Platforms: Switch (Reviewed), PS4, PS5, Xbox One, PC, Linux, Mac
Many people are calling Yacht Club and Mechanical Head's new pseudo-8-bit title, Cyber Shadow, a love letter to Ninja Gaiden, that's only partially true. It's true in the way that Bloodstained: Circle of the Moon is a love letter to Ninja Gaiden. Zangetsu, the main character, had a lot in common with the NES incarnation of Ryu Hayabusa, but the game itself had more in common with classic Castlevania. Similarly, Shadow, the protagonist from Cyber Shadow, shares the same Hayabusian DNA that Zangetsu does, but this game is much more similar to another fantastic NES cult-classic: Shatterhand.
Since Shatterhand is so obscure, here's a quick rundown. You play as a cop fighting against an evil robot uprising who has killed your partners and taken your arms. Luckily you are saved from death and your arms are replaced with robot arms. You start the game only able to jump and punch but as you progress you gain the use of neat little satellite upgrades that expand your abilities.
Cyber Shadow is practically the exact same game except replace "cop" with "ninja" and "arms" with "entire body."
Much like Shatterhand, you begin Cyber Shadow with only the ability to jump and attack. This is when it feels most Ninja Gaiden-esque. Threats will come at you from all sides but you can only attack them from the front.
However, as you progress you will receive help in the way of temporary power-ups, which just so happens to take the form of helper satellites, and permanent upgrades that you can both find as collectibles and that you are given after defeating certain bosses.
The power-ups immediately expand your capabilities. Maybe you want a satellite that shoots at enemies when you slash. Maybe you want one that surrounds you with a spinning blade of death. Maybe you'd prefer a shield satellite that nullifies projectiles from the front. There are so many (including special Shovel Knight themed ones available only in the Switch version via amiibo) and a huge portion of the game is picking the right power-up for the right situation.
You can purchase them at checkpoints and they last until you get hit three times. Playing well enough to keep your power-ups means the difference between difficulty that borders on unfair to feeling like you are cheating. Bringing the right power-up to a boss battle will let you kill it before it even gets an attack off. Cyber Shadow speedruns are going to be sick.
Permanent upgrades are a whole different story. Whereas power-ups vastly increase your capabilities for a while, permanent upgrades change the rules of the game.
You can't do anything to enemies beneath you, that is until you get the downward stab. Now you can bounce off enemies with the grace of Shovel Knight. Platforming is super tight and precise until you get the double jump and wall cling and by the time you get the air-dash attack, you can practically fly through levels without stopping on a single platform. Enemies can kite you for days with ranged attacks, until you get the ability to throw shuriken right back, or better yet, parry their projectiles and create a giant shockwave counter-attack. Many of these techniques require you to spend a limited SP resource but you can upgrade that throughout the game as well.
In short, you only start off feeling like Ryu Hayabusa. By the time you hit the endgame, you feel like a superhuman murder machine, and frankly, that’s exactly what you are. The story of Cyber Shadow isn’t all that groundbreaking but it is pretty neat how it portrays you losing your humanity and becoming acclimated to your new robot body is not just text but mechanics.
Much like Shovel Knight, Cyber Shadow only looks like an NES title, but take advantage of modern hardware, software, and design capabilities. Sure, the stages all look like they could have been tiled out on a classic console, but there are always just a few too many colors, just a few too many frames of animation to be truly authentic, which is fine! Instead, we get brilliant environments, beautifully animated enemies, and larger than life bosses the likes of which we would have never seen on the NES.
The same holds true for the music which is full of absolute bangers. Yes, you probably couldn’t produce these chiptunes on a classic NES board and even if you could, whole portions of the soundtrack would drop-out when a jump or slash sound effect played. Cyber Shadow is using the same instruments as the NES, without using the same limitations as the NES.
Cyber Shadow is a short game, only about six hours from start to finish, but every single one of those hours is a blast. It truly understands what made classic NES era action-platforms so much fun. It’s never too hard, giving you ample checkpoints and infinite lives, but never too easy, approaching you with just enough challenge to make you triumph over each section and rewarding you for it at the end.
There is always something new to keep you playing: a motorcycle level here, a water level there, a neat diversion into cyberspace, or complex platforming segment right before a major boss that fills up the screen. Nothing outstays its welcome. Every challenge sticks around just long enough for you to learn it, master it, obtain your rewards, and then move on.
If you have even the slightest interest in retro action-platformers, then Cyber Shadow is a must buy. At $20, the price is exceedingly right for this short burst of retro-joy. I picked it up as soon as it released and binged it straight to the end, no breaks whatsoever, and I’m still planning to go back for 100 percent runs, speedruns, and achievements. Cyber Shadow is destined to hold a place in our hearts as another 8-bit style indie darling, right alongside Shovel Knight and it deserves it.