Saturday, January 7, 2023

Shadow Knights (1991)

Name:Shadow Knights AKA Budo: The Art of Ninja Combat
Developer:Id Software
Time:2 hours 50 minutes
Won:Yes (57W/56L)

So, I was debating whether or not to get to this now or save this for a later. Of Id's platformers, Shadow Knights, is an outlier. Its got a Japanese theme, it had no sequels, its not really a shooter, and the game isn't on any internet stores as of this writing. An odd omission, considering the company. There are a few paragraphs of text in a readme, but its not really more complex than, you're a powerful ninja, save the shogun from the evil dudes. Id, as we all know, wasn't big on story. People on the internet allege that this is Id's attempt at making a Ninja Gaiden like game.

If it was, they failed.

I have not extensively played any Ninja Gaiden games. I have played Revenge of Shinobi and some of the other games in that series extensively. The two games have different playstyles, but the general characterization of what they're trying to do is consistent. Ninjas should be deadly, ninjas have a variety of weapons, and ninjas violate the laws of aerodynamics. Shadow Knights fails.

Two of the regular enemies, the clubsman and the bowman
This is apparent from the very beginning, your character can take a lot of punishment, but it takes two shots from his sword to take out anything. Enemy damage is determined by what frames the enemy can attack in, so while you're okay against just one, multiple ends badly. Your guy jumps away, but rarely. Ranged attacks require magic, you have a shuriken which kills any enemy and a "panic" attack which costs four bars of magic, but shoots out a bunch of shurikens in all directions. You can also heal, one point of magic for one point of health. You restore magic by finding floating orbs. There are also varieties that restore health and increase lives.
But I get ahead of myself.
You get this screen before every stage, in this case, the highest it'll ever be from this point forward
Despite mostly being the same game, there are minor differences between the original game, Shadow Knights, and the later rerelease called Budo. The original gets a cool title screen, while the rerelease just dumps you in the first stage. I think the cheats don't work in Budo. And make no mistake, this is the kind of game you need that level select code for, you aren't saving anything. Not that there's a score. Its C+T+Space for level warp, and C+T+enter for magic. In-game, not on a menu. I also note that you can get more health and magic by just warping to a level, each new level restores health and gives two magic.
A dog, just randomly flopping down
Stage 1, Village, introductions the concepts and central gameplay in a relaxed environment. There are three enemies that make up the majority of fighting time. All have a back and forth movement path that is only altered when you land on the same level as them, or slightly higher or lower. A red samurai, who you fight like a demon from Doom. Wait for an opening, attack, then retreat. A blue ninja bowmen, who has a long wind-up time for a ranged attack. You can kill them without them ever releasing an arrow if you're lucky. Dogs, which are annoying and just chew up health. They jump up and attack you. I never took out one without it hitting me. You're not even dodging it, it'll rapidly hit you should you even try.
Visually the game looks nice, but its not as nice-looking as Dangerous Dave was. I really like the trees though. Sound still hasn't advanced past PC Speaker, and feels it. I don't think the stepping sounds are linked properly to running around and everything else is questionable. Meanwhile our hero controls...okay. Its characteristic of these early Id games in that it feels stiffer than it should. There is a difference between tapping the jump button and holding it down, but its minor. There are no great gaps you can jump. Using ranged attacks has an overly long wind-up, meaning you have to already know an enemy is there before using it. A problem considering enemies become alert slightly off-screen.
An opening so subtly deadly

Stage 2, Approach, is where the game goes off the rails. You are put in a position where you need to rapidly perform actions lest you end up dead. Those red samurai ensure you can't just rush to the bowman just off-screen, who can and will shoot arrows at you. Jumping over these two results in you getting attacked by a dog, along with another one, just off-screen, but below. What you have to do is throw shurikens at the two samurai, then jump over the first bow shot, throwing another shuriken, followed by aiming a shuriken in a jump, something you haven't done before, finishing off by throwing a shuriken at the final dog before he's alert and then running off to him. Of these situations, you have had to maybe time your attacks against bowmen and maybe figure out you can do the last shuriken thing. There was no jumping and throwing shuriken.

And this is just indicative of the kind of level design this level has. You can go up a tree to get some magic, but samurai and bowmen guard it, and the combination here is deadly. So you have to attack the samurai in the direction they aren't facing while jumping from a lower branch. Then you can just hammer the bowmen and repeat until he's gone. Then you can actually advance through the level!

To advance here, you need to get past the bowman up there, and take out a dog. (off-screen) This is much harder than it sounds.

Its at this point that I realize a problem with the game's design. As in many side-scrollers, there are spikes. This isn't a problem, but it does expose it. Enemies can walk over spikes without problems. There's one section here where you can only attack a samurai as he walks over one. So I attack him, and I get hurt despite me not getting hit. Why? Because when your sprite changes it registers the sword's area as you, so you can hurt if you attack spikes.
I complain, but this is actually the easiest section of the level
This is to say nothing of the actual parts you have to go through. An area where you have to jump up to a dog, which means you have no good means of attack. In the final area, all of a sudden enemies drop from the sky. Its not a difficulty jump or anything, just surprising. This feels like aggressive padding, because otherwise this level is 5 minutes long. You have to go through the first level to beat this level no matter what, you just aren't going to survive some sections of this otherwise.
Stage 3, Ascent, actually a good level. Considerably easier than the nightmare that was Approach. I have no idea why. Outside of the game's constant desire to have you attacking dogs from down below I actually feel like a ninja for once. Its nice, it flows well. While I enjoyed my time with the level, I do note that the whole jump below a dude is getting somewhat tedious.
As it turns out, its very hard to get a good screenshot of a bat, its to the right of the dog
Stage 4, Graveyard, now there are bats. To Id's credit, they're not as annoying as they could possibly be. They have a distinct pattern that's easy enough in isolation to defeat. The real problem are the skeleton warriors. They're not bosses, and they respawn every time you walk over their tombstone. They require at least two shurikens to take out and melee combat is a fool's errand. They follow you too. And then it gets worse.
A low number of skeleton warriors midway through the level
The level is simply not designed to allow you to get past them easily. You have to jump down multiple ledges and the ilk. Its just a slow way to move around, assuming jumping down even works. And you need to jump down because the ledges which should offer you some safety from the skeletons have dogs by the dozens, sometimes even another skeleton warrior. This is not a level you win, this is a level you get by on luck.
I think its a shame that this didn't get a modern reboot, because I can see this thing getting a majestic and gory introduction
Stage 5, boss battle, Guardian. The first time I played this I got sucker punched. I get the feeling that's pretty much universal. I should stop giving this game the benefit of any doubt whatsoever. The only mercy this level offers is that your foe doesn't have a ranged attack. He moves fast enough that it isn't that much of a mercy. You have to hit the middle section of this bad boy. The problem is this guy moves around in such a way that I don't think there IS any way to dodge him. You just have to hope the number of shuriken you can put out is enough to put him down. As such, luck is becoming an increasing concern.

Stage 6, Castle. This level encourages the player to go around enemies for once, lots of big groups of enemies guarding magic, with chandeliers. Pretty sure Japan didn't have those until semi-recently, but I'm willing to bet the historical accuracy of this game boils down to someone watching a ninja movie the night before. It straddles the line between being good and being annoying. Its a clever situation, but it feels like its been copy/pasted a dozen times. Each floor has a dog, about 4 guards and 2 bowmen. This combination is effective enough at getting the player to want to avoid them, but going over them awakens the higher floor earlier, making it so you have to deal with them earlier.

So this means you have to figure out how to deal with these guys in a way that maximizes the amount of magic/health you have while minimizing damage. I notice on this level a troubling issue, I can't climb down a floor while being attacked. The game knows this and takes advantage of it.

Id tends to be somewhat lazy and always have the safe area be the middle
To top it all off, you have to fall down a pit while avoiding spikes. A very nerve-wracking experience after the ascent to this point.
Stage 7, Dungeon. Bats attack you. At this point its less a gotcha and more annoying. Now the level design is all about falling down to a group of enemies. Its not any easier, especially since the game hides all sorts of nasty things below your vision. There are also objects that seem like they're in the background, but actually hurt you. What's interesting is this shift in tone. We saw a little bit of it earlier, but now its getting dark. I find it funny that they managed to get out this game, when with Dangerous Dave they had to hold things back.
Yes, that's five enemies, I already killed another five stuck down here
This one requires precision on your part to win. Enemies are just packed into each floor, and worse yet, they can take more damage. Some guards now take three hits, and you barely get any space to move around. I even think the area out respawns these guys. There's a new enemy, rats. They scurry across the floor and generally be annoying.
Cell space must not be at a premium if they can afford to keep skeletons hanging around
Stage 8, Depths. Starting off with three guards and a bat. Yippee. Rats falling from the ceiling, skeleton warriors, and best of all, falling down dozens of holes in which you have no idea where you're going until after you've done it. Woe be to him trying to win this level without the level select cheat. This is a maze full of one-way paths designed to wear you down to the point of nothingness. I've also noticed that the game doesn't let you attack if you get hit at the right moment.
This is nothing, the game is fully prepared to throw six of these guys at you
There are multiple locations on this level where the strategy is either run away, never be there, or hit the panic button. This is actually the first time I've used it in a situation which didn't result in my death. And the bad news is that situation led me no closer to winning than I was before. No, the way out is a long crawl down, then a final ascend up, requiring you kill two skeleton warriors. I just thought they respawned infinitely. Guess I was wrong.
Level 9, Sashika, the final boss. No, you aren't getting past this level without some measure of pain, but its less brutal than previous levels. Kind of. He's just a supped up skeleton warrior, he can hit you one floor up, but he only does so if you're within striking range beforehand. And those two health orbs up there amount to four shots, he takes out half a life bar in one hit. (you can survive without any bars in your life meter, but the next one takes you out) This is simply not the kind of game where what the game expects you to do is fun.
Both are capable of being said in Japanese, but they still feel wrong to hear
He goes down to about 20 sword strikes, or 10 shurikens. Thankfully, for this you get a nice scrolling shot of the scenic Naipusan countryside. And the team at Id thank the 5 people who can beat this game.
Yes, you are actually in an unwinnable situation if you end up here
Through all this I more or less had tunnel vision concerning the game's difficulty. Like past Softdisk titles, it revels in it, but unlike past games which generally did one thing well, this felt unsure of itself. If this is a beat 'em up, why is combat discouraged outside of cheesing enemies? If this isn't, why is the primary method of fighting enemies is melee? I don't feel like I'm playing this game well, but I cannot see how anyone could do any better.
One might say these problems are because the player is a ninja, you have to avoid enemies. That works to a certain extent, but you're not going to win the game running away from enemies. Bats and dogs can't be run away from. You're not carefully avoiding enemies like in even a mediocre stealth game. You just sort of get lucky. One might say that ninjas fight in an underhanded way, but that only works in the first half. When you fight enemies that take 3+ hits it gets tedious. This is sort of like the usual JRPG criticism, to deal with one encounter you have to spend like half a minute. This is the action version of that.

Everything about the attacks were just user hostile in the end. The sword only works half the time; The shuriken requires a windup and aiming in the air is tricky; And the panic attack is only useful in very rare situations. 1/10

I like the variety in theory, but all they tend to either take too many hits or require you to hit them at a very precise moment. It feels like busywork. 2/10


A lot of the levels, once you take out the gotchas at the star, have genuinely clever moments in them. It feels like they really knew the capabilities of their engine. However, it feels like they expected you to know the exact ins and outs of every aspect of the game, which doesn't quite work in a game that constantly fights against you. 4/10

Player Agency:
At its most basic, a side-scrolling platformer, the game feels stiff. When it comes to combat, there are multiple issues that compound on top of it, like attacks not working, hitbox issues. All designed to put you to a dead stop. 2/10


There's some subtle horror here. The game starts off with a typical, happy opening section, before gradually turning into a horror game. Fits with the descent into insane difficulty too. Were the game more modern I could see this getting very bloody, and I don't think that would be a bad thing. 4/10

Animation feels limited, and there's a bit too much purple, but otherwise it looks very nice for EGA. It is obvious its EGA though. 3/10


For some reason the sound on this just feels noisy, even for PC speaker. 1/10

That's 17, the second lowest Id Software game.

While the game does have issues in knowing what it wants to be, the most damning issue of all is that you're constantly fighting the controls and the tedium of it. For once, a computer game lacks the speed and style of its console counterparts. As I suspect this was made on a short time span, it is impressive, but outside of the context of its developer, it simply isn't worth talking about.

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