Review: Cyber Shadow (Switch)

A worthy successor to the retro giants of old.

By Zack Fornaca. Posted 03/22/2021 21:27 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
Editor's Choice
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Great 8-bit audio and visuals; parry and dash techniques are a great complement for classic mechanics; earnest, stylish games that doesn’t need to coast on memes or gimmicks
Poison Mushroom for...
The best abilities are earned late, which is really noticeable on replay; no hard mode, time trial, or other challenges

Everything about the visual language of Cyber Shadow, from the sprite work to the ninja theming to the CRT filters, suggests a game that deliberately follows in the footsteps of action platformer NES classics like Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden, Natsume’s Shatterhand and Shadow of the Ninja, Sunsoft’s Batman, and so on. The NES is rich with quality games that follow this fairly specific genre template, and in all of them the player can duck. Conspicuously, in Cyber Shadow they cannot. This suggests two possible interpretations. One, Cyber Shadow is too sloppily made to competently reproduce its inspirations. It wouldn’t be the first game from a solo dev with ambitions beyond its grasp, after all. Two, Cyber Shadow knows what exactly makes the NES classics tick and is willing to make heretical cuts in pursuit of excellence.

As with the previous title from publisher Yacht Club, Cyber Shadow doesn’t take 1980s game design conventions as a package deal. There’s no scoring, lives have been replaced by checkpoints, there are secret collectibles to encourage revisiting stages, and the two-button control scheme has been augmented with charge attacks and directional input combinations. Checkpoints can even be upgraded to give the player an edge in the upcoming area if they’re having trouble, similar to bonfire upgrades in Dark Souls. Still, Cyber Shadow is closer to its inspirations than Shovel Knight was to its. Aside from the brisk pacing and best-in-class crunchy chiptunes (even before I picked up the game I was listening to the stage 1 music on loop), Cyber Shadow retains that most precious and most frequently forgotten of 8-bit game design tropes: faith in the player. Checkpoints are placed a fair distance apart, poor play is generously rewarded with death, and even with a two-button control scheme the game expects a high amount of nuance and performance from the player.

So why can’t our ninja duck? For one thing, the control scheme found a more interesting thing to do with the player’s directional inputs, and so it was worth sacrificing. More to the point, though, to duck is to stop moving, and therefore ducking is a waste of time for a ninja who would sooner fly across the screen like a thunderbolt. The two most exciting moveset additions to the NES ninja game template are the parry and the dash. The parry builds on the implementation from Street Fighter III. Tap the direction of a bullet as it strikes you to neutralize it, and then slash it to return it to sender. As in Street Fighter, because the directional inputs do not otherwise trigger an action by themselves and are almost always in use for other reasons, choosing to parry is something that requires training and button discipline, but adds a satisfying wrinkle to combat.

As for the dash, well, if you’ve seen footage of the game you’ve likely seen this in action, with the hero chaining a sprint into a double jump into a dash attack into another jump into another dash and so forth, with proper timing carrying them safely through several screens of enemies before making grudging contact with the ground. Make no mistake, this is not something the player can do blind. You need to learn enemy layouts before you can treat them as springboards instead of obstacles, and the feeling of successfully executing these chain dashes becomes an irresistible carrot to pair with the stick of being sent back to a checkpoint when you die. You don’t just aim to get better to progress. You aim to get better because it feels great. Both the parry and the dash are well supported by the game’s enemy and level designs, which almost always provide a good level of variety and challenge. It’s a pity that these are unlocked so far into the game, because on replay the early levels suffer a bit from their absence, with the second stage in particular being a bit of a drag.

Like the genre and presentation, the game’s setting is also familiar, though reminiscent of a different batch of classics. The specific premise of a mechanized ninja slicing a rusted dystopia into wet, red ribbons is already well-trodden by generations of classics from The Ninja Warriors to Hagane to Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Did we really need another? Yes. If it’s as good as Cyber Shadow, yes. You play as Shadow, a once-human ninja whose consciousness has transcended death to find a limited second life as a ghost in the machine, and you seek to save your master before time runs out for either of you. The game is not heavy on story, as you might expect, but there’s enough to be interesting. While the story told by the game is complete, it ends with a teaser and there are some characters met during the game that make me wonder whether Cyber Shadow will have significant post-launch support. Even if it’s not nearly as extensive as what Shovel Knight got (three extra campaigns, etc.) I do hope there’s more that can be built on Cyber Shadow’s strong framework. Cyber Shadow is not developed by Yacht Club but rather a solo dev operating under the moniker of Mechanical Head Games, and Mechanical Head may not be able to add a ton as a result. Even just a hard mode or a time trial mode would be a nice second course, because the fundamentals are strong, but this is a great addition to the 8-bit action canon as is.

The biggest caveat for a potential buyer is that Cyber Shadow is, for all of its smart updates, fundamentally a NES-style action game. For players who are cowed by difficult retro games, well, it’s worth saying that this is more measured than the most infamous of its NES forebears, but that might not be enough of a concession. This is markedly easier than e.g. Ninja Gaiden, but perhaps not easier than some of the other games mentioned in the first paragraph, except that the checkpoints and lack of a lives system make the repeat attempts more welcoming. This is also a relatively short game, designed to be replayed. My first playthrough was between seven and eight hours. People already have speedruns under an hour. This still puts it on the long side compared to similar NES action games, but fundamentally if you know that you don’t like NES-style action games or their throwbacks, this might not change you mind.

For those who still keep to the old ways, though, this is the real deal. There are plenty of retro games, including some widely lauded ones, that I feel missed the mark with ill-considered gimmickry, boring level design, and smug pandering. Cyber Shadow’s not that. It’s not a winking nod or cynical nostalgia bait. It’s a worthy successor.

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