By Michael Allen Rose
The 80s were filled with dancers. Tina Turner wanted to be our Private Dancer. There was Jojo Dancer, Richard Pryor’s filmic narcotic-fueled burn victim-cum-standup comedian. Flashdance made a whole generation of teenagers expect water to fall on them in a sexy manner when they pulled mysterious ropes. But for any little boy (or adult man-child) growing up in the neon decade, there was only one dancer who mattered: Shinobi, the Shadow Dancer. He was a ninja with a dog and magic powers, which pretty much sums up every single power fantasy an 80s kid could possibly describe. Shinobi had quite a career, his missions lasting several games worth of action. At one point, he even fought a blatant ripoff of Spider-Man crossed with a blatant ripoff of Batman, dealing a razor cut to the throat of copyright law. However, today, we’re concentrating on his second outing, which capped off the Shinobi arcade series with a bark and a mouthful of screamed Japanese phrases.
Shadow Dancer pairs our hero up with his loyal dog, Shadow. In the first game, Shinobi was rescuing a bunch of children, which seems noble enough. In Shadow Dancer, he seems to be collecting air conditioners. The manual assures us that these are time-bombs, however I see two problems with this premise. First, no matter how long Shinobi waits, the bombs don’t explode, so if they’re time-bombs, they’re dysfunctional at best. Second, the bad guys are running all over the place, jostling these devices, shooting pistols and throwing knives, and generally making a mess, which if these were explosives, would be a very bad idea. So, our ninja hero makes his way around warehouses, over broken bridges, and through the junkyards of the city, collecting air conditioners. Maybe he’s an air conditioner repair ninja. In that case, it would follow that the enemies are feeling cold, and they don’t want Shinobi to repair the AC units. According to the manual, the time bombs (air conditioners) are all part of a plot to take over the Space Shuttle Olympia, which sounds like a very short-sighted plan, even for a terrorist organization entirely comprised of magical ninjas. Can ninjas fly space shuttles? If Shinobi fails, I guess we’re going to find out.
Either way, there are lots of bad guys just aching for a fight. The most generic bad guys are clones of what appears to be a long haul trucker, complete with baseball cap, orange vest, and mirrored sunglasses. There are plenty of other foes though, such as the shirtless hippie who juggles two turtle shells and really wants to play extreme disc golf with your face. Or, the red-shirted hitman shooting his pistol at regular intervals at nothing in particular—woe to the ninja who steps directly in front of his bullet’s flight path, because he sure as hell can’t be arsed to turn around. Also, there are yellow and purple ninjas, but they obviously belong to a different after-school ninja club than Shinobi, because when they see him, they don’t bother with the secret ninja handshake or ask to see his decoder ring, they just attack him with swords.
Shadow Dancer wouldn’t be an 80s action game without some memorable bosses though. The first level is capped off with a giant samurai who bounces glowing balls at you until you hurt his shoulder. Probably an old football injury, because hitting him in the shoulder takes him down faster than gas station sushi through the guts of a gastronomically careless ninja. Showing surprising diversity for an 80s villain organization, two out of four of the other bosses are ladies, one with a shield device who looks like she should be starring in a fitness video, and one with a naginata who likes to hang out just outside space shuttle cockpits. Most interesting though is the fact that at the end of level 2, Shinobi fights a train. Yes, a subway train. An EVIL subway train. An evil subway train that is allergic to shuriken, because every time it gets hit in the headlight with a ninja star, it blows a very angry, shrill whistle. How did this timeless rivalry between ninja and train begin? Perhaps at one point in his career, trying to assassinate a particularly infamous rat or alligator in the subway system, Shinobi refused to pay the toll. Ninjas can certainly flip over turnstiles. Should this game really be the epic tale of a sentient train and its revenge, served cold, on the ninja who once rode for free? Sadly, since this was the last part of the Shinobi series released in arcades, we’ll never know.
With all these sinister goings on, Shinobi needs some help, and luckily, he’s armed to the teeth. He tosses an endless stream of shurikens at anyone more than a foot or two away, and if someone gets too close, he whips a sword out from somewhere and cuts them down. After defusing a few bombs, that shuriken becomes a magical, flaming projectile, which begs the question, why didn’t he just start with that instead of regular stars? In addition to his personal tools, he has ninja magic, which he can only unleash about once per level (unless you pay extra quarters… an early example of video game microtransactions). These magical attacks make Shinobi scream in Japanese, sentences which sound, to these Western ears, like “MUNDO FUGARUNDO RUGARUNDO. HIIIIIAHHHHH!” Things get suddenly cinematic, with colorful flames erupting from behind our ninja friend like there’s a rave going on behind him. Various effects clear the screen—sometimes a series of tornadoes, sometimes lightning, and sometimes the actual BUDDHA pays a visit to Earth to destroy the enemy. Pacifist or not, that Buddha sure does throw a mean ball of orange, glowing, death magic.
But by far the best tool in Shinobi’s arsenal is Shadow, the dog. Shadow will attack enemies on command, tussling with them until they can be dealt with by cold steel. Of course, if one of the dog-hating assholes hurts your precious Shadow, things get a little weird. Instead of being injured, Shadow turns into a puppy version of himself. Yes, it turns out, the fountain of youth, at least for dogs, involves getting stabbed by a dude in a trucker hat. It is also notable that Shadow is at your side the entire game, through every level, except when it’s time for a boss battle. When it’s time for the big bad, Shadow pisses right off, leaving you to ninja your way out of it yourself. Maybe he’s got better things to do. After all, according to the title, he’s a dancer. How dare you pull him out of his recital to fight trains! In the end though, Shadow joins his master, as they watch the rocket that they were supposed to stop, or find, or do something with, fly into space anyway. If a ninja stabs a trucker on a space shuttle and there’s nobody there to hear, does it make a sound? Yes, the sound is something akin to “MUNDO FUGARUNDO RUGARUNDO. HIIIIIAHHHHH!”
Michael Allen Rose is a writer, musician, editor and performance artist based in Chicago, Illinois. His stories have been published in such periodicals and anthologies as the Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Heavy Feather Review, and Tales From The Crust. He has published several books including Embry: Hard Boiled (Eraserhead Press), Rock And Roll Death Patrol (Rooster Republic Press), The Indifference Of Heaven (Omnium Gatherum) and more. In Spring of 2021, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing will release Michael’s newest book, Jurassichrist. He is the host of the annual Ultimate Bizarro Showdown at Bizarro Con in Portland, OR. Michael also releases industrial music under the name Flood Damage. He lives with an awesome cat, helps his girlfriend make internet porn, and enjoys good tea.