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I loved my Sega Genesis as a kid, but now that I spend a lot of my adult life looking into retro games, I’m shocked by how many amazing titles I missed out on for the 16-bit system.

That includes Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, one of the best Genesis games that I never played in my youth.

Honestly, I missed out on the whole Shinobi series. I’m not sure why. I guess I just preferred hedgehogs to ninjas. But these days, I notice that Shinobi III always gets a lot of love from retro gaming fans. And since it’s in the Sega Genesis Classics collection that I have on my Switch, I decided to finally give the sidescrolling action game a I try.

A special kind of ninja

Never having played the series, I assumed it would be similar to Ninja Gaiden, another classic, ninja-based 2D action game. But while Ninja Gaiden focuses on up-close sword attacks, Shinobi is more about your ranged game. Throwing shurikens is your main form of attack.

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That may tempt you to think of it as a run-‘n’-gun game, like Contra or Gunstar Heroes. But Shinobi is slower and more methodical. You can run, but that’s a dangerous endeavor. To succeed, you have to be careful, memorizing enemy patterns and making sure that you make your attacks count. You have a limited supply of shurikens. While you find plenty of them throughout the stages, you can run out of if you’re not careful. Unlike a Mega Man game, you can’t just constantly shoot.

If anything, it reminds me of the classic Castlevania games. You have to be careful and use your resources wisely if you want to succeed. And just like with the retro Castlevania games, Shinobi III showcases some incredible art. The stages features some of the best pixel work and backgrounds I’ve seen on the Genesis. The levels also have a fun amount of variety. One has you surfing on a crystal blue ocean, while another has a strong Alien vibe.

The music is also a ton of fun. It’s energetic and catchy, with just a ting of Japanese influence to sell the whole ninja motif.

Ninja star

Shinobi III makes for a fantastic playthrough. The difficulty curve is right where it should be. The adventure starts off on the simple side, but by the end you’ll have to be a master of its more complicated platforming techniques — including wall-jumping — in order to succeed. This is especially true in the last level, a kind of endurance test that has you dodging electricity as you jump and climb your way to safety.

Shinobi III is just super-solid. Everything about it works. The action, the platforming, the music, and the graphics all work together to create a sidescroller that is exciting and, at times, almost cinematic.

If you’re like me and haven’t played Shinobi III before, you should do something about that.

The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.

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