Atari released Breakout for arcades in 1976, and in the decades since, countless spinoffs like Space Invaders and Arkanoid have taken that concept of one-player Pong and fleshed it out into the block kuzushi (breaking) genre. Shadow Break and its follow-up Super Shadow Break, both made by solo indie developer bunaguchi, use that simple core mechanic and adds beat ‘em up combat and huge bullet hell bosses to the mix. It can sometimes be overwhelming to keep track of so many things going on, but once you get into a good groove, you’ll find that it’s still got that same screen-clearing satisfaction of its forebears.
Shadow Break was released in 2012 and is a free game. In it, you play as the righteous blue ninja Taro who must break blocks and defeat enemies using the all-powerful Ninja Ball. You can bounce the ball off of your sword (held horizontally above your head, much like the “paddle” in traditional Breakout games), or you can slash at it to make it move faster or push it in a different direction. You also have a dash that lets you skip past enemies and move quickly around the field, which is helpful when lunging for the ball if it’s too far away.
Your goal is to knock down the enemies that are trapped in the blocks above you. Once you have knocked an enemy to the ground, they will start chasing after you. When that happens, you need to slash at them with your sword to destroy them while also keeping an eye on the ball to make sure it never hits the ground. If enemies hit you or the ball touches the ground, you take damage. Lose five hit points and it’s game over!
As you break blocks, you will fill up the yellow Ninjutsu meter to the right of the screen. You can activate a shield that consumes half of the Ninjutsu gauge in order to block attacks and pause the ball in mid-air, giving you a chance to clean up any enemies on the ground before they inundate you. And make no mistake, it is quite easy to get overwhelmed by enemies while also keeping the ball away from the ground! Luckily, there is also an Easy mode in the Settings if you find yourself getting in over your head. Once you defeat all of the enemies in the level, a scroll drops down that gives you unlimited Ninja Ball power. Use that to break the rest of the blocks for tons of sweet bonus points!
Perhaps the highlight of Shadow Break and its successor are the huge bosses. The boss levels start out just like a normal level where you must defeat X number of small enemies trapped in blocks. However, in the background you can see the malevolent shadow of a giant boss who will occasionally fling projectiles at you. Once you defeat the regular enemies, the scroll drops down as usual. But instead of ending the level, it starts the boss fight! That’s when the game turns into a bullet hell shooting game. Use your infinite Ninja Ball power to chip away at the bosses’ health meters while avoiding their waves of attacks!
I cracked up the first time I triggered a boss fight. For one thing, the bosses have such outrageously funny designs. I don’t know why, but fighting ordinary humans like “tea ceremony master” or “sushi chef” is just way funnier to me than fighting monsters or vampires or whatever. Naturally, their projectiles also fit their professions, with the tea ceremony master dumping buckets of matcha on you and the sushi chef slamming sushi onto plates to block you in. It’s also really fun to have the game turn into something completely different for its boss stages, breaking up the levels and adding a bit of spice to your sessions.
Super Shadow Break
Super Shadow Break: Showdown! NINJA VS The Three KAIJUs released on the Nintendo Switch earlier this year and is a paid follow-up to the original free Shadow Break. This expanded version of the game includes a tutorial, a second playable character Kiyoshi, and more Ninjutsu abilities like a flaming dash and a powerful upward shot. (That latter ability is extremely useful for knocking down enemies that are tucked away in a corner!)
Most notably, the game now has a story where you must stop the evil ninja Yamada who has resurrected the three legendary kaiju! And here is where the “super” part of Super Shadow Break kicks in. Now, in between your boss fights where dudes throw food at you, you have to contend with deadly screen-filling monsters like Ganipon the Scorpion. The huge kaiju battles combine the silly over-the-top designs of classic monster movies with the tough-as-nails battles of old school shmups. Even though I’m not the best at shmups, I found myself in that “one more time” groove to see what cool and weird new boss phase or enemy will appear next.
Of the two versions, I recommend Super. The controls in the original are fine, but in Super they just feel a little smoother, and having more Ninjutsu abilities and a wider playing area makes it easier to stay alive while allowing for more interesting boss fights. It is very nice that Shadow Break is available to play for free though, providing a solid experience in its own right. Both games are true love letters to the retro arcade games that came before, and deliver up a totally unique experience. Please check them out!
Shadow Break and Super Shadow Break were made by bunaguchi, a solo game developer who specializes in retro-styled indie games. Both games are available in English. You can find more of their games at their website Spiky Zone, and follow them on Twitter @bunaguchi. Super Shadow Break is available on the Nintendo Switch. You can also watch us play the original Shadow Break on yesterday’s episode of Happy Hour!