Aarne “MekaSkull” Hunziker’s debut game, “Cyber Shadow,” makes a great first impression with fast-paced ninja action, fresh presentation, and a unique blend of old and new.

First impressions are everything, especially when it comes to new game developers. Thankfully for Aarne “MekaSkull” Hunziker, the creator running Mechanical Head Studios, he stuck the landing with his debut ninja action game, “Cyber Shadow.”

Citizens of Mekacity are hunted and eradicated by Dr. Progen, a grief-consumed scientist who powers his Synthetic army with life essence. Progen’s life-extending experiments have upset the balance between Earth and the spirit realm, corrupting both. As the last of the ninja clan who protected that balance, Shadow awakens from stasis to seek his Master, hoping she can reverse the damage Progen caused before both worlds are lost.

Shadow starts without his full strength, but regains his abilities by defeating Progen’s Synthetic underlings. There’s an interesting, tragic twist on the trope of gaining bosses’ abilities popularized by the Mega Man series; Synthetics are powered by draining the essence of ninjas, who are kept alive within an inch of death until bosses are destroyed. As they’re finally able to pass on, they give Shadow the last of their strength.

The abilities themselves are satisfying to use, with the highlight being a sprint that can combo into an afterimage dash attack. When Shadow reaches full power halfway through the story, the difference between his simple starting abilities and his true potential are staggering. This shows in the final upgrade, a versatile charge attack that can be released with any ability’s button input for a stronger version of that move.

A screenshot from the game “Cyber Shadow.” This ninja action game is Aarne Hunziker’s debut into the gaming industry. Contributed photo by Yacht Club Games and Mechanical Head Studios

Level design in “Cyber Shadow” is at its best when testing these abilities, with most of Shadow’s arsenal used creatively in combat and puzzle solving. Not every scenario is easily solved by rushing in aggressively, so players must overcome challenges and enemies with strategic forethought to exploit weaknesses. Boss battles are consistently fun and challenging, from the multiple duels with Shadow’s rival, Apparitor, to the formidable and enigmatic Subject Alpha.

If the best levels test strategy and skill through fair challenges, the worst levels don’t do this. Certain areas throw barrages of enemies at players before they can react or require leaps of faith, neither of which is a compelling or reasonable obstacle to overcome. Likewise, a couple of bosses were so visually busy that it was hard to focus on their attacks, leading to rare, but annoying difficulty spikes.

When Shadow reaches a checkpoint, it can be upgraded with currency to restore health, special energy or provide temporary power-ups like blade extensions and blaster drones. This is an interesting approach to checkpoints, but there wasn’t much need to buy all three upgrades for one checkpoint unless it came before a difficult boss. Additionally, certain segments between checkpoints felt excessively long, which slowed the pacing on occasion.

Mekacity is brought to life by striking visuals, with well-animated sprites and detailed backgrounds that cover a variety of Progen’s facilities. The color palette and shading look like they’re straight out of a gritty comic book, perhaps best demonstrated by the story cutscenes. As mentioned earlier, there are some visually busy sections that make the gameplay harder to focus on, but they’re infrequent enough that it isn’t a major issue.

An illustration of Shadow from the new video game “Cyber Shadow.” Contributed photo by Yacht Club Games and Mechanical Head Studios.

The soundtrack by Enrique Martin is consistently one of the game’s best aspects. Complimenting the pulse-pounding chiptune music one would expect from a retro-inspired game with NES influences, some of the best tracks set themselves apart with instruments from the SNES and Genesis era. Unfortunately, there’s a repeated issue causing songs to loop improperly ingame. Hopefully, a patch can fix this glitch, but it didn’t detract from Martin’s memorable compositions.

Besides difficulty spikes and minor bugs, the only real flaw is absence of extra features, but that speaks to how strong the replay value is. If a game’s biggest issue is players wanting more of it, the developer has done something right. New Game+, boss rush and a soundtrack player would be excellent additions to appreciate the game’s best qualities if any updates happen – after a well-deserved rest, of course.

Having been published by Yacht Club Games, the developers of the smash hit “Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove,” many publications have put out articles comparing “Cyber Shadow” to the Shovel Knight series. This connects to a larger trend in games journalism, in which new games are reported as “the next _____,” i.e. all those articles a few years ago comparing “Cuphead” to “Dark Souls” for being generally difficult.

It’s one thing to recognize influences – in the case of “Cyber Shadow,” aesthetic inspiration from the Ninja Gaiden series, with strategic level design and simple controls of various other NES games – but these elements blend together to give the game its own identity. It’s another thing to judge every new game by the standard of existing ones. No game has to be called “the next ______” to have merit.

Even as someone who absolutely digs the Shovel Knight series, it’s not difficult to view “Cyber Shadow” as its own thing. Looking at Yacht Club Games’ involvement in development (publishing, feedback and compatibility with Shovel Knight series Amiibo figures for the Switch version), it’s clear the game was almost entirely developed by Hunziker. This game stands tall with a unique new voice, no comparison needed.

Despite some rough edges, “Cyber Shadow” is a great ninja action game that respects its influences to create a new identity. However, under the additional context of being developed mostly solo, it becomes an extremely impressive achievement on Hunziker’s part. Mechanical Head Studios is off to a running start, and it’ll be exciting to see what Hunziker creates in the future – it won’t be quite like any game seen before.

“Cyber Shadow” is available for $19.99 on Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox GamePass and Steam. This review was made using the Switch version.

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