As we watch the attract mode play out before us, we see our ninja hero face off against a horde of gunmen on a speeding train. Try as they might, his enemies can never touch him. They have him cornered, but try as they might, his enemies can never touch him. His movements are deliberate; he weaves himself between their bullets with grace and ease. What we’re shown is a man of raw power impeccable control, and an implicit promise that both are available to us should we decide to step in his shoes.
What we see next undermines that promise. Our actors (literal actors now) are no longer the symbols of power and control they once seemed to us. They’re pathetic, almost comical. The ninja’s once formidable opponents can only take a few steps before their bodies collapse and die with no apparent cause. Are these the same opponents that gave him so much trouble before? What prowess can our protagonist have if the greatest threat he faces can be toppled so easily? Why would the game subvert its own image by introducing these tensions it refuses to resolve?
If I were asked to summarize the Shadow Dancer experience, I’d be hard pressed to find a better example than what I’ve provided above. Although I plan to cover the Sega Master System version, I don’t feel that fact is particularly relevant to what the game does. The original this version was based on was released in arcades as part of a larger franchise of games with very strong roots in arcade design philosophies. Needless to say, Shadow Dancer proudly wears that heritage on its sleeve. It makes no attempt to be anything more than the arcade game it is. It forgoes strong narrative logic and ludic complexity in favor of simple rules designed to facilitate brief stints of gameplay. You walk forward through the level. You shoot down your foes with shurikens (or kill them with a special technique on the rare occasion that becomes necessary). You pick up bombs to power yourself up. You fight the gunmen’s boss – again shooting them down with shurikens. After only four levels of this, the game ends.
If I make the game sound stiff and mechanical, that’s because it is. In fact, if we were to hold Shadow Dancer to the set of standards most obviously applicable to it – the modern cinematic realism it inadvertently references, the arcade traditions it so obviously situates itself in – we’d be forced to declare the game a failure. Its simplifying of generic action game structures (like level flow and combat) exposes too much and too many of the artifices those standards try to hide; it renders the protagonist both central and meaningless to the game as a whole. One particularly good set of examples is the shuriken shooting mini-games: proper positioning removes all challenge from the game as enemies seem to jump straight into your line of fire.
In evaluating the game along these lines, though, we encounter significant problems. Challenge and meaning become synonymous even though the link between hasn’t been explained. More to the point, however, Shadow Dancer remains compelling in spite of these supposed failures. In fact, it’s those failures that make it as compelling as it is, meaning that we can’t reduce its success to the Shinobi name attached to it.
I believe the straightforward answer to be the most accurate: mainstream standards for evaluating video games fail to help us understand how Shadow Dancer really works. Achieving that goal calls for another lens: camp. Simply put, camp inverts our standards of what we consider good or bad in our experiences with popular media. But I find that explanation too reductive. It’s not abstract ideas like good and bad that camp is reacting against as much as it is the concept of artistic taste, which for camp’s purposes invokes a correspondence idea of art: good art is what it claims to be and bad art isn’t. Camp deconstructs this through performances so exaggerated – by so energetically being itself – that it becomes something else entirely, blurring the lines that traditional notions of taste rely on. One might deem such a performance a careful navigation between irony and sincerity, but even these terms lose their distinction as camp blends them together.
Despite how rarely the term is invoked in a critical context for video games, I”d argue that camp is currently one of the most well known forms of humor for games. This isn’t to say games haven’t experimented with other styles – we see more traditional styles as early as 80s computer games and as late as 2010 indie games – but especially within the 2010s, camp styles of humor became more prominent. The games most known for invoking those styles lack formal organization beyond the genre they adorn themselves with, but it’s precisely that lack of organization that makes them compelling in the first place. They use satire to push back against the perfectionism of the contemporary blockbuster games they parody. They revel in the debris of those carefully crafted illusions they’d shattered, or they take a more direct route into abstract absurdity. Kerbal Space Program, I Am Bread, Hatoful Boyfriend – we’ll call this style new camp.
By contrast, Shadow Dancer is firmly rooted in old camp’s sensibilities. This style finds its roots in film, and while it shares new camp’s over-the-top sense of humor, it expresses that humor in a more strongly controlled environment. Genre is more explicitly highlighted than it might otherwise be. The Shinobi series in particular has always eagerly embraced this style of camp. The games are both a loving portrayal and a mockery of the ninja action films they parody, each entry having its own unique interpretation of what that parody should entail. Revenge of Shinobi is a freeform play of pop culture symbols divorced of whatever context might interfere with that play. Shinobi X finds various ways to undermine the serious character its high fidelity live action footage might otherwise suggest.
Meanwhile, the technical limitations the Master System imposes force Shadow Dancer’s camp sensibilities to manifest through the systems of play instead. Or to specify that further, I find it difficult to say that the breakdown of genre drives the game in the same way it might drive others. Shadow Dancer still nominally functions at the things it claims to be: an arcade beat-em-up, a ninja-themed action movie. In fact, the game’s commitment to the no-nonsense cinematic realism of both those genres suggests the same level of import to the action as one might find in those genres.
However, it’s that same commitment that denies us the ends of what that import might suggest. A hero may need an army of henchmen against whom he can prove his strength to the audience, but I never face that army. I face individual henchmen, and the ninja’s strength and skill are so exaggerated that they erase the grounds on which that expertise might actually matter. The exciting fantasy becomes dull reality without ever losing its fantastic elements. “What point is there in continuing if I already see the conclusion before me”, I wonder to myself. “Is my presence even the least bit necessary to the game?”
In other words, it’s Shadow Dancer’s exaggerated performance of these genres that gives the game its power over us. Moreover I believe this can resolve our earlier tension. A lot of video game discourse likes to assume that the player is the center of meaning, but the truth is that many games more often render their players obsolete. They’re more an exhibition of compelling scenarios engineered to convince the player of something that both parties are already confident exists. In adopting those structures for itself, Shadow Dancer highlights the faults and inconsistencies in the experiences we might otherwise accept as normal. Not only does this approach afford the game opportunities to more meaningfully engage with subject matter we’d otherwise take for granted, but it gives the game a level of honesty and earnestness that other games lack. Shadow Dancer may employ cinematic realism, but it doesn’t hide itself behind that label or try to depict its action as natural. The game doesn’t try to be anything other than what it already is.
Yet if Shadow Dancer’s greatest qualities derive from its camp perspective, then its greatest structural weaknesses do so as well. For all camp critiques the conventions it engages with, it can never truly establish a new tradition through itself because it fails to question the dominance of the very thing it questions. Such was never its intention. Camp often emerges from an admiration of the media it plays with, so it stops short of imagining a world in which that media couldn’t exist.
At the end of the day, we’re still consuming this media as we would any other; we’ve done nothing to re-establish our own presence in a space we’ve been crowded out of from the start. If anything, camp may even uphold that dominance by providing its source material new ways in which to express itself. This is certainly a problem new camp has had to contend with. The play styles most associated with new camp games have proven very compatible with the games they parody. Maybe it’s because those play styles originated with those games; maybe it’s because the games that established new camp were made by developers with no interest in establishing a new standard.
Where Shadow Dancer is concerned, its methods of critiquing arcade games – namely rote play and exaggeration – don’t prevent the game from functioning as any other arcade game would. In fact, its adherence to them only makes it that much more able to be an arcade game. This tells me that while the game may be conceptually interesting, Shadow Dancer can never think outside the box it claims to critique. It’s still a consumer product and my engagement with it remains as such. The differences are tonal, not substantial. Does that distinction mean those differences are worthless? How is spending quarters to shoot ninjas as I fall from an infinitely tall building any different from spending them to shoot an invading alien army in Space Invaders? I can’t say.