Carve Up an ‘80s Robot Dystopia in Yacht Club Games' Cyber Shadow
There’s a certain kind of side-scrolling action game from relatively late in the NES’s run that doesn’t get a lot of attention these days. The highest-profile example is probably Sunsoft’s Batman, the 1988 movie tie-in, but you could also point to Power Blade, Shatterhand, or Vice: Project Doom.
They’re sort of Castlevania's grandchildren by way of the NES Ninja Gaiden trilogy, mixing Castlevania’s mission structure with Ninja Gaiden’s fast pace and covering it all with an ‘80s-appropriate cyberpunk candy shell.
Cyber Shadow is a deliberate callback to that sort of game, much in the same way that Shovel Knight is a strange beerslam of DuckTales and Mega Man. I usually hate describing a game in terms of “X meets Y,” as it feels reductive, but this is the sort of game that doesn’t really give you much of a choice. It’s wearing its influences on its sleeve.
You play as Shadow, a cyborg ninja, who comes to the ruins of Mekacity in search of the secrets of his clan. The greater world is under the control of synthetic lifeforms, and humans are mostly gone. You soon discover, though, that some of Shadow’s clanmates may still be alive somewhere in Mekacity, and that the ruins might hide the secret of how the synthetics managed to take over in the first place.
In play, the first word I want to use is “smooth.” I got a chance to play through the early game at PAX West this year, and even at its very start, it’s an elegant, fast-moving game.
It does start more slowly than its trailers would have you believe, though. At the beginning of Cyber Shadow, you’re equipped with Shadow’s sword, which you can swing about as fast as you can push the attack button. You can smash lights to pick up currency along the way, in the finest Ninja Gaiden tradition, as well as refuel a blue meter that Shadow spends on special moves.
Periodically, you run across power stations that you can use to refill Shadow’s health. You can also spend currency at these stations, which unlocks up to two special moves at once. The one I saw the most of during my demo was a sort of boomerang shuriken, each use of which automatically slung itself around Shadow as he moved for short periods of time. It was actually a lot like the old boomerang shuriken in Ninja Gaiden, but with that weapon's weird additional functionality made into its entire purpose.
You can also unlock various passive moves for Shadow by learning the secrets of his clan. Offensive skills, like the forward rush, are executed with Symphony of the Night-esque button sequences. You can also unlock short teleports, wall jumps, and parries, meant to help you deal with specific enemies and situations. The further into the game you go, the more elaborate your moveset gets, and the faster the game becomes.
Most of what I saw while I was playing it, though, made Cyber Shadow mostly look like a modern, almost-too-faithful spin on Ninja Gaiden. I got a chance to play around with a couple of subweapons, but I didn’t see much in the way of the new gameplay-changing skills.
What I did see, though, was an impressively grimy game. Cyber Shadow has an impressive sense of place, thanks mostly to how intricate the sprite work can get. The big improvements it’s got over the 8-bit games it was inspired by (read: stitched together from) are the smoothness of its animation and the big, blocky definition of its backgrounds and enemies.
You can get a surprising amount of atmosphere out of sprites if you really work at it, and Cyber Shadow does. The subdued color palette really helps to communicate the sense that you’re fighting through the guts of a slowly rotting cybernetic hellhole. Sprite work on this level has arguably been something of a lost art; there are certainly games with good pixel art out today, but a lot of them are aiming for a brighter, more cheerful look than this. Cyber Shadow is going hard into a darker aesthetic, which is an impressive change of pace.
For the last 10 years, Cyber Shadow was a solo side project for a Finnish developer named Aarne “MekaSkull” Hunziker, working under the company name Mechanical Head Studios. Representatives of Yacht Club Games found Hunziker’s posts about Cyber Shadow on Twitter, and reached out to offer assistance; the final game is made almost entirely by Hunziker, with design feedback and publishing duties by Yacht Club, and a soundtrack by Enrique Martin and Jacob “virt” Kaufman.
As of PAX West, Cyber Shadow was described as being in a “polish phase,” with no idea as to how long the game has left to go before completion. It’s scheduled for release at some point next year.