – if one were born in the West.

You know what, though? I wouldn’t think I’m being ridiculous if I said that, despite first impressions of a game which seems to be inherently limited to throwing knives at ninjas who explode when defeated, Super Shinobi is a collaborative pop art work which deserves to be regarded among that of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

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