Even as we’ve entered a new generation of console hardware, the 8-bit aesthetics of yesteryear continue to remain in vogue. Largely, we have 2014’s Shovel Knight to thank for that, a crowdfunded indie platformer that managed to combine all the best bits of NES-era platformers, resulting in something that felt fresh and unique.
It’s also been something of a cash cow for developer Yacht Club Games, who followed it up with a number of expansions while its eponymous knight crossed over into every other indie game. In danger of getting stale then, they’ve wisely embarked on publishing to give other 8-bit-inspired developers their chance to shine.
Enter Cyber Shadow.
The game is the work of a solo developer at Mechanical Head Games, taking a heavy dose of inspiration from NES ninja platformers like Ninja Gaiden and Shadow Of The Ninja. Nonetheless, the emphasis on authentic 8-bit presentation with a modern touch makes Yacht Club Games a perfect partner.
But while Cyber Shadow has the smoother and tighter action of a modern game, it’s less interested in the jokey postmodern breaking-the-fourth-wall antics of its contemporaries, playing its story fairly serious with a dark aesthetic. Set in a cyberpunk future in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, you play as cyborg ninja Shadow who’s been revived to traverse the ruins of Meka City in order to rescue presenters of your ancient clan whose mystical powers are being harvested by an evil synthetic army led by a mad scientist.
It makes for a straightforward yarn, occasionally punctuated with classic pixel-art cut scenes reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden or interacting with the environment for tidbits of lore. But those don’t get in the way of what most of you are here for: old-school hardcore ninja action and platforming with a bad-ass boss to take on at the end of each level.
Things start off pretty basic as you just have a button for jumping or slashing enemies with your katana, but as you free your clan allies, or occasionally take a challenge in a completely different realm, you gradually unlock a whole suite of ninja skills that put it a cut above its ’80s inspirations.
While it would’ve been preferable to have more abilities to start off with – surely double-jumping and wall-sliding should be mandatory for all ninjas – it balances out when you can also learn to parry and deflect enemy projectiles or perform a drop attack that can also be used to bounce off enemies and objects. Be aware, however, it differs slightly from the similar move in Shovel Knight, giving you an extra bounce that can throw your trajectory off.
The standout ability is the cross-slash where you’re not only able to sprint but slash through enemies while also traversing huge distances in the blink of an eye. Because it also resets, you can effectively chain cross-slashes into consecutive enemies and objects. While doing this renders earlier levels a bit of a joke at just how fast you can zip through them, the level design appropriately ups the stakes to match your new tools.
The game’s second half puts your ninja skills to the test so that you’re parrying through laser-firing doors in a cramped corridor or cross-slashing across precarious chasms where it pays to move fast instead of meandering for too long only to be overwhelmed. That however also encourages recklessness, likely leading to more deaths.
Fortunately, where Cyber Shadow differs from its 8-bit counterparts is its approach to difficulty, with checkpoints that are both generously spaced – though a little less so towards the endgame – that also give you the option to spend currency to provide more assistance, so instead of just restoring health, you can also refill your SP used for special attacks or get a helpful item drop.
These items range from an extra shield to a sentry drone or a yoyoing buzzsaw that helps take out enemies otherwise out of your reach. While you don’t get to choose what item a checkpoint has, it will almost certainly give you a leg-up in your current situation, especially when it comes to the tough but brilliant boss fights, which can be formidable foes of your own size and speed to screen-filling juggernauts. Hardcore players may choose to barrel on ahead but it’s good that these options exist to make Cyber Shadow that bit more accessible.
Even with helpful checkpoints, it’s still a tough game at the best of times. Part of that unfortunately stems from some old-school elements, such as dreaded knockback animation that’s likely to drop you off a platform into a spike-filled pit. There are few things more frustrating than surviving an onslaught only to run into an instant-death obstacle.
Despite a couple neat novel moments, from an auto-scrolling motorcycle section to getting to pilot a mech, Cyber Shadow is a much leaner game compared to Shovel Knight, its length and singular scope more on par with the latter’s expansions. Nonetheless, most will be relieved to see a game not attempting to replicate Dark Souls’ lost currency mechanic or getting more bloated than it needs to be, as was the case with 8-bit/16-bit ninja platformer The Messenger.
There’s nonetheless a touch of Metroid in how you can revisit past levels to uncover hidden items to upgrade your health and SP. Otherwise, its replayability is mostly reserved for speedrunners or completionists aiming to tick off the Feats – the in-game achievement system also seen in Shovel Knight. Here’s hoping that we’ll see free DLC content in the future if the game is a success, because Cyber Shadow certainly deserves both success and more content.
Cyber Shadow may not feel as groundbreaking as Shovel Knight but its singular design is apt as a labour of love from a solo developer. Some may even find it refreshing that it eschews the feature creep of modern games, as it tests your ninja mettle with no more than an escalating series of tight and challenging action-platforming setpieces. If the cyberpunk genre often feels like it’s stuck in the 1980s, then this one doesn’t pretend otherwise.
- Faithful 8-bit era visuals and music
- Tight responsive controls that gets better as you unlock more ninja skills
- Great challenging set piece bosses, but also thankfully balanced with optional upgrades at checkpoints
- Prepare for some frustrating old-school knockbacks and instant-death obstacles
- Light on features compared to Shovel Knight