Shadow Gangs

A game by JKM Corp for PC, Xbox One, Switch, PS4, and DC, originally released in 2020.
Shinobi is a fondly-remembered series of ninja action games that got their start in the arcades in 1987, courtesy of Sega. The series remained popular into the early 90’s thanks to numerous console ports of the two original arcade games (Shinobi and Shadow Dancer), as well as several follow-ups across Sega’s platforms of the day.

The series is known for its sidescrolling action starring a ninja (usually Joe Musashi) who throws shuriken as his primary weapon, but who can also use martial arts to combat enemies when they come in close, with some of the games granting the character a ninjatō for up-close kills. The series is also known for its multi-plane environments where the ninja can jump onto higher ledges, rooftops, or objects in the background. The protagonist is often tasked with rescuing hostages throughout short branching environments, with level completion restricted until all of them have been freed.

Shadow Gangs is inspired by many 80’s-era beat ‘em ups, but it is primarily modeled after the Shinobi series. The game is set in a world where ninjas had been at war with combat robots manufactured by a company called Shadow Force. Recently, some ninjas have gone missing and others have turned against their fellow members in the Ninja Order… and it’s suspected that Shadow Gangs (members of Shadow Force) are behind it. Now, master Dan’s family has been kidnapped by Shadow Gangs and rogue members of the Ninja Order. The time for kicking butts is nigh!

Like many beat ‘em up action stars, you can see Dan’s 6-pack abs through his extremely tight T-shirt, and he’s so tough that he has blown the sleeves off his jacket, revealing his bulging muscles. He wears similarly tight (but thankfully less revealing) bluejeans, along with tennis shoes and a pair of fighting gloves. But those are just his going-out clothes. In each stage, he is able to grab a powerup that transforms him into a katana-swinging, Uzi-shooting ninja badass in a bright red outfit… better known as the Crimson Ninja.

Dan has a 1.25x nonvariable jump, which is extended slightly with a double jump when he is in his Crimson Ninja form, allowing him to reach the occasional hidden powerup (more on these in a bit). Dan can toss an infinite number of shuriken, with five onscreen at a time, but they move quickly, making the firing rate high. In his Crimson Ninja form, Dan fires his submachine gun instead, although the effect is roughly the same as tossing shuriken. Whenever enemies get up close, Dan's attacks become kicks, and kicking enemies is often required for those that can block his shuriken. In his Crimson Ninja form, Dan swings his sword instead of kicking.

As in the Shinobi series, pressing UP+JUMP allows Dan to jump onto higher ledges, onto rooftops, or onto other objects in the background, but only in designated areas. Players must be watchful of platforms that branch off the direct route through the level, as these paths are often accessed by jumping onto higher ledges or dropping down into lower areas. These side paths often lead you to hostages – which are kidnapped members of the Ninja Order instead of women and children, as in many of the Shinobi games – and rescuing all of the hostages is of paramount importance because it’s not possible to leave the level until you have done so (an indicator shows the number of hostages remaining). Since levels are timed, there's often not enough time to backtrack through the environment to search for missed hostages, and you die when the timer runs out.

Once a hostage is rescued, he remains so even if the player is killed. In addition, each captive ninja has a powerful enemy guarding him, and again, once the ninja is rescued, the associated guardian does not return (the same was true of guardians in the Shinobi games). This makes re-traversing the level a bit easier should the player find himself killed and sent back to a checkpoint. Weaker enemies will continue to appear on each run, and most of these enemies will respawn if you scroll them off the screen and return.

There are lots of powerups to find, which are mostly gained by breaking open silver orbs, revealing letter-coded powerup icons. Occasionally, red orbs drop down from above, and this occurs whenever the player performs certain feats within the level, such as jump-kicking an enemy off of a motorcycle instead of simply jumping over him or hitting him with shuriken.

The most important powerup is, of course, the “N” icon, which transforms Dan from his regular form into the Crimson Ninja. This powerup usually appears in the early part of the level, and it is lost when Dan is killed. Levels offer a small number of checkpoints, and if Dan is killed after activating a checkpoint, he returns to that spot with his Crimson Ninja powerup gone (but some time restored on the countdown clock). However, there is often – but not always – another “N” icon to be found near these checkpoints.

On rare occasions, the player will find 1UP icons (usually hidden, but sometimes appearing after performing feats), and there are also “$” icons that are just score items. Actual powerups come in the form of kanji (K), mines (M), and drones (D). Kanji represents an area effect attack that sends a bunch of kanji characters flying outward from Dan, killing all onscreen enemies (a similar attack appears in Shinobi), but he must be in his Crimson Ninja form to use it.

The player can stockpile multiple kanji attacks, but for some reason, even though kanji powerups are represented by “K” icons, the inventory for these weapons is represented by a “P” in the HUD. Mines let the player drop a mine in front of him, allowing him to destroy tough enemies as they approach (like cars and motorcycles), but their usefulness is limited. Mines can also be stockpiled, with the player's inventory fortunately represented by an “M” icon in the HUD. Finally, the drone powerup hovers behind Dan and fires a machine gun at nearby enemies, making it very useful for taking down attackers, but this is also the rarest powerup to encounter.

Frequently, the player will encounter a “B” icon, which transports him to a bonus stage. In this area, ninjas burst forth from five windows on a building, and the player must defeat every single ninja for a bonus… which is quite difficult. The most effective attacks in these bonus levels are kicks, since ninjas can sometimes block shuriken, but you only have a brief moment to attack them before they jump away, resulting in an instant failure. In most games with bonus rounds, players are able to play the entire round until the timer runs out, gaining points for the number of enemies defeated (or objects broken, etc.), with a bonus for a perfect run. Here, it’s possible to lose within a couple of seconds and be booted back to the main level.

In addition to the in-level bonus stages, there are also between-level bonus stages. Here, there are two conveyor belts, one in the foreground and one in the background, and each has a powerup that is being slowly moved along the track. You fire your Uzi into the background (pressing UP to shoot along the more distant track) as ninjas come out from doors on either side and try to steal the powerups, and this is a nod to the shuriken-tossing bonus levels in Shinobi. The stage is lost if any ninja grabs a powerup and makes it to a door, but you can shoot the thief to kill him and cause him to drop the powerup… which can be used to your advantage if they move the powerup farther along the track. If both powerups manage to fall to the floor, you win, usually gaining additional mines, kanji attacks, or 1UPs. Later bonus stages make things tougher by mixing in faster red ninjas along with the green ones.

For some reason, there’s also an “E” icon that represents the level exit, which is odd since these pickups generally appear in areas where the player could reasonably walk off the side of the screen, as is traditional. These icons appear in blue orbs instead of silver or red.

There is a bit of a bouncing animation that takes place when orbs are broken, and it takes a couple of seconds for the powerup icon to stop bouncing and settle to the ground. During this time, the player is not able to collect the icon, which stutters the game’s otherwise brisk pace.

There are enemies that shoot from a distance, often with high, medium, or low attacks, and hostage-guarding enemies can also toss their weapons at different heights as indicated by the color of their hoods. There are a bunch of ninjas in different colored outfits, with their colors indicating their behaviors. For instance, blue ninjas will perform high jumps and attack downward with their swords, red ninjas can fly through the air toward you, and green ninjas will attack you head on, but some of them will also steal powerup orbs if you don’t get to them in time… although killing them lets you collect the stolen powerup. There are also enemies driving cars and motorcycles, lizard people, jetpacking guys who throw spears, fan tossing kunoichi, and more, offering quite a bit of variety.

The game is divided into five missions, each of which consists of two levels and a boss encounter, working out to 10 regular levels and five boss encounters, plus a final boss. Bosses are the real showpieces here, and they’re far more complex than their antecedents in the Shinobi series. Each boss has several attack types and most are very mobile, requiring the player to pay close attention to the telegraphs for each. It is not possible to spam attacks and slop your way through these encounters, and there’s a very good chance that a boss will put an end to an otherwise excellent run, at least until you learn their moves and how to counter them.

Even the very first boss will give you a run for your money as you face a Gray Fox-looking cyber ninja who can turn partially invisible (and impervious to damage) as it slashes along the ground, often multiple times in succession. It can also toss hovering orbs that explode if you come into contact with them, but you can slash them with your sword between enemy attacks. Finally, it can leap into the air and hover, firing laser beams across the ground. Once you learn how this boss moves, it’s very much possible to make it through this encounter unscathed, but this will likely take multiple attempts.

The overall difficulty level of the game is quite high, falling in line with the quarter-munching design of its arcade inspirations. The game offers three difficulty levels, with the easiest difficulty setting – called Rising Ninja – offering the player seven lives and a life bar that allows him to sustain three hits before being killed. Still, even on this difficulty setting, the game is challenging. On the Normal/Ninja mode, the player has no life bar (all strikes are instant kills) and five lives. On the highest difficulty setting, Crimson Ninja, the player has only three lives. In addition, higher difficulty levels feature more enemies and fewer powerups.

The options menu informs players that they should start out on Rising Ninja mode for their first run through the game. Advanced players can use this mode as practice to eventually take on the tougher difficulty settings or try for a 1cc run. In addition, players can access any mission they have previously reached, allowing them to skip ahead to later levels. Expert players will discover that there are some advanced tactics to be employed – particularly during boss fights – since enemies don’t automatically cause damage when the player touches them, and some attacks only knock the player back and don’t cause damage. Players may purposely absorb a stun attack in order to avoid an attack that would kill them outright.

That said, there are some design choices that lead to unexpected and unfair deaths, adding a bit of frustration to the higher than average difficulty level. First and foremost – and this only applies to Rising Ninja mode – there is no temporary invincibility period, nor is the player knocked to the ground (and thus out of harm’s way) when taking damage. As a result, it’s very much possible to get hit by a single attack multiple times. In particular, when facing the guardians that toss spears with blades on both ends, a single toss will almost always hit you twice if you fail to get out of the way. Certain bosses, like those that fire continuous lasers, can easily deplete the player’s entire life bar with a single attack.

In addition, it’s possible to die from fall damage. This is quite reasonable in areas where the player drops into a bottomless pit or other level hazard, but it also occurs any time the player falls farther than a certain distance. As such, it’s possible for Dan to walk off the edge of a three story building without so much as rolling his ankle, but if he jumps off the same building, he will die. This is more frustrating in forest areas where you must jump up onto tree branches, since some branches require you to press DOWN+JUMP to drop down to a lower level, but you have to walk off the edges of others... but falling from a high enough branch results in death.

Even without insta-death falls, there are lots of platforming sequences over bottomless pits where getting knocked back spells certain doom, and there are lots of very precise jumps and double jumps that must be made to traverse these areas. The fourth mission in particular features long sections comprised of nothing but tiny platforms and bottomless pits, and most enemies are capable of flying and hitting you wherever you stand. There are also a couple of jumps where it’s difficult to tell if they can be reached with a double jump or if they require the UP+JUMP maneuver.

The game offers detailed sprites, bright colors, and lovely lighting effects, along with occasional visual effects such as warping, and it’s all set to an appropriately retro soundtrack. Animations can be a bit stiff, and some of the tilework is repetitive and rigid, but the same is true for many genre entries. Environmental designs are structurally simple, but there's a lot of variety to the locales. To preserve the authentic arcade experience, the game is presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio.

The game starts out in New York City, with numerous recognizable icons making an appearance, and eventually brings you to Japan, with forests, deserts, and caves in between, and finally some highly technological areas. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that one of the bosses is basically Freddy Mercury. At some point in development, the character’s name was Freddy, but this was later changed to the less-lawsuity “Eddy”.

Shadow Gangs was developed over the course of five years by JKM Corp, which is based in the UK.