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A common criticism of modern gaming by the older generation is that games today are too easy. The challenge of NES platformers like Ninja Gaiden and Battletoads is gone, replaced with mechanics like the Super Guide from New Super Mario Bros or general level design that doesn’t pose much of a challenge.

Well, video game veterans, your savior is here, and its name is Cyber Shadow.

Developed by a single person called Mechanical Head, real name of Aarne Hunziker, and published by Shovel Knight studio Yacht Club Games and retro specialist Jake Kaufmann, Cyber Shadow is a retro-style platformer that pulls directly from those difficult experiences of yesteryear. It’s precise, it’s punishing and it’s brutal, but that’s what makes it so dang good.

It doesn’t take long for Cyber Shadow to ramp up the difficulty. There’s a classic slow-moving elevator section in the second level of the game that can easily take 10 tries to get through, the placement of the enemies being so unbelievably perfect it’s hard to fathom how Mechanical Head was able to predict how people would play his game with such precision.

That’s not to say the game is unfair, as each of its challenges are absolutely winnable, but one simply can’t just charge through the levels and hope for success. Learning enemy movement and attacks, trial-and-error and a lot of deaths will eventually lead to the end of a troublesome section.

This rings especially true with the bosses, each having a distinct pattern that will inevitably take a few tries to nail down in the first runthrough. Some do little more than jump and shoot fireballs, while others fill the screen with hazards and say, “Good luck!” Learning and executing strategies never gets tiresome, even with the tougher bosses that require multiple retries, adding to the appeal of the entire experience.

Despite the retro foundation of Cyber Shadow, there are a few very modern ideas sprinkled in. The checkpoint system is a big one, with each one able to fully heal, restore special attack points and drop an upgrade. There’s a catch though, and it’s a big one: Most of these checkpoints need to have these capabilities unlocked through a currency system, using coins dropped by defeated enemies. The “checkpoint” part is always active, progress will always be saved, but those other three perks need to be unlocked.

This is a unique method of using checkpoints as both a blessing and a curse. The ability to save progress is good, but if there’s not enough currency to unlock the buffs needed for the next area would farming from enemies be the best option, or should you power on and hope the currency needed for the next checkpoint is found along the way? This extra layer of strategy really adds to Cyber Shadow’s appeal, proving that modern ideas and a retro style aren’t mutually exclusive.

One quick note about the power-ups, the best one by far is the Swag Blade, and not just because of its name. This is a buzzsaw-like weapon attached to a wire that swings around the hero, damaging any enemy it touches. With the right movements the blade will swing in a circle, creating a windmill-style field of protection that wallops anything in its path.

As for the story surrounding all of this madness, the hero is Shadow, a ninja whose clan has been decimated along with the entire city by a doctor gone mad. Shadow must locate and rescue members of said clan while fighting robots programmed to kill, varying from small bug-like flying creatures to massive bosses. The story is told through bodies lying around the ground, where Shadow can “sense” their final thoughts and gain information. Cutscenes are interspersed throughout the adventure, sometimes coming during one of these “sense” moments and sometimes bookending the levels.

The worldbuilding and weaving narrative feels very modern despite everything else being retro, but that’s definitely not a bad thing. The twists that come as cutscenes play out, coupled with the small clues found from the bodies strewn around, keep players guessing as to what is going on, and that’s the kind of story video games are perfect for. Also when a game is as difficult to conquer as Cyber Shadow, having an interesting story to keep the desire to finish alive is appreciated.

Cyber Shadow is an express trip back to the days of super difficult retro games, but it gets there with a few modern ideas that raise the experience in big ways. Stage layouts require thought and precision, the story is told through modern techniques and the hero is a walking Swiss Army knife that kicks all kinds of butt.

Best of all, no one will be given a free pass from its brutal challenges — and that’s the biggest throwback of them all.

This game was reviewed on an Xbox Series X.

Photo courtesy of Yacht Club Games