28 February 2017

Ninja Gaiden (2004)

Unused but great cover of the game.
覚えゲー(pronounced OH boe GHe) is a term often used to describe games that focus on the player memorizing the patterns of his enemies to continue through the game, loosely translating to “remember the game”. The original Ninja Gaiden on the Nintendo Entertainment System from 1988 was one such game; filled with unexpected traps and combinations of foes that had to be circumvented to reach the end goal. The larger than life boss fights were equally pattern based, each with distinct moves that could be predicted and responded to perfectly if the player was sagely enough at the game’s mechanics.

In 1999, following his rise to fame after the succesfull Dead or Alive 2, Tomonobu Itagaki was ordered by his commander in chiefs to start production on an action game. Itagaki has often remarked that his philosophy of game-design centers around player interactivity with their actions quickly being reacted to by the game; reflex based gameplay is his niche. Dead or Alive 2 used a counter-system which allowed players to negate enemy attacks if they became too predictable or if their reactions were fast enough. An almost mixture of the 覚えゲー style of gameplay and his own reactive philosophy. No surprise once we delve into Itagaki’s history, him being mentored by Yoshiaki Inose who programmed the original Ninja Gaiden in 1988; Dead or Alive 2 is a child of Itagaki’s nature and nurture. His own personality and the training he had received in his craft.

While designing the action title Tecmo had requested of him, the marketing department issued the order to link the title to that of the original Ninja Gaiden to up sales due to its fame worldwide as a strong action title. It was with this that Ninja Gaiden started development for the Playstation 2, though from a user poll the fans in anticipation for the game highly requested it to be a Gamecube exclusive. Ironically the game ended up on neither platform instead being released on the Xbox due to Itagaki being impressed by its hardware. This decision was not known to both the executives of Tecmo and the public, shocking both consumers and management when a trailer at E3 2002 revealed the Xbox-exclusivity.

When launched in 2004 the game featured protagonist Ryu Hyabusa from Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden fame. Itagaki took great care to not reboot the existing source material but instead chose to set the title before the original games and the first Dead or Alive title; wanting not to disrespect the original’s foundation but only compliment it.
Ryu’s design featured two designs used throughout the first time playing. The first being a purple shinobi outfit with little detailing, focusing more on the classical ninja look while also referencing Ryu’s later blue design in the 1988 title. The design is simplistic and does what it needs to, you are a ninja and one of many; you are not special. The later design, which the player uses throughout the rest of the game sports knives and straps, with a menacing silver falcon emblem present on Ryu’s forehead; more angular and edgy looking. This design lets Ryu feel more special and truly feel like a master ninja himself. In his hands he wields the Dragon Sword, a legendary katana(刀). The reason for it being a katana are interesting: Itagaki is a proud owner of his own katana set which was made for him by his father and the ninjatō sword has no official record of them actually existing making a katana a good choice.

With the katana in hand Ryu’s two main features are his skills with any weapon and his agility. His combat style contains of three buttons; light attack, heavy attack and ranged attack. Agility-wise he can hop on enemies, jump on walls, run on walls and backflip out of harm's way. While he gains more options later-on throughout the game such as multiple weapons and new abilities, the core remains the same.

At the beginning of the game we see Ryu jumping down from a tree to cut down an unsuspecting ninja. The control is then immediately given to the player afterwards, but before he can even get used to the controls another ninja appears. Later-on players will realise that the threat of this foe is low, but for a new player he can be tricky. The attacks are relentless and the player could very well die or come out of the battle with scars both in the body and mind. Once defeated, the player can press the attack button again to kick the dead body to the side. Just as the enemies can humiliate you, you can take away their honour as well. It is this very beginning which immediately showcases the direction this title will go towards. One must fight for and earn the right to be a ninja and master the moves of himself and his enemies; 覚えゲー. But he must also react, enemies have an unpredictable nature and some will dodge and jump around frantically in an attempt to disorientate the player; Itagaki’s brand of game-design.
The first chapter continues by throwing more ninja at the player who has little options at his disposal at the time. In an attempt to school the player the first chapter is among the harder ones with the least tools available, forcing the player to fall back on Ryu’s agility cementing the role it will play throughout the full game; the level itself looks and feels like a ninja school. And at the end of the chapter lies the first and only exam: Murai.

Placed in a wide open dojo Murai exhibits the same approach as the player. He has his guard up and punishes mistakes with counters and attacks of his own. Once in danger of being hurt he will backflip to safety. He is designed in a way to allow the player to learn the game from him, not learn how to beat specifically him. Akin to playing Dead or Alive 2 against a superior player one will learn concepts of offense and defence by him crushing you over and over until you finally win one round yourself; the same concept is present with Murai.
He wields nunchaku (ヌンチャク), not a katana. Probably to emphasise the feeling of embarrassment losing with your blade to a wielder of two sticks and giving the player the promise that he won’t be facing (or using) just the katana.

During the fight Murai again expresses the mixture in Itagaki’s nature and nurture of game-design. The boss has a small selection of attacks and distinct patterns the player can memorize but he will also randomly block or dodge attacks to give the fight a more reactive feel. Here the game fully embraces a style of game-design which we will call 私わゲー  (pronounced Wa Ta She wa GHe) from now on: meaning “I am the game”. The player must become the game, his mind and body completely dedicated to the experience before them allowing Ryu and the player to become one entity. Once Murai lies defeated using just their wits, knowledge of the game, reactions and usage of Ryu’s agility the player is one step closer on the road to become a master ninja.
This feeling of learning and slowly becoming a master ninja was at the center of Itagaki’s mind when designing this game. Resulting in players in the community, to this day, refering to each other as 忍者の弟 (pronounced nin DJA no toh toe) or “ninja brother”. Urging each other to always ascend to the next level of play for that impossible benchmark of becoming a true master ninja.

With the game now opened up we can analyse the combat mechanics behind this game more fully. When analysed Ryu sports two main attack buttons that can be used together to create a combination of attacks, again akin to Dead or Alive. The list of moves may seem small by today’s standards but each and every move offers a distinct use. There’s an uppercut, a few vertical and horizontal slices and a few kicks and slides for equal measure. What stands out is that once pressed the action cannot be canceled immediately, forcing the player to think before he presses. This methodology of thinking before one acts is complemented by the enemies on offer. Enemies are fast and will attack together if need be, really putting the pressure on the player. With all the information on screen the 私わゲー gameplay-design puts the player in a hard spot. From enemy movements to sound effects telegraphing their next move, it can be scary to let go of the block button and dedicate to a move. But once done and the opening is used to finish of one foe the feeling is beyond description.

Once the player is more settled he can try out the Ultimate Technique. When killed enemies drop a small yellow orb called Essence which, when the heavy attack button is held down, is absorbed by Ryu to unleash a devastating flurry of blows throughout which Ryu is fully invincible. The fact that an Essence is required to activate the move, and that it cannot be manually charged, means that the player needs to have killed at least one enemy first; making it less a crutch to lean on than most fully invincible moves in the genre.

Aside from being used in this move, Essence can also be used to buy weapons and items at shops throughout the game. To not make using this ability end with penniless ninjas, enemies killed by the Ultimate Technique will drop a Strong Essence which is worth more money. This element adds a nice gamble to the system making each usage of the ability a thought process: do I use the Essence for my Ultimate Technique ? Will it kill them? Do I have enough money to upgrade my sword? All racing through the player’s head while enemies are dancing around him, waiting for him to let down his guard. All in all a brilliant design for a super-move. It is strange then that the move has been re tweaked and reworked throughout every remake and sequel to date, but never reached this level of balance again.

If we unscrew the lid of Ninja Gaiden further we find that the Ryu doesn’t necessarily gets any stronger throughout the game, not by design anyway. While he will gain new abilities and weapons, his damage-output remains nearly the same and enemies rarely get more health but instead they become more aggressive or gain new moves as the game progresses. Instead of balancing the game around Ryu it is focussed on the true ninja at play here, you. The designers’ thought processes throughout Ninja Gaiden’s fourteen chapters is that the player will learn from his mistakes, recognise patterns and will learn to adapt to new and unforeseen problems on the fly. This is why new enemies are often reiterations of previously fought and mastered foes; offering the player some knowledge as a base while also offering new threats via new moves or mechanics. Regular ninjas become Black Spider Clan Ninjas and Imps are slowly replaced by their bigger brethren the Ariochs. This form of game balancing relies heavily on the player and can get very risky. Leading to either a game that stays equally difficult from start to finish, one that gets easier, or a game that gets impossibly difficult for the player near the end; depending on the player himself, his persona and how he expresses it in the game.

And express it he shall. With two types of katana, a giant sword named the Dabilahro, an axe, nunchaku, a fictional weapon by name of the Vigoorian Flail and a giant wooden oar named Unlabored Flawlessness there are plenty ways to show the world who the true ninja master is. Itagaki has often remarked that he disliked the fact that most players used the Dragon Sword katana throughout the game. It is not hard to see why though: other weapons either focus on power or speed while this weapon has both and it is one of the two weapons capable of performing the powerful Izuna Drop attack. While it is recommended to use certain weapons in certain conditions, switching weapons is done via a menu which slows down the combat immensely. So players are more likely to stick to a balanced all purpose weapon throughout the experience; the Dragon Sword.

The further the player advances throughout the story and the more weaponry he possesses the player will slowly master the knowledge and find the perfect counters and punishes for his foes. While rewarding, this can also make the combat somewhat monotonous and repetitive as each fight will consist of the player dodging and blocking until that one opening presents itself to be punished with that one move over and over again. A minor blemish, but a blemish.

All this taken though in it is no surprise the game was a success, despite its difficulty and punishing mechanics. The 私わゲー style of design, born of Itagaki himself, was a hit and got players addicted selling nearly 400.000 copies in the first month. The original 2004 version of Ninja Gaiden is a game that started a lot of trends and set the bar for the genre and future titles to come. But Itagaki and his team (often forgotten, but always at his side) were not done yet. For an artist a piece of art is never finished. But it also takes a good artist to know when a piece must be laid to rest so the artist may move on.

postscript notes ----------------------------------------------------------

  • Interestingly enough Nunchaku (ヌンチャク) is written in foreign styled katakana indicating a non-Japanese heritage of the weapon. Probably due to its introduction into popular culture thanks to Bruce Lee.

  • Edited the article to replace the word Ultimate Attack with Ultimate Technique. A mistake.

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