Can you think of anything more badass than an 8-bit, cybernetic ninja doing “ninjary” things across parallax-scrolling environments while accompanied by a pumping chiptune soundtrack? Nah, me neither.
Mechanical Head Games founder and only staff member Aarne “MekaSkull” Hunziker certainly doesn’t think so, either. For he has committed the last several years of his life on the very prospect. Following in the footsteps of Thomas Happ with Axiom Verge, and Cave Story‘s own Daisuke “Pixel” Ameya, this ambitious platformer is the absolute raw definition of true indie game development.
Shovel Knight‘s own Yacht Club Games was so impressed in what they saw from the Finnish developer’s solo project, they talked him into allowing them to be the publisher for it as well as the team later providing some light assistance in gameplay direction. The result is Cyber Shadow, an 8-bit fusion of Mega Man, Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden, topped with a bit of lesser-known early ’90s NES title Shatterhand and lightly dusted with Super Metroid.
Cyber Shadow rides all the retro cliches of the above by providing an authentic feel for old school action-platforming without completely pulling the rug of unforgiveness from underneath the player. The gorgeous NES-style visuals fit nicely within the laws of nostalgia while stretching the liberties of emulating the hardware capabilities of a nearly 40-year-old console. The Castlevania-style knockback paralysis when taking damage is present and infuriating yet well handled, and the lengthy checkpoints posted in between will certainly divide opinions.
These are all the fundamental elements that shape an eye for detail for the time it represents. As awkward as they are, the enemy and level hazards placed across each stage have been well thought of. Oftentimes, it would take me over a dozen attempts or so to hit the next checkpoint to where I genuinely craved to tantrum like a toddler missing the convenient comfort blanket of modern safety nets. However, there was very little room for me to complain once I hit the satisfaction of the next milestone, knowing that not only did I finally complete that last section, I felt like I truly mastered it.
It’s all down to the tight control mechanics, the steady uphill incline in difficulty and the clever use of utilising only two action buttons that keeps the constant dread of completely hitting a wall at bay. All in which contributes to upgrades that Shadow acquired throughout his journey, usually demanding a simple directional input combined with a button press.
Take the ability to parry, for example. Ripped straight out of Street Fighter III with a twist, as a well-timed tap towards an incoming projectile can be struck with the blade and launched back to its sender. The airborne downward thrust allows the ninja to gain a little extra height as an essential tactic for platforming, as well as its primary use to pogo the blade into an enemy below with a crack of thunder beefed up with the SP meter. All skills require the use of this special blue meter to gain the most out of them, while eventually waking the dragon will unlock Shadow’s true potential.
Learning a new skill would often be met with both the relief of overcoming a common stickler situation, to then be hit with the dismay of knowing that the said skill now requires the utmost attention and practice to utilise. While a player with a somewhat decent skill level will very likely find a stiff challenge lying ahead, the more ambidextrous wizard partial to a bit of speedrunning will certainly have a field day styling it out when all of Shadow’s abilities are unlocked.
Not all upgrades are permanent though. Some act more like floating attachments not too dissimilar to shoot-em-up power-ups. These mechanical bolt-ons can either be found throughout the level or purchased at checkpoint gates in several various forms. One such example is the little drone that drip-feeds Shadow SP, to another being a protective force field that doubles up as a powerful cannon.
Yet, in a world where the callbacks to nostalgia are now ten a penny across the indie scene, Cyber Shadow is at risk of being lost within the crowd. Unlike, say, The Messenger, as the most obvious comparison which spun the trademarks of nostalgia into something very familiar yet incredibly unique, Cyber Shadow pretty much follows the tune by the note. While there isn’t anything particularly brand new here that hasn’t been done many times before, what Cyber Shadow does do under its clear motive has been done very well indeed.
After beating the game in just over 12 hours with still plenty more to explore and achieve, I can happily say that Cyber Shadow has done a stellar job at combining forces that represented the 8-bit era. The feel of the gameplay, the look and style of the visuals, the absurd plot and the wonderful soundtrack contributions of Enrique Martin and Jake Kaufman really does set the mood nicely. The attention to detail even goes as far as adding an optional CRT scanline filter effect met by red ghosting from bad wires. It’s no wonder why Yacht Club Games were so keen to have their name strapped to it.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Yacht Club Games