Cyber Shadow is inspired by a long line of games that didn’t seem to care whether you enjoyed them.
Ninja Gaiden, and other ultra-difficult platformers of its era, found charm in making you stick around through each punishing death. Developer Mechanical Head Games has modernized that approach to challenge with Cyber Shadow by making something that lives up to the legacy of those retro games, while also feeling approachable and fair.
Cyber Shadow is a 2D action-platformer that follows a cyber ninja named Shadow who has to save a dystopian city that’s been overrun by evil machines. As in most platformers, this means that I spend most of my time jumping over spikes, traps, and dozens of other obstacles, all while using Shadow’s katana to take out the robots that are in my way.
Drawing inspiration from NES games like Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man, and Shatterhand, Cyber Shadow uses pixel art to bring out the gorgeous color contrast in each environment and highlight the game’s unique enemy designs. The game is accompanied by an outstanding chiptune soundtrack.
Despite its retro style, Cyber Shadow never feels old. Unlike similar games such as Shovel Knight (developed by Yacht Club Games, the publisher behind Cyber Shadow), which featured slow, purposefully delayed jumping, and mechanics that felt like they were ripped from an NES cartridge, Cyber Shadow feels comparatively modern. Every movement feels reactive and snappy, giving the game a quicker feel than its inspirations.
Cyber Shadow even includes midair control of your jumps. If I’m in the middle of a jump to the right, I can still immediately flip to the left, slash an enemy, and turn right back around. This kind of quickness allows the game to offer complex platforming and faster enemies, while still giving me time to react.
Another asset that helps Cyber Shadow is its visual clarity. The game’s levels feature rooms with interesting enemies, jumping puzzles, difficult-to-dodge traps, and often a combination of all of three. These rooms are almost all unique, and engaging to overcome, but they’re also very easy to understand.
Even in the busiest rooms, where there might be six or seven enemies, moving platforms, collectibles, and meticulously timed traps, all the objects have their own unique look and animations that make them easy to pick out. I was always able to keep the dozens of on-screen interactions separate, and when I lost track of something, it felt like I was not living up to the game’s challenge, rather than a particle that got lost in the shuffle. Almost every death I suffered in the game felt like it was my fault, which always gave me a reason to respawn and try again.
And sometimes, trying again meant more than five or six trips back to the same checkpoint. While the deaths almost always felt fair, that doesn’t mean I never got frustrated. Thankfully, the game even has a built-in system to alleviate that frustration, should you find yourself stuck on a particularly tough checkpoint.
Cyber Shadow has an in-game currency that you can pick up by destroying glowing orange orbs that litter the game’s levels. This currency can be used to upgrade specific checkpoints that break up areas in each level. While the most basic checkpoints will just restore Shadow back to full health, certain ones — especially those before longer and more challenging areas — can be upgraded to do things like recharge Shadow’s magic power (which lets him throw shurikens or fireballs that you unlock throughout the game) or spawn a rare magical item. These items are where the difficulty assistance comes into play.
These items essentially power ups that help make the game a little easier. One is a spinning ball of energy that does damage to surrounding enemies, another is a massive shield, and another is an attack with longer range. While I can find these in the normal game at very specific moments, it feels like I’m activating a cheat code when I pick them up from a regular checkpoint.
In other recent retro-style platformers, if a player dies too many times in one section, the developers might decide to display a prompt that asks if they want to lower the difficulty level. But Mechanical Head Games’ system is far better. It still lets the player complete the content as it was intended; they just get a little extra boost, and it’s gone (most of the time) by the next checkpoint. I never had enough currency to activate all the checkpoints, so upgrading one always felt like an important choice. Or I could skip the items entirely if I wasn’t struggling.
I was particularly thankful for these items when I faced off against the game’s bosses, which I just wanted to get through as fast as possible. I’m currently halfway through the game, and few of the battles have been memorable; most of the bosses’ abilities have been boring. They’re nowhere close to the high-water mark of quality set by the levels that lead up to them, so in the rare event that I died during one, I simply bought an item, killed the boss quickly, and got back to the good parts of the game.
There’s a fine line between challenging games and frustrating ones, especially when you’re trying to pay homage to games that were released three decades ago. But with Cyber Shadow, Mechanical Head Games proves that with a few smart, modern twists, it’s possible to make a retro-style platformer with all the difficulty of the past, and few of the frustrations.