Cyber Shadow sets out to answer a very simple question: what would an NES Ninja Gaiden game look and play like if it were made today? Admittedly, it’s a hypothetical that The Messenger sort of already answered back in 2018… but look, sometimes questions like these can have multiple good answers, and Cyber Shadow is no better proof of that.
This retro-styled action platformer developed by Mechanical Head Studios and published by Shovel Knight developer Yacht Club Game is a truly great take on the 2D Ninja Gaiden formula – but more than that, it’s constantly evolving and brilliantly adds new gameplay and level design challenges with every new upgrade that it gives you. These upgrades continue to compound upon each other to the point that, by the time you reach the end of Cyber Shadow’s seven to eight-hour adventure, it’s morphed from a simple yet fun action platformer to an absolutely wild and occasionally brutally difficult one that surpasses its inspiration in every way.
Cyber Shadow Screenshots
Cyber Shadow puts you into the pixelated ninja boots of the titular (cyber) Shadow, who awakens from an incubation pod to find a destroyed city that’s been overrun by out-of-control machines. It’s a serviceable story at best, told through both in-game dialogue boxes and nostalgic 8-bit cutscenes with large, detailed, but still very low-res sprites, much like the NES Ninja Gaiden games. Its big weakness is that there’s just very little personality to any of it. Shadow himself is a mute protagonist, and with one notable exception (who’s gone all too quickly) all of the characters he interacts with largely feel like they exist solely to be exposition dumps. There’s little reason to care about the evil Dr. Progen, your master, or the members of your clan he holds captive.
Where Cyber Shadow does deliver, however, is in its gameplay. It really hits on all fronts: level design, enemy design, enemy variety, character progression, boss battles – it’s all top notch. Your set of tools begins very modestly: Shadow can jump and can slash his sword horizontally, and… that’s it. This limited moveset is a large part of what drives the challenge in the early goings because enemies and obstacles approach from all angles but you can only hit things that are directly in front of you (much like in, you guessed it, Ninja Gaiden).
But this is a modern take on old-school design, and it comes with modern assists to help smooth the hard edges a little: checkpoints not only give you a respawn point but also restore your health when you step on them. If that’s not enough, you can spend a currency called essence to unlock permanent upgrades for that specific checkpoint that will either restore your magic or provide you with a powerup when you respawn from there. These powerups are especially cool because they’re almost always specifically designed to be especially useful in the upcoming section; for example, a shield that can block projectiles from the front right that becomes available before a particularly bullet-hellish encounter.
My absolute favorite powerup, though, is the aptly named Swag Blade. This monster tethers a saw blade to your character that can be manipulated through your momentum. So if there’s an enemy above you that you can’t hit with your sword, you can simply jump in place until the Swag Blade gets enough momentum to bounce up and down and reach it. Or if there’s an enemy straight ahead, you can also strike the blade with your sword to give it some instant forward momentum and take them out from a distance. It’s a super fun and creative weapon to use, and I wish I was given more opportunity to do so than the one chapter it’s available in.
Essence and Spirit
Cyber Shadow really hits its stride just a little more than halfway through, once you gain the ability to sprint. It’s at this point where it metamorphosizes from a Ninja Gaiden-esque larva state and becomes entirely its own beast. Sprinting gives you the ability to use a super-fast dash slice that can go right through enemies and obstacles, allowing you to use it both as a devastating attack and to reach new areas – sometimes even both at the same time. Some of the best moments came when I was able to dash my way across a level without ever touching the ground.
All throughout Cyber Shadow’s campaign, it never feels like it’s running out of ideas, and I found myself uniquely challenged by each new chapter even as my abilities and strengths grew. A lot is thrown at you all at once, often while forcing you to deal with some other sort of environmental nightmare, like: orbital laser beams, a creeping mass of instant-kill spikes, a rising elevator that threatens to squish you below instant-kill spikes, or security lasers that, when tripped, will activate extra enemy robots and turrets that mercilessly hunt you down.
Needless to say, Cyber Shadow becomes quite difficult, but it’s a difficulty that always felt manageable once I’d learned the various quirks and nuances of the many enemies that patrol each chapter. Most have multiple spots where they can be hit, and they change their behavior depending on what part of their body you break; others are seemingly impenetrable until you’re able to use Shadow’s projectile parry to stop their bullets and send them flying right back towards them; and others still fly at you from awkward angles, forcing you to reposition before you’re able to take them out. There’s just an incredible amount of variety in the enemy design, and it works hand in hand with both the level design and Shadow’s upgrades to ensure that Cyber Shadow is consistently fresh and challenging.
That being said, not all of the difficulty is what I’d categorize as “good difficulty.” There are definitely instances where the checkpoints are spaced a little bit too far from one another, which can be the wrong kind of brutal. Naturally, any frustration I felt was eventually washed away by a much stronger feeling of triumph once I finally hit that next checkpoint, but there were definitely several moments in the latter half where I was shocked at how long I had been playing in a single life without hitting a checkpoint or the end of the level.
After defeating the final boss I was surprised to find that there’s no New Game+ or anything of the sort waiting in the post game, but there are plenty of collectibles and upgrades that can be found by revisiting earlier levels with abilities you obtain later, which provides some extra value for those who like to aim for 100% completion. Beyond that, there’s also the signature Yacht Club list of feats that provide a set of unique challenges, like making it to the first boss without killing any enemies or defeating a certain boss without damaging it with your sword. There’s seemingly no reward for completing these, but they’re fun and interesting enough to make me want to try and accomplish as many as I can anyway; a task that will keep me busy for quite a while.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning one other similarity between Cyber Shadow and The Messenger: their soundtracks are both absolute bangers. Every chapter has its own theme song, often with multiple arrangements that adjust the moods appropriately, and it’s all extremely catchy and well produced.