I’ve been musing over how great the first level of Shinobi is ever since I first picked the game up a few weeks back. Inspired threefold by a classmate’s tweet, a great blog post about the design of Mario World 1-1 on auntie pixelante, and my own blog’s stagnation I decided to write about the design of that first level of Shinobi I so adore.
The Assassination of KEN OH
Like Mario 1-1, Shinobi opens with the player standing on the left side of the screen, urging the player to move right and find… What ho? A Foe! Lurking in stage right are two of the world’s worst villains. The sight of a ninja so excites the gun-wielding thug on the roof that he immediately fires his only bullet way off into god-knows-where. He freezes up and starts imagining how pissed off Ken Oh is going to be (very). The thug who would have had a clear shot has no pistol. He walks forward and gives the player plenty of time to mash all 2 of the buttons (bufons) on their controller until they find the attack command. The player could safely proceed now, but they are way too excited by that weird monkey-kid-thing sitting in front of the terrified thug.
This is where my first playthrough hit a bump. You can’t jump up there using the basic jump. It is just too dang high! Believe me, I tried for at least 5 minutes. I eventually found out that there exists a “Super Jump” that I could perform by holding Up when I jumped. Someone should have read the manual.
Moving rapidly forward, our hero gets shot at some more (does that first guy even count?) by a thug standing behind a crate. “Take cover!” shouts the player’s monkey brain. The crate looks like a promising spot to take cover. So the player takes it and crouches. The bullets fly safely overhead. “I can just duck underneath bullets!” the player concludes. No explanatory text necessary- just a crate and the danger of being shot. The designers appear to trust the player’s intuition.
There is another weird monkey kid sitting here. If the player still hasn’t learned how to Super Jump (and thus has not collected any monkey kids) this thing should make them want to learn how. Running into the kid plays a jingle and gives the player 1000 Points. “Boy howdee is it rewarding to collect these monkey kids!” is what every single player will think when they do this. They might even backtrack to get the first one they missed. Who wouldn’t!? The first kid doesn’t give 1000 Points, however. He “Up”s the player’s “Power” instead. “Rad!”
Continuing right, the player gets introduced to another exciting character. Shield-boomerang-ponytail is standing on the rooftop. He, like the first pistol-haver, freaks out as soon as he sees the player and throws his boomerang at nothing in particular. The player gets to watch from the safety of the streets as the boomerang flies over a stack of bricks (“Hey I could duck under that!”) and then turns around and flies back to Shield-boomerang-ponytail. He stands around like an idiot after that. The player could spend a while meditating on this but there is another thug strutting towards him that demands immediate attention. “This crate will protect me!” the player thinks. The illusion of security (and, likely, the player’s entire world-view) is shattered when the thug jumps onto the god damned crate and continues his awful strutting. Thugs can climb over stuff. They are also allergic to shurikens thrown at their face, which is really too bad because that is how Shinobi says “hello”. The player now wants to get those monkey kids on the roof and they are willing to risk an encounter with Shield-boomerang-ponytail to get them. Unlike the first enemy, Shield-boomerang-ponytail still has ammunition (that would be the “boomerang” part) so the player has to use everything they learned about crouching and shuriken-greetings to deal with him. Introducing enemies by having them display their abilities in harmless ways is a good way to get the player accustomed to fighting them without frustrating them.
The rest of the level mixes and matches these elements to the delight of the player. Crates behind crates. Crates on top of crates. Monkey-kids on top of crates. Thugs firing pistols on top of crates. Thugs shooting from behind other thugs.
The level ends with a power up that completely restores the player’s health. Any damage sustained while “learning the ropes” is forgiven. Thanks, monkey-kid!