The video game industry may have largely moved away from 8-bit graphics and simpler control schemes, but that hasn't stopped a number of indie developers from providing players with new experiences that evoke that era. Cyber Shadow, from developer Mechanical Head Studios, is a throwback to NES games like Shadow of the Ninja and Batman that also manages to find a voice all its own. While these sort of titles can sometimes feel like a dime a dozen on digital marketplaces, Cyber Shadow is a game that retro enthusiasts and fans of the NES era will not want to sleep on.
In Cyber Shadow, players take on the role of a cyborg ninja named Shadow as he attempts to free his clan from robots that have overrun Mekacity. The game's tale is told through interactions with characters as well as animated cut scenes that pay homage to those seen in the likes of Ninja Gaiden. Mekacity and its futuristic environment give the game a bit of a cyberpunk feel, and it works fairly well at establishing the setting.
Like many NES games, however, the story takes a backseat to the gameplay. Cyber Shadow is an action-platformer, tasking players with jumping and slashing through mechanical foes. As players progress through the stages, Shadow learns new tricks such as the ability to toss throwing-stars or wall-jump. Further following the 8-bit guidelines, Cyber Shadow uses just two buttons for all actions alongside the D-Pad or control stick. It's very simple, but also quite effective. I do recommend using a controller with a good D-Pad, as opposed to a control stick. The latter will work fine, but the former is better for using abilities that combine a directional control with a button press (such as Up + Y for throwing stars).
A lot of 8-bit throwbacks don't just try to channel the style of old-school video games; they also try to channel the difficulty level, as well. Unfortunately, the NES era had a lot of games that were artificially difficult, forcing players to repeat the same tasks over and over again because save points were limited or even nonexistent. In my interview with Aarne Hunziker, the Cyber Shadow developer stated that he wanted to offer "checkpoints that don't punish dying," and the developer delivered on that promise, offering a wealth of checkpoints that rarely make the game feel cheap or unfair. Taking things a step further, checkpoints allow players to cash in currency accumulated in the game for bonus weapons or the ability to refill their Spirit and Health when they get to the checkpoint. This is totally optional, and old-school purists might prefer avoiding these extras. In that way, Cyber Shadow truly does feel like it blends the best of old-school gameplay with modern sensibilities.
That doesn't mean there aren't difficult moments. In fact, Cyber Shadow features some very difficult bosses and segments that will test a player's resolve, not to mention their hand-eye coordination. In that regard, players will really feel like a ninja as they weave between blasts or toss a well-timed throwing star. Thanks to the game's extremely generous checkpoints, players can focus on these tasks, rather than dealing with the anxiety of having to revisit several areas after dying. That really adds to the overall satisfaction of clearing the game's toughest parts.
Gameplay is critical, but Cyber Shadow wouldn't work nearly as well without a strong presentation, and this game is nothing short of gorgeous. The pixel graphics pop off the screen, and it's clear that a lot of effort went into designing the game's world. It would have been easy for Mekacity's techno-inspired environments to feel cold and sterile, but that isn't the case. The game's bosses are equally well-designed. Cyber Shadow's music, composed by Enrique Martin and produced by Jake Kaufman, is also quite special. The game features some truly terrific tracks, and players will have them stuck in their heads long after they've stopped playing.
While Cyber Shadow was developed by Mechanical Head Studios, it's published by Yacht Club Games, best known for Shovel Knight. For players on Nintendo Switch, that means the game is compatible with the Shovel Knight amiibo. Scanning the figure in Cyber Shadow basically works like it does in Shovel Knight, bringing in the Fairy Knight character, a tiny version of Shovel Knight that flies around the screen, trying to help. It doesn't do that much, but it is a neat little visual up until Fairy Knight takes a nap, leaving Shadow on his own, once again. The amiibo does, however, give Shadow a blue tunic in place of his traditional gray, which looks a lot better.
In a sea of 8-bit throwbacks and NES homages, Cyber Shadow truly stands out among the crowd. Mechanical Head Studios and Yacht Club Games have delivered an experience that combines the graphics and gameplay of the era with the benefit of modern elements. The result is an experience that's difficult where it needs to be, but never unfairly so. For fans of action-platformers, old-school enthusiasts, or players just looking to get lost in some gorgeous 8-bit visuals, Cyber Shadow is a must-play game.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Cyber Shadow is set to release on January 26th for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. The game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review, and it was reviewed on a base model Nintendo Switch.