It’s not uncommon to see games do their best to hearken back to the NES era. That muted 8-bit color palette, the chiptunes, the tough-as-nails gameplay… all of that carries a ton of nostalgia for people who grew up playing them. Similarly, an 8-bit styled ninja game is insanely familiar territory. Cyber Shadow wears its influences on its sleeve and initially seems well-made, if unambitious. But as it goes on, it becomes clear that there’s much more to it than that. The game may be derivative, but the level design, gameplay, and difficulty are nearly perfect. These elements not only make it a great game in general, but a testament to how far sheer talent can take a game.
Cyber Shadow casts you in the role of an android ninja. If you played Ghostrunner recently, it’s a very similar premise. Shadow is a member of a ninja clan and his master has vanished after some kind of war broke out. This master is the daughter of a mad scientist named Progen who builds robots and does all sorts of sketchy experiments, while his daughter somehow became the matriarch of a techno-spiritual ninja clan. It’s honestly very dumb. At various intervals, shadow will convene with the digital essences of his not-quite-deceased clan members, as their souls still exist. Shadow too has a soul. I have no idea what any of this means.
There’s a surprising amount of plot in Cyber Shadow. It’s presented well, silliness notwithstanding. The cutscenes are all NES-style and look really good, plus there’s a fair amount of dialogue and notes to read. Truthfully, the game is well-written for what it is, as long as you don’t roll your eyes too hard at the premise. But the fact that there’s enough story for me to even make fun of demonstrates one of the game’s major features: it may seem like nothing more than a throwback, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Enough about that though. The game has 11 chapters which are basically levels and it appears to be completely linear at first blush. But then you realize that there’s a certain amount of interconnectivity. Plus, you can use teleporters to go back to hunt for power-ups with newly acquired abilities. At the start of Cyber Shadow, Shadow is about as standard of a game ninja as you’ve seen in most side-scrollers. He can jump, slash his sword, and die horribly. But as you locate your clan members, you’ll obtain new abilities that vary between special attacks and things that fundamentally alter the gameplay as if this were a Metroid-like.
The special abilities are mostly standard fare. You get the ability to throw energy shurikens, shoot upwards with fireballs, and do downward strikes. Later though, you gain the ability to wall-jump and dash, which leads to you being able to perform a teleport slash that grants you iframes. By the later parts of Cyber Shadow, you’ll be zipping around the levels with ridiculous levels of precision. Going back to earlier levels with your newfound abilities makes it clear how much more powerful Shadow gets as the game progresses. The game simply does a fantastic job of steadily making you more powerful and it feels perfectly honed.
Of course, that wouldn’t mean much if the controls weren’t good, but they’re not good. They’re amazing. The controls are exact to the point that I simply don’t think they could be better than they are. Shadow always moved exactly as I wanted him to, whether I was carefully zipping over instakill spikes or landing as close to an enemy as possible in order to make a jump without taking damage. The collision detection and hitboxes are kind of incredible. At one point in Cyber Shadow, you get a parry that lets you block bullets and hit them back at foes. The controls are so fair and accurate that it works better than it sounds. And it’s so satisfying.
Get on my level
But what is great gameplay without the level design to back it up? Cyber Shadow sticks that landing too. To be upfront, this game is very hard. The slightest mistake will often result in your death, and checkpoints can be fairly spread out. However, everything feels perfectly balanced in that regard. I can’t recall a single instance where the level design felt impossible or too hard. With practice and patience, everything is extremely doable, even if your jaw might hit the floor at the game’s sheer audacity from time-to-time.
I’d like to draw another parallel between Cyber Shadow and Ghostrunner. They’re both difficult games, but they’re difficult for different reasons. The latter is frustrating and can feel like you’re at a disadvantage solely due to the way the design panned out. You’d die just because the game was in first-person and you just couldn’t see that something was about to go wrong. The act of retrying things in that game was obnoxious for me, as I felt like there was luck involved. Cyber Shadow doesn’t have that problem. Even when it was cruel and punishing, I relished and enjoyed the challenge.
The only real issue I have with Cyber Shadow is in regard to its boss battles. Almost all of them are a good deal easier than the levels themselves, with only a couple of exceptions. One boss is a robot dragon that you fight over some water, and it completely throws out the rulebook and ends up clashing a bit with the rest of the game. But the final boss fight is the only time I felt there was a major misstep.
The one stumble
The final boss is a tedious three-phase fight, and it only took me as many tries as it did because the game introduces new mechanics specific to that phase. On top of that, you need to rely on a move that you might not know you can do just to get some safe damage in. It’s sort of similar to the final boss in Metal Gear Solid 4 where the gameplay totally changes for no reason, except even worse. Due to this, I hated the last boss fight and wish the third phase was different, as it’s easily the only part of the game that I thought was anything below fantastic.
But that’s a minor complaint in regards to what is truly a magnificent game. In the end, I put about 8.5 hours into it, but that includes me heading back to older areas to hunt for powerups and secrets. Cyber Shadow is derivative, yes, but it’s derivative in the best way possible. It not only hearkens back to many aspects of classic titles, but improves on them with better gameplay and carefully considered modern-day sensibilities. Not only is Cyber Shadow a truly impressive accomplishment, but it’s also quite possibly one of the best games I’ve ever played. Up until the very, very end, at least.