Putting The “No” In Shinobi

HIGH Solid, classic-style 2D graphics and catchy tunes.

LOW Brutal difficulty even higher than the original.

WTF The first game I’ve seen where the score resets after losing a life…

Difficulty is a topic that has dominated the discourse over the last few months. However, let’s all agree on a simple point — finding the right balance between challenge and enjoyment isn’t easy at all. Some developers can spend years tinkering with a formula before release, but in the case of Ganryu 2, I think this one needed more time in the lab.

As readers have surely noticed, the “2” in the title indicates that this is a sequel. The original is a little-known (and not very special) 1999 Neo-Geo side-scrolling hack-and-slash which featured two playable characters. Apparently, Storybird Studio thought it was the perfect IP to bring back to life and develop a sequel to.

Narratively, there’s not much to pay attention to — Miyamoto Musashi, the protagonist of the original, gets called back to Japan to fight against evil. No second playable character here.

The press release mentions both Shinobi 3 and Shadow Dancer as inspirations for Ganryu 2. Indeed, the idea is clearly there in the way Musashi roams the Japanese countryside dispatching enemies left and right. Yes, this is a classic 2D side-scrolling hack-and-slash with a few alt weapons, wall-jumping and such, but essentially players run and jump around, dispose of enemies, reach the boss at the end of the level, and progress. There’s nothing more to it than that, but there doesn’t need to be.

Still, mentioning a huge classic like Shinobi III as a point of comparison reveals right away the problem with Storybird’s attempt — there is no flow nor rhythm to the gameplay here. Where Sega’s work felt like a magical dance in the way their ninja progressed through each level with beautiful 2D graphics and an exquisite Yuzo Koshiro soundtrack, none of that same energy is here.

The jumps feel floaty and imprecise, the rhythm is constantly interrupted by enemies spawning everywhere, and above all, the difficulty feels cheap.

Ganryu 2 wants the player to memorize every little obstacle by trial and error in an oldschool way, which would be fine if the player wasn’t punished for death by resetting the score, losing all power-ups and being set back quite a way. While Musashi has a health meter, a hit often sends him flying back (good old ‘Nintendo Hard’ trope design) into an abyss.

Worse, there are no difficulty settings (nor any settings at all, except for volume) which is a bewildering sight for a retro-themed 2022 release. Players dealt with this kind of difficulty because we had to back in the 8- and 16-bit days, but design and player concessions have come a long way since then. Seeing the words ‘game over’ with all of the penalties that come with it in Ganryu 2 will not be a welcome sight.

Technically, Ganryu 2 stutters a lot on the Switch, especially in Stage 2. This is is indeed a problem when the action requires one to be extremely careful. Apparently things got worse after the first patch and the team is working on another, but still.

Apart the stuttering, the otherwise-pleasing graphics get in the way of the action. Some visual elements are foregrounded and obscure the enemies which tend to randomly spawn whenever one goes exploring about, sometimes even right on top of the player’s sprite. These aspects of the difficulty in Ganryu 2 simply do not feel fair since skill won’t help.

Retro players starved for a Shinobi-like title who also relish mastery through repetition will surely see this as the perfect opportunity — just be sure to get anything other than the Switch version. For everyone else, Ganryu 2‘s try-and-die learning curve is repulsive, and the trial-and-error design harshly punishes the player for every little mistake. It’s one of those rare titles that I do not wish to go back to.

Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Storybird Studio and published by Pixelheart. It is currently available on Switch and PS. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on Switch. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: The game is rated E10+ by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence. Overall, there’s not much in the way of violence and there is no blood, but considering the brutal difficulty of the game I would probably recommend this to a teen audience.

Colorblind Modes: there are no colorblind modes and also, the graphics make identifying the enemies quite more difficult than it should be.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game does not feature spoken dialogue, nor are audio cues used to communicate enemies’ attacks. Text cannot be altered or resized. In my view, the game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: The game is controlled by moving the character around with the D-pad, using B to jump, A to slash and Y to throw kunai daggers (see included scheme). It is not possible to remap the controls.

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10 months ago

I got a switch last year, and after a few regrettable purchases, I’ve been wondering if there’s a resource online that clarifies exactly how bad switch games are compared to their counterparts on other consoles.

I know switch ports have to endure certain downgrades to run well (at all?), but there’s a huge difference between limiting draw distance and cutting the framerate in half.