Genre: 2D action platformer
Format: PC / PS4 / XBO / Switch
Developer: Mechanical Head Studios
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
For the past five years, Yacht Club Games has focused on just one game: Shovel Knight. Granted, games are increasingly becoming a live service of never-ending updates, but it’s not what you would associate with a 2D retro-inspired platformer. But as Yacht Club finishes up its Kickstarter-funded classic with a final expansion, the developer’s next step has been to move into publishing. Enter the newly announced Cyber Shadow, a ninja-focused title that confirms the company is comfortable in its love affair with the 8-bit era.
The game is the debut of solo developer Aarne Hunziker, who’s been working on it for the past three years. And as he puts it, “If Shovel Knight is inspired by all the happy and cheerful games of the NES era, mine is inspired by all the dark and gritty ones.”
There’s a tendency to equate dark, mature games with the Sega Mega Drive, but Hunziker instead cites the NES games he played growing up like Batman, Contra, and Shadow of the Ninja (aka Blue Shadow in Europe) as inspirations for Cyber Shadow’s dark, futuristic setting.
After getting caught in a nuclear explosion, your protagonist is reborn as a cyborg ninja and embarks on a quest to rescue their clan. It’s a pretty straightforward set-up, but it’s told with similar ‘cinematic’ art the classic Ninja Gaiden was also known for – as well as its hardcore action platforming, of course. And unlike most retro-inspired games that indulge in postmodern fourth-wall breaking and gags, Hunziker says, “There’s nothing funny about the game – it’s very serious.”
It’s also pretty singular in its aesthetic and mechanics; a no-nonsense linear action-platformer that sees your cyborg ninja slashing their way through obstacles, culminating in challenging boss fights. But although it starts simple, with just jump and slash inputs harking back to the two-button NES controller, it soon takes on modern elements that players have come to expect, such as unlocking new skills and upgrades to make your ninja even more adept, and changing the flow of how you play as it goes.
To take one example, illustrated in the opening moments of the game’s announcement trailer: a dash attack that has you slashing through enemies doesn’t just look cool – it also allows you to move across the screen in fewer frames. While the ability is limited, a successful attack also refills its gauge, meaning a skilful player can feasibly chain-kill multiple enemies and move across a level at a much faster speed. “The first level might take five minutes to complete on the first try, but with all the skills unlocked it can be 20 seconds,” Hunziker says – which suggests Cyber Shadow will prove particularly replayable for speedrunners.
Of course, the structure of an 8-bit game evolving its playstyle over time, as well as the ninja premise itself, may draw comparisons with last year’s Ninja Gaiden-inspired retro throwback The Messenger, and the recent Katana Zero also combines pixel art 2D action platforming with cyberpunk and Japanese tropes (those last two elements are, admittedly, a common blend).
Even discounting the subject matter, there’s no doubt that, while Shovel Knight was a breath of fresh air in 2014, we have a lot more 2D pixel platformers knocking around these days. But to conclude there’s an oversaturation of the genre would be unfair, especially when the rest of the industry is also rushing to ape bigger trends like Wireframe favourite, the battle royale.
Hunziker, meanwhile, isn’t bothered by the comparisons, and indeed welcomes them. Prior to Cyber Shadow, he was learning pixel art in his day job, which involved creating assets for avatars on Facebook and mobile games with that very aesthetic.
Elsewhere, he cut his teeth in the modding scene with the earliest NES emulators, which allowed users to view and change graphics on the fly. But it all comes back to Yacht Club: “It’s partly thanks to Shovel Knight that I started to take my project seriously,” Hunziker explains. “It showed that there’s a market for this sort of game. For the consumer, there’s a lot of choice, which is great. For the developer, there’s more of a challenge because there are more similar games, but it makes me find new, unique things so that it’s not just another Ninja Gaiden.”
Speaking of Shovel Knight, it was actually a suggestion from an artist at Yacht Club Games that led to the latter offering to publish Cyber Shadow, although it wasn’t without some resistance. “Initially, I was like ‘no’, because I had decided to do it by myself – I was stubborn,” Hunziker laughs. “But then they offered to help with level design and inject some of their magic into the game, and that sounded like a very good idea.”
Far from a traditional publisher then, Yacht Club’s role is more akin to co-developer, which has been a boon for the game’s development in an intensive past six months – “down to the pixel detail,” as Hunziker puts it. “There are only a few companies I would work with, and Yacht Club is one of them, so it’s been very lucky to team up with them.”