08 March 2017

Ninja Gaiden: Hurricane Packs

In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished--a word that for them has no sense--but abandoned; and this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public (and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver) is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reflection, which fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless.”- Paul Valery (French philosopher)

Artists across every form of art have struggled with ceasing production and letting their product see the light of day. But a good artist knows that its piece will live a life of its own, and grow. The Statue of Liberty is a great example; a statue whose green colour has become a staple of its design even though it was originally grey. Having turned green by oxidation; art evolves even if it remains untouched. In other cases artists come back to their work, retouching a once published piece. This can lead to conflicting visions, one of the past and one of the present; as famously done with the original Star Wars movies.

During game-development there comes a time when the deadline is reached and the game is sent out to be mass produced. During this time the team that made the game is essentially available to produce newer and better art. But it is very likely they are still in the ‘zone’ of their previous project with tons of ideas floating in their heads or unfinished enemy-designs that almost made it in but didn’t. In the current day and age development is planned around this as in this timeslot most launch downloadable content (DLC) is made. But Ninja Gaiden was created at the start of the online age of consoles, where DLC wasn’t popular enough to even deserve a acronym. Still bursting with ideas Itagaki and his team set out to, in their eyes, complete Ninja Gaiden. Not for the buyer but to satisfy their own artistic desire. The name of the project: Hurricane Packs.

“We are creating the Hurricane Pack for ourselves rather than for our fans. Our goal is to become No. 1 in the Action Game category as well as the Fighting Game Genre. The Hurricane Pack is an experiment based on that goal.” - Tomonobu Itagaki

Content-wise the Hurricane Packs is divided among two downloads, each with their own goals. The first aims to perfect the original game by changing and updating certain elements. The second offers a separate more contained experience to challenge the best of the best out there. Let’s start with the original Hurricane Pack, released at August 2004 which is five months after the original game launched. It is accessible from a separate menu in an attempt to not replace the original game but compliment it. This does make the game a bit more complex menu-wise, but keeps the original content preserved; a practice future games in general tend to ignore by having patches and DLC replace existing content.

The game begins the same, with Ryu jumping down to cut down an unsuspecting ninja before beginning his ascension throughout Murai’s dojo for players. But it is also immediately different as the enemies are different with new ninja-type enemies paired with more late-game enemies. By doing this once familiar areas will feel dangerous again as the player does not know what he’ll expect. Later-on other new enemies are added though most are demonic fiends, not humanoids. Itagaki has stated that he found human foes to be boring to design and rather wanted to focus on the supernatural foes and bosses. This does slowly turn the game away from its roots as a ninja game, with ninja styled foes falling more and more into the background. Making the game less ninja versus ninja, but more man against monster.

It isn’t shortly after that the player gets his hands on the Lunar Staff. This new weapon is a long red staff with little golden edgings. It’s simplistic in its design, but elegant, and makes a loud knocking sound when it connects with enemy bones. With a fast move-set and a strong Ultimate Technique that covers a wide area, it is the first weapon to have players divert away from the safe Dragon Sword option. Not surprising as the designers were well aware that the sword was favored by the community.
While examining the new weapon’s sleek design it is easy for a hostile ninja to sneak up on you, but his attack is blocked just in time. It is here that you activate, perhaps by accident, the new Intercept Technique. This move allows Ryu to immediately counterattack after a block if the attack is blocked just as it connects; a parry. Where dodging was normally the most recommended way to survive now both are equally important due to Intercept’s high damage output and addition to the Karma-score system. Karma is part of a ranking system not covered in the original article. Killing enemies grants the player points, which at the end of the mission lead to the player getting a predetermined rank. These ranks go from Ninja Dog, Lesser Ninja, Head Ninja, Greater Ninja and ending with the rank we all aspire to: Master Ninja. The game in essence combines the more arcade-like point scoring systems together with those present in games like Devil May Cry which offer letter-based grades. Both systems have up and downsides. A regular scoring system means the player can always improve his score, allowing for more replay-ability and optimization. But by having these scores be visible on a leaderboard, even if you are in the top percentile of players you will probably be around 10.000th place. A strong achievement but one that can also be very demoralizing. A letter (or in this case, title) based system has a clear goal for the player to reach each chapter: Master Ninja rank. But once obtained one cannot go higher. Seeing both these systems combined here is a unique twist, especially since this happened so early in the genre’s age.

While playing for score a player will quickly notice that doing Ultimate Techniques, which can now also be manually charged without Essence, yields the most points. Paired with the Intercept Technique this turns a Karma-run more into a puzzle on how to kill each and every foe with an Ultimate Technique as reliable as possible. While definitely interesting Itagaki does push players towards one single mechanic too much, negating nearly every other weapon and attack the game has on offer. In each and every situation the Ultimate Technique is the best move to use; a balance issue that has yet to been resolved within the series.

The second Hurricane Pack launched one month later, September 2004. This expansion featured a tower for the player to climb while slowly gaining upgrades as he went up higher and higher, until he reached the final segment and won. The pack barely contained any new content as most assets were reused. The only new addition being two new bosses with one being a redesign of the existing Alma boss with some tweaks. But this setup presented a more quick and streamlined Ninja Gaiden experience. While the entire tower could be completed within about one hour, it was filled with the hardest the game had to offer. Players had to carefully plan their purchases and upgrades as everything was severely limited. This streamlined experience also allowed Itagaki to experiment a bit more freely with the combat scenarios. Sometimes even pitting the player against bosses and regular enemies at the same time; a first for the series.

But the most important element to this DLC was the Master Ninja Tournament. While hard to believe in the multiplayer landscape of today, single player tournaments were a thing. Starting long ago with Swordquest on the Atari 2600 which pitted players against each other in a slightly edited build of the game with a chance to win great prizes.
People watching in awe as the ninjas go wild.
The Master Ninja Tournaments consisted of three online contests, taking place over Microsoft's online service Xbox Live. To compete players had to upload their Karma scores of the Hurricane Packs within around three weeks. The first two tournaments functioned as qualifiers for a live Ninja Gaiden Master Tournament World Championship, held on September 25 at the Tokyo Gameshow 2004. The Master Ninja Tournament was the final trial from Itagaki, to find the real ninja. His distaste for failures was also on full display, sending the 100 lowest ranking players a t-shirt with the term “ninja dog” on it. Only the worldwide top five were allowed to compete in the finale, resulting in intense qualifiers. It was a dream each and every player could aspire to at home, to end up on that stage and become the best. Once the finals began the finalists had to play an edited version of the second Hurricane Pack with a 10 minute timer. The one with the most Karma at the end won. With dying resulting in a loss of Karma, the stakes were high. Ninja Gaiden, as cited in the previous article, is half based on reaction and half on knowledge so it was a wise decision to have the tournament take place as fast as possible. This prevented players from getting too familiar with the new enemies and bosses. If done today the results would be far different.

Itagaki’s pride and joy was front and center as he smiled on stage. Watching the best of the best duke it out against his creations on the big screen could very well be the highlight of his career. While originally a five-man showdown the battle was clearly between the American player Snapdragon and Japanese master Yasunori Otsuka. While Snapdragon finished the tournament faster, Yasunori Otsuka managed to snag more Karma and thus won the tournament. The show came to an end with Itagaki proudly presenting Yasunori Otsuka with a plaque which read:

World wide master ninja tournament 2004
The one true ninja
“With every battle won, comes wisdom”.

Yasunori Otsuka (left), Tomonobu Itagaki (right)
While the tournament was a success and showcased both the game and its community, unique for a single player game, it has never really been replicated. In 2010 a small community organised event took place in Japan having players fight for the highest score in Vanquish’s now infamous Challenge 6 mission, other than that they have been more than extinct. A shame as they showcase player skill and community building; both strong game sellers and it keeps game from being forgotten.

With the tournament behind him and Ninja Gaiden, in his eyes, perfected the question remained. What was next for Itagaki and his team? While the Hurricane Packs were a very selfish endeavor, his next would be one for the fans. As he stated after the launch of the Hurricane Packs:
“I know that 90% of the Ninja Gaiden users only enjoy the offline gaming. To not disappoint those hardcore fans of Ninja Gaiden, I'd like to think of something for them”. - Tomonobu Itagaki.

postscript notes
  • It was notoriously hard to find actual information on the Master Ninja Tournament, as most factual and numerical data is no longer available. Citations of it being the ‘most successful Xbox Live event’ were omitted from this article as they could not be backed up.
  • While high contenders, both Snapdragon and Yasunori Otsuka never became big members of the online Ninja Gaiden community as far as we know.
  • Outside of hearsay and discussions at the time, there is no official recording of the Vanquish tournament taking place.
  • Sadly, with the discontinuation of the original Xbox Live, the Hurricane Packs are no longer available for download.
  • I wished to add the kanji for the rankings, but I couldn't read them. While I can read most Kanji the paintbrush styled font used by the game makes them very hard to tell apart.

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