When we interviewed Cyber Shadow solo developer Aarne “MekaSkull” Hunziker a year ago, he expressed a clear goal for his 8-bit sidescrolling ninja platformer: “to see how far you can go with two-button gameplay.” Having finally played the game myself, I can see how this concept truly defines every step of the experience. It doesn’t necessarily always work out in the game’s favor, but there’s no denying that Cyber Shadow is an utterly high-quality experience that uses NES classics as fuel to create something new and exhilarating.
Mining the essentials for a hardcore experience
As far as 8-bit platformers about cyborg ninjas go, Cyber Shadow makes an earnest effort to tell a narrative, using stylish pixelated cinematics, computer messages, and messages left behind from souls of fallen allies. The story is all still instantly forgettable anyway, but it gets the job done and offers up plenty of excuses for cool fights.
And fight you shall. For narrative reasons, protagonist Shadow begins the game with a basic sword attack, the ability to jump, and that’s it. At the outset, he’s not wildly mobile, and while some might find that disappointing after the likes of The Messenger, I found it refreshing. The beginning of the game is an utterly pure action platforming experience: You need to know when to strike and when to get out of the way.
As you progress through Cyber Shadow’s nearly dozen chapters of varying lengths, your combat and traversal options will expand significantly. You will gain shurikens as a forward projectile, fire blasts that shoot upward, a jumping downward stab, a parry that can segue into a projectile counterattack, the ability to wall jump, a dashing ability with a dash attack, and some other bonuses and surprises. Downward stabs and dash attacks allow you to perform an additional jump afterward, so they open up options to move faster through the environment if you have the aptitude for it.
All of your abilities can be performed with directional buttons and Y and B (or different buttons if you remap the controls), such as holding up and pressing Y to throw shurikens. However, Cyber Shadow is bizarrely vague about telling you what your new abilities do when you receive them; you mostly figure things out through trial and error. For instance, although double-tapping “forward” will make Shadow dash, it turns out there is also a dedicated dash button that the game doesn’t tell you about during normal play — presumably to preserve the illusion of strictly two-button play. Nonetheless, remapping dashing to A, Mega Man X-style, made the game much easier for me to control.
Additionally, all of your special attacks (sans the parry counter) cost 1 weapon energy. However, since downward stabs and dash attacks are necessary to progress through certain areas, you can still use them anyway, in a weaker form, when you have no weapon energy. It would be nice if you had the option to just use those weaker versions in the first place to conserve weapon energy.
The hostile, deadly world of Cyber Shadow
The levels in Cyber Shadow are all physically connected to create one world, but not so much so that it ever feels like a Metroidvania. There are teleporters to more swiftly return to old levels, and you can use abilities found later in the game to uncover new paths and grab extra health and weapon energy power-ups. However, each level is a discrete and largely linear experience, with deliberate obstacles and mechanics to master.
Save for a handful of instances that I felt verged on cheap, the level design in Cyber Shadow is tight and varied. One early level has a sky laser trying to lock on to you and blast you any time you go outdoors. Another area has mutant vines that fill the whole screen and kill you instantly if they catch you. One area has trip lasers that summon tons of awful and annoying security if you touch them. There’s even an abrupt autoscrolling bike portion at one point. (That section is admittedly a little bland and underbaked.)
While you negotiate each of those obstacles, you will also regularly be dealing with half a dozen enemies at a time. Rarely does any enemy feel like a disposable grunt; each one typically has some way to be a threat under the right circumstance, and MekaSkull exploits all of those possibilities. For example, in areas with bottomless pits, flying enemies are sure to swoop in at odd trajectories, hoping to knock you to your doom. Some enemy types are recurring throughout the game, but there is just enough variety to prevent things from ever feeling repetitive.
Likewise, each boss presents its own distinct challenge, and the three-part final battle is a fantastic endurance test. Although, I was disappointed that I could essentially button-mash a few of the earliest bosses to death, brute forcing my way through them instead of learning their patterns.
Regardless, death is a constant in Cyber Shadow, but you will instantly revive at checkpoints that are placed meticulously (and not overly generously). Additionally, you can spend currency to unlock bonuses specific to individual checkpoints. These include full health refills, full weapon energy refills, and/or a support item, such as a floating laser gun or a barrier that absorbs projectiles for you. At first, buying these bonuses doesn’t feel very important, but for bosses and tough late-game areas, they can make an enormous difference. It’s another testament to the thoughtful game design.
That thoughtfulness extends to the graphics. Cyber Shadow may be 8-bit in its presentation, but there is true artistry in all of the character and level designs. The details are just impeccable, probably ranking among the best art ever created in the 8-bit style. Meanwhile, the music by composer Pentadrangle sets the tone for each level and story moment well, but none of it ever stood out as particularly catchy or memorable to me.
There’s no good reason not to play Cyber Shadow
Cyber Shadow could explain some aspects of its gameplay better, and it doesn’t do much to innovate in a decades-old genre. However, with meticulous game design, challenging yet fair obstacles, a meaty length (7 1/2 hours for my first playthrough), and beautiful 8-bit pixel art, it’s such an easy game to recommend for anyone who has ever enjoyed an action platformer. Cyber Shadow achieves what it sets out to do: It pushes two-button gameplay to its extreme.
(One last note for Nintendo Switch players: Cyber Shadow actually plays best with Joy-Con, not the Pro Controller. The control pad on the Pro Controller sometimes incorrectly registers “forward” inputs as “down” inputs, which makes parries and dashing frustratingly more difficult.)
A review code was provided by the publisher.