‘Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master’ is a 16-bit joy nearly 30 years later

By Aidan Finn, Staff Writer

It’s the holiday season, and for this issue of Illini Recommends, we’re going as old school as it gets and revisit one of the best games of the 16-bit generation, a timeless classic that is the perfect childhood nostalgia bait for a feel-good break at home this winter. 

Let’s first go back to the 90s, but with attention to the other side of the gaming sphere, where most American kids were conditioned to the friendly and familiar Nintendo systems following the runaway success of the NES in mid-80s, with the follow-up Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES, coming out swinging in 1990. But just before that, 16-bit market was hit with a new challenger, the Sega Genesis in 1989. 

The bit wars is a captivating era of gaming where innovation and new technology were born out of sheer competitive zeal as SEGA and Nintendo duked it out for North American market control. I recommend documentaries like 2020’s “Console Wars” if you would like to delve into this radical window of 90s nostalgia. 

In this case, we are going over one of the greatest titles that graces SEGA’s 16-bit marvel, one that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves in light of blue hedgehogs. “Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master,” (released in Japan as “The Super Shinobi II”), is a sci-fi ninja hack-and-slash platformer that was released in 1993. One of the most graphically impressive games of its era, within just 30 seconds into booting the game up for the opening text to sweep you away with its excellent soundtrack, that sweet 16-bit composition that anyone can recognize. 

The plot, like any game with the name Ninja under it, is not that important. Right away, you are presented with the first stage, and with next to no hand holding, you gotta smash all three buttons till you almost die. Sooner rather than later because this Shinobi game is hard — old school hard. 

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If it were not for manual saving features granted by the Sega Genesis Mini I played this on, I truthfully would not have gotten through it. I can’t imagine any tween in 1993 having the patience for this, but I can absolutely see why they would never give up. I advise searching the web for the game’s manual if you want to even try to get a grip of the various combos and d-pad techniques needed to succeed. 

“Shinobi III” sports incredible artwork and an ambience rarely seen in titles so primitive. With a darkened sky overcast above your ninja warrior as they ride off in their horse, the forest in flames as you slice cleaning through opposing enemies, the thematic score as you raise your sword for a special move. This is nearly 30 years old yet I still had goosebumps seeing it in action. 

In terms of gameplay, you can utilize a marinade of ninja tools like throwing stars and magic lightning powers (as all 12th century warriors in Japan had), with a surprisingly diverse move set at your command too, like a downward aerial strike that becomes vital towards the game’s final stages. You can wall jump and climb on ceilings to get around, with little to no performance issues affecting the tight and break-neck pace of combat. 

The score as mentioned above is phenomenal, truly some of the best from its era like the Sonic series and Donkey Kong Country titles. It’s a testament to how good it is, as it never gets annoying, important given it will be replayed endlessly as your retry that last jump or mini-boss for the eleventy seventh time. 

“Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master” is available on Sega Genesis (and corresponding releases of Genesis titles).


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