NES throwbacks were extremely popular for a good number of years, but seemed to have crested to a fine point of artisan perfection with Shovel Knight, among many other great retro throwback titles. While Shovel Knight was one part Mega Man and one part Mario, stapled together with incredible level design. Cyber Shadow is almost completely inspired by Ninja Gaiden and old style Castlevania. For better or worse, Cyber Shadow is both a love letter and successor to NES style game design, even going so far as to ignore most of the buttons on modern controllers to give players an old school restriction. So is Cyber Shadow a present left by a thief in the night, or is it a cyborg catastrophe that you should avoid? Let’s find out.
The story of Cyber Shadow is a brief, but sullen one: The world, at some point, was taken over by mechanical lifeforms. Shadow, the player character and main protagonist of the story, awakens in an artificial body and is told by, what appears to be a flying toaster oven, that his ninja clan is on the verge of being wiped out so Shadow needs to go save his Master. The impetus is a little hollow, but they do flesh things out with character dialogue as the game goes on, sprinkling in some mysticism all the while. The story of Cyber Shadow is mostly just to get the ball rolling, though, since this is inspired by NES action platformers. The storytelling is pretty basic and is mostly just a vehicle to get the player moving, but being able to talk with the occasional NPC hashes out the plot in such as way that it doesn’t feel completely vacuous, at least.
The controls for Cyber Shadow are pretty much spot-on, as clearing later stages were cleared by parrying enemy shots in between dashes, jumps, and sword slashes to clear out powerful bosses. Each level you conquer has a wide variety of traps, enemies, and even NPC corpses, computer terminals, etc., that can provide you with more information about the goings-on in the Cyber Shadow extended universe. Checkpoints are also plentifully littered all across the environments, though they do become more infrequent as you approach the final stage of the game.
Cyber Shadow marries precise platforming and fast-paced action with a variety of powers that you can use to clear enemies and obstacles. Plentiful checkpoint placement means that failure in a difficult section isn’t overly punishing, so you can throw yourself at a section in which you’re having difficulty until you’re able to surmount the challenge. While exploring stages and combating enemies, you’ll find points that glow gold, and you can then use these to upgrade checkpoints so that they restore HP, SP, or give you a new sub weapon.
You can also grind for points or press on if you don’t think you need the extra benefits from that particular checkpoint, as saving them for a checkpoint immediately in front of a boss seemed to be a much better use of points, and you pretty much always want to start a boss encounter with a fully charged sub weapon.
The bosses in Cyber Shadow are a delightful mix of futuristic cyberpunk, with enemies ranging from a Mother Brain-like encounter with the Vessel Defense System, to fighting a large, blue Gundam who fires missiles and fire at you relentlessly, attempting to trap you with persistent flames. Enemy variety is also pretty high, and each new level will introduce you to some kind of new gimmick or foe that you’ll have to defeat in tandem before the end of the stage. Enemy diversity is effectively the life’s blood of a game like Cyber Shadow, so introducing new enemies to the player at a consistent rate is a great way to keep you engaged, and mixing old and new enemies together can definitely keep you on your toes.
Thankfully, new power ups are found at a consistent interval as you progress through the game, with you acquiring the ability to parry enemy bullets by tapping the direction toward them just as they’re about to hit, or getting the ability to sprint about halfway through the game. Each stage of Cyber Shadow is completed in order, but as you acquire new abilities and power ups, you can backtrack to previous locations to nab items that provide you with expansions of your HP/SP meters. Any backtracking you do is voluntary, thankfully, as it seems you need to replay entire stages just to re-find the spots that were clearly marked “A secret you can’t access yet is here.”
As you progress through Cyber Shadow and overcome the various bosses and traps, you’ll acquire new powers like the ability to throw kunai, or perform a lightning-powered downward stab to clear away enemies from beneath you. The actions consume the blue SP meter beneath your health, and are performed by inputting a direction and pressing the attack button. Which brings us to the one flaw Cyber Shadow has: There’s only one attack button because, for some reason, the developer wanted this to be playable as if it were on an NES controller, outside of run which, for some reason, is usable with the R button, so the developer didn’t even strictly adhere to this design philosophy.
There are at minimum five buttons that go completely unused on a Switch controller, so it would have been nice for parrying to receive its own button, or to allow players more seamlessly incorporate the new attacks they acquire to a button input if they would like to. The option to do so, at least, would have been appreciated. This isn’t a major complaint, but overly restrictive game design for no reason other than to emulate games of old, when we actually have to play them using the better controllers they specifically didn’t design for, does seem kind of… Metroid: Other M.
When it comes down to it, Cyber Shadow is a love letter to the NES era of platforming action games. Later levels will test your ability to dodge through obstacles and enemy fire without getting hit, so you can best conserve your sub weapons to tackle even harder challenges, but the fact that there’s very little punishment for losing a life renders this game more accessible than the many games from which Cyber Shadow drew inspiration. The difficulty isn’t oppressively difficult, even at the end, but anyone who enjoys a solid challenge, was a fan of The Messenger, or older NES-style action games, could find a lot to enjoy in Cyber Shadow.