Shinobi is such a goddamn waste, man. There's a core of delicious ninja platformer action in here, but the game insists on just continually shooting itself in the foot the deeper you get into it, until it implodes under the weight of all the collective bad design decisions.
It starts out promising enough. Unfortunately longtime legend Joe Musashi is missing in action for this one but we get a capable replacement in Hotsuma. Some intro cinematics establish the story, some butthole sorceror has magically raised an evil temple in Tokyo, trashed the place up, and infested it with hellspawn. For bonus trolling, he also killed all of Hotsuma's clan and revived them as undead ninjers to fight against him. Off we go through 8 levels divided into halves ("A" and "B") then.
The first level is pretty fun, and not at all hard. It's a nice introduction to get a handle on Hotsuma's moves, especially if you got this from Gamestop or something without a manual, since the game doesn't bother to explain anything in-game. Hotsuma's got a pretty nice ninjer dash, wall-run, and a good stock of shurikens that stun the enemy for a couple of seconds. You can also lock on to an enemy with R1 and switch locks with R2. I like that the game doesn't bog you down in too many buttons and attack types, keeping things fairly simple, and also doesn't take the combo-whoring path of Devil May Cry. Enemies come in large quantities but usually have little HP and are meant to be dispatched quickly and efficiently, not juggled around 60 times to earn Style points or whatever.
The second level is still on the easy side and mostly enjoyable, but the first of the questionable design decisions seeps in here. Hotsuma inherits some sort of demon sword here, that lives off of the delicious souls of freshly-killed enemies. The problem is, the longer you go without killing, the weaker your attacks get. And if you let the new "Tate" meter deplete completely, it starts sucking away at your health instead. I get the concept here, it's to instill a sense of urgency and push you to play the game the way the designers laid it out, which is basically whipping through it as quickly as possible like a true ninjer (and also not taking as much time to notice that the levels largely look like a PS1 game.)
In the third level, however, things start to fall apart. This is where the game introduces turtling enemies, and you'll be seeing the same palette swaps of ninjers and dogs for the rest of the game. In 3-A you just run along boring corridors until the game locks you in a room with a shit ton of these that keep spawning, and you kill 'em all. It's not super-difficult, but the thing is, there just seems to be no strategy or grace to it. I've watched videos of top-level players and the way they approached it seems to be identical to the way I intuitively ended up handling them, which is simply to dash around like a madman until a dopey enemy leaves their side or back open, then get in a few slashes or an instant-kill dash before the rest of the mob can pile up on you. The top players do it a lot faster-twitch and in a more impressive way, but it's the same thing; it's not really hard, but it's boring and kind of random. Handling a few enemy groups like this here and there would be fine, but when it's every single one in multiple levels, it gets old fast.
3-B is where the Tate system goes to shit. It's a mazelike level, with all sorts of samey corridors thanks to the generic PS1 textures on the walls, and annoying spider webs that slow your movement jizzed all over the floor for good measure. While you hunt and peck around for the statue thingies you have to chop up to open the next doorway, your precious Taters are dwindling away, and then your life. It's just aggravating and terrible, especially for a game that's otherwise predicated on nonstop fast action. Unfortunately the remaining levels are one of these two patterns, interspersed only with some annoying platform jumping over pits here and there. Strangely, the boss battles are on the easy side compared to the levels.
Another problem is the camera. You can rotate it freely with the right analog stick, which is a good thing, but the way the action unfolds you really don't get a chance to do that when you really need to. The mob of enemies that attack you are constantly off-camera somewhere and you sort of just have to guess at where they are, this is another major factor in contributing to your dashing around like a madman all the time.
Finally, I hope you don't mind degrading "rankings" at the end of a level because you're never getting anything but a C from this game. Seriously, watch the top-level speed runner videos, they still get a C at the end even when they blaze through killing nearly everything and taking no damage. Shinobi cannot be impressed. Everyone is soff in his eyes.
The game started life in development for the Dreamcast and was kind of hastily switched over to PS2 late in the cycle, and it shows. Hotsuma actually looks good and is well animated, but the enemies are nowhere near as impressive, and as mentioned before the levels largely look about as boring as it gets.
I left with the impression that this game was designed solely for speed-runners. The levels basically require playing a bunch of times and memorization of where enemies are going to pop out and such. If that's your bag that's fine, but most people are probably going to find it dull.