A third of the bottom screen in Shinobi is filled with a giant score ticker. Everything you do yields points, and you see them popping out of enemies as they go down. As you parry and attack enemies without getting hit yourself, a score multiplier builds, imbuing your weapons with a fiery glow. There's something magical about maxing out that multiplier and seeing giant orange points fly out of your enemies. Points go both ways though, and you lose some when you get hit or die. You are also penalized for using too much ninja magic (it tends to make things easier) or taking too long to finish a level. Like many score-based games, Shinobi grades you on your performance, but here you actually see your grade below the score multiplier go up or down as you play. The scoring system is effective in encouraging improvement, and the carrot-and-stick enticement of unlocks is hard to resist.
Performing well nets you all kinds of unlockables. Shinobi has an extensive achievement list that includes things like defeating bosses quickly, finding hidden coins, and more. The achievements unlock concept art, music, cheats, challenge maps, and weapon and costume changes to be used in free play mode. The constant stream of unlocks ensures you get something for your efforts even if you fail to beat a level. Using your Street Pass coins you can purchase challenge maps to play, and then compare scores with friends. The challenge maps are brutal, featuring one-hit kills and devious enemy and platform placement. Not something you want to take on before learning to parry.
There's a wealth of content in Shinobi, but not all of it is stellar. A handful of levels include behind-the-back vehicle sections that have you riding on top of things into the screen. They're visually appealing, especially with the 3D effect on, but the "dodge the obstacle" gameplay isn't much fun. The surfing level in particular is a real stinker, since you're required to use the 3DS's tilt controls. The earlier outdoor levels feature some breathtaking design with some nice lighting and a few cool 2.5D camera transitions. Even with the 3D effect turned off you still get a sense of depth and rich atmosphere. Unfortunately, the later, mostly indoor levels don't fare as well. While they present a steep but fun challenge, they lack the visual variety and inspired design of the outdoor levels. Each level is bookended with some slick animations that have nice sketchy looks to them. Overall, the vibrant colors and constant scattering of points blend with the catchy techno-infused feudal Japanese music to give the game a classic arcadelike tone that does right by the series' roots.
The vehicle (and horse) sections aren't as fun as they look. Except for the one on the back of a jet. That one is kind of cool.
Shinobi is a strong entry in the long-running franchise. The design walks the line between old-school punishing challenge and modern accessibility with only a few missteps along the way. The interesting unlockables should please lifelong Shinobi fans as well as achievement hunters. If you're up for a challenge, it's among the small number of quality games in the growing 3DS library worthy of a spot on your shelf.