A very quick history - Sega released the original Shinobi in arcades in 1987 to much acclaim. A cut-down version for the Master System appeared the next year, and work began on the home sequel, The Revenge of Shinobi, which hit the then-nascent Mega Drive in 1989. Just pipping Revenge to the post was Shadow Dancer, an arcade sequel to the original Shinobi, which in 1990 was itself adapted for home release and renamed Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi.
In Japan, Shadow Dancer stars Hayate Musashi, the son of original shinobi Joe Musashi. In Western translations, the lore of the series takes a different course as players apparently reassume the role of Joe. Either way, it doesn't really matter - this was the late 80s after all, and sidescroller plots were little more than flimsy justifications for massacring waves of baddies. What does matter is that, this time around, the shinobi is accompanied by a dog.
More than just a gimmick, the addition of canine sidekick Yamoto is integral to Shadow Dancer. Rightfully taking centre stage – the original arcade version’s attract mode sees an animated intro which barks out to prospective players – Yamoto opens up a new avenue of tactics to the seasoned shinobi. Ducking and tapping attack will instruct the dog to pounce upon the nearest enemy facing the player, with Yamoto leaping over obstacles to catch his quarry.
Yamoto clamping jaws around an enemy’s forearm opens a vital window of several seconds in which they’re immobilised and unable to attack, allowing the player to dispatch them with ease. With Shadow Dancer’s brutal one-hit-kills mechanic carried over from Shinobi, Yamoto’s ability to engage enemies and pin them down while the player takes cover – coupled with his imperviousness to gunfire and projectiles – makes him an essential companion in tricky situations.
Players must be careful to look after Yamoto and intervene promptly whenever the dog is used in combat as, though spirited, he does not possess the size and strength to take down an enemy alone. Left fighting solo for too long, Yamoto inevitably succumbs without backup, yelping as he is struck by the enemy, shrinking down to a harmless puppy, rendered useless. This handicap is alleviated once the player locates one of the bombs planted around stages by the game’s terrorist antagonists, or progresses to the next stage, with Yamoto revived and once again fighting-fit.
Although Shadow Dancer takes place across largely generic locales, including identikit industrial complexes, junkyards and croc-infested sewers, Yamoto’s presence, with smooth animation (his little twist-flip when leaping up to a platform is an absolute joy, sadly swapped for a more pedestrian jump in the Mega Drive version) and sleek looks inject something special – and then-innovative – into an otherwise competent but by-the-numbers sidescroller. The home console Secret of Shinobi adaptation reworks stages entirely and adds a trip up the Statue of Liberty in the ravaged near-future NYC, alongside a cave section interspersed with pockets of darkness, where players can send Yamoto scouting ahead to deal with unseen danger.
Alongside his ability to temporarily incapacitate, Yamoto also acts as a kind of early-warning system, barking at approaching enemies. Though his AI is rudimentary, merely trailing the player and only attacking on command, this basic behaviour manages to feel more like the product of obedience training and devotion than technological shortfalls of the era. The dog is intensely loyal but not hot-headed, never leaving his master’s side unless instructed, aware of his limitations and status. Yamoto only attacks when he is sure he can win a fight - and he knows he can only win a fight when the shinobi has his back.
No indication of Yamoto’s breed is given, but the Japanese Kishu looks like a good match, visually and temperamentally - they’re “tough and agile… courageous and brave as hunters, and will be loyal to their owners,” says thepuppypal.com. Bound together in combat, man and dog must fight as one unit to negate each other’s weaknesses, pooling their strengths and relying on a tried-and-tested distract-and-attack pattern if they are to win. Indeed, Shadow Dancer can be seen as an arcade distillation of the special mutually-beneficial relationship between species that has existed since ancient hunter-gatherers first domesticated the dog; as a study of triumph through companionship.
Dan Douglas is an all-round hero who sometimes writes about games. He once won an award for being brilliant at it.