The Gang’s All Here
There are love letters to the classics of gaming’s glory days, and then there’s Shadow Gangs.
Developed by indie studio JKM Corp, the game is, for all intents and purposes, a Shinobi clone in its purest form that all but mirrors Sega’s iconic 1987 side-scrolling action title. Featuring vibrant hand-drawn visuals, five challenging stages, and brutal bosses with undeniably evil names like Collin, Daddy, Zhuzi (sadly, sans Banshees), and a Freddie Mercury wannabe named Eddie, it’s a fun throwback to the arcade era that will test the skills of even the most hardened armchair assassins.
What We Do In The Shadows
If you’ve played Shinobi before, Shadow Gangs’ story will be very familiar to you. After an evil crime syndicate known as Shadow Force kidnaps his family, the ninja master Dan must make his way across the land and rescue them from the organization’s clutches. Unlucky for them, the only way he knows how to accomplish this goal is by slicing, dicing, and shooting everyone that gets in his way to a bloody pulp.
Shadow Gangs’ gameplay mechanics are virtually identical to those of the game that inspired it. Set across five stages, each comprised of three acts, the goal is to locate all of the hostages hidden in each area and then make your way to the stage’s exit. Of course, this is easier said than done. Along the way, you’ll need to battle hordes of street punks, enemy ninjas, and murderous Mai Shiranui cosplayers who all want to reduce Dan to samurai sashimi.
Dan has two primary ways of attacking his enemies. Tapping the attack button will toss a shuriken, which can strike enemies at a distance. However, when up close, the attack button will unleash a punch, or, if you’re in your powered-up form, a lethal katana strike that can bring down most of your opponents with a single slash. In addition to your throwing stars and sword, you’ll also be able to collect a variety of power-ups littered throughout each level. These items include a drone that flies alongside you and mows down anyone who gets in your way, landmines what can blow up cars and motorcycles and screen-clearing ninja magic.
My personal favorite power-up allows you to don a red outfit and mow down enemies with a submachine gun – just like Joe Musashi in Shinobi! I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming.
Dan’s combat mechanics aren’t the only things lifted from SEGA’s beloved coin-op. Several of Shadow Gangs’ enemies, like the dual-katana wielding ninjas and beefy baddies that hurl their weapons like boomerangs, have now apparently left the service of Zeed in favor of Shadow Force. And they behave in the same way, right down to the way the pistol-packing grunts reload after firing a volley of rounds, giving you the perfect opening to chop them down quickly.
As a massive fan of the Shinobi series, I can appreciate the developer’s passion for crafting a new game in the long-neglected franchise that they so obviously love. But there’s a fine line between inspiration and imitation. The way Shadow Gangs slavishly apes Shinobi’s formula is borderline plagiaristic in a way that’s hard to ignore.
Despite this, it’s clear the game’s developer has a genuine passion for retro gaming. If you’ve been following this site for the past decade or so, then you know I feel the same way. As a die-hard arcade gamer, I loved the way that sack-toting ninjas would appear and snatch up your power-ups just like the elves in Golden Axe. Another scene I enjoyed was a duel with a cyborg samurai under the gaze of the Statue of Liberty, a clear homage to the criminally underappreciated Shadow Dancer.
Without a doubt, Shadow Gangs is a fun throwback to an era when arcade machines reigned supreme. And, like the other games from the period in time that inspired it, it can be soul-crushing at times.
On the game’s standard difficulty, it only takes one hit to send your shadow warrior to that big dojo in the sky. You’ll learn that the only way to progress through the game is by memorizing the locations of all the enemies, who can often appear out of thin air right where you’re standing. Boss enemies are also unrelenting, and you’ll need to pay close attention to their patterns to bring them down for good. All of this is pretty par for the course when it comes to retro-style arcade games, but Shadow Gangs has a few quirks that can sometimes make the experience as pleasant as tapdancing on caltrops.
Each of the game’s five stages features three acts. Two of these are full-length levels, while the third is a battle against a boss character. While Shinobi used a similar formula to this, it was manageable because the stages were relatively small. Shadow Gangs’ locales, however, are not. The game’s environments, which range from dusty deserts and lush bamboo forests to factories and urban battlefields, are all vast and can take more than ten minutes each to complete. Typically, these lengthy stages would be welcome. The problem is that if you lose your lives and have to continue, you’ll have to start at the beginning of the first act of that level. When this happens – and it will – be prepared to spend more than 20 minutes trekking back to the end of the stage for another shot at the area’s head honcho.
With this in mind, stocking up on extra lives is a necessity. There are two types of bonus rounds found in Shadow Gangs: a shooting gallery similar to the one in Shinobi; and another challenge which has you pummeling ninjas as they leap from the windows of a building as a bunch of creepy bondage bushido watch from the background. If you succeed, you’ll receive an extra life and other power-ups. Though let’s face it, you probably won’t. The bonus rounds in Shadow Gangs start out challenging, and by the end of the game, they become virtually impossible for anyone without real-life ninja reflexes.
There are three difficulty modes to choose from with the easiest of the bunch being Rising Ninja. With this setting, you can now take three hits before losing a life. This difficulty mode can be a real godsend for novice ninjas, but it’s not without its issues. There’s no temporary invulnerability when you get hit, and taking damage knocks you back, much like in the Castlevania series. There were many times that an enemy projectile, like a laser or a flying sword, would bounce me back endlessly until I died without ever allowing me to take control of my character.
Still, with practice, you should be able to persevere without having to chuck your controller into the drywall like the world’s least aerodynamic throwing star.
So, is Shadow Gangs worth adding to your Steam library in this year of our lord, Neo Zeed? Well, if you’re a fan of the Shinobi series, then absolutely. It’s not a perfect homage to SEGA’s long-running franchise, but it’s got a lot of heart and does a commendable job of recreating many of the things that made the original game in the series so memorable (almost to the point of parody). With great production values and a meaty challenge that will test the mettle of even the most skilled players – especially on the game’s hardest difficulty – it’s a wild and nostalgic ride while it lasts.
However, if you couldn’t care less about Joe Musashi’s saga or classic arcade side-scrollers, then this most likely isn’t the game for you.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Developer: JKM Corp; Publisher: JKM Corp; Players: 1; Released: April 10, 2020; ESRB: N/A; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: A review code was provided by the game’s publisher.