Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II were old-fashioned games, relics of Japanese developers unwilling to stray from conventions of the past. This according to current Team Ninja head Yosuke Hayashi. I love these two titles –Ninja Gaiden Black is one of my top five original Xbox games – but he's right. These games are built from old sensibilities for harcore gamers. Ninja Gaiden III is going to break free of this trap. At least, that's my hope.
Recently, IGN reported three big changes coming for Ninja Gaiden III: the story is a personal journey for hero Ryu Hayabusa, Team Ninja is rebuilding the gameplay from scratch, and it won't feature scream-inducing difficulty. Do these changes mean the Ninja Gaiden series is ruined or saved?
The Hero Within
Ninja Gaiden III may take place after the events of Ninja Gaiden II, but the focus is on telling the story of Ryu past. Ninja Gaiden II's ending appears to dovetail with the storyline of the old arcade game, making the modern series already something of a prequel. But now we're going to see more into Ryu's history, to days when he wasn't easily slashing the heads off enemies.
Story has never been Ninja Gaiden's signature. And to be fair, storytelling has never been a strong suit of Team Ninja. Will a more personal story, perhaps one that doesn't feature the rivers of blood in the Underworld, make for a more compelling experience? It's hard to say. At the very least, it sounds like Team Ninja is making an attempt to deliver something emotional.
To succeed, they need to tone down the melodramatic enemy speeches, the shadowy characters randomly who appear and disappear from the plot for no reason, and the boobs. No, seriously, I get it -- girls have boobs. Bouncing them in my face constantly is not unpleasant, but I can't take a game seriously that does so. It's also time for Team Ninja to stop teasing us about the childhood relationship between Ryu and Ayane. If this is about Ryu's past and we don't finally understand what formed this tight bond between the two, then why bother with an origin story at all?
Feel Every Kill
Turning a game known for expedient kills and easily lopped off limbs into something with different pacing and completely new gameplay mechanics is a considerable risk. My assumption, from speaking with Hayashi-san, is that because we'll experience Ryu's early days, these kills still need to be practiced.
Chopping off limbs sounds like a quick mini-game, something involving button presses, perhaps matching on-screen commands like God of War. It's hard to imagine this from a Ninja Gaiden game. I love Ninja Gaiden Black so much, but perhaps its day has passed. Maybe it is time for something totally different.
Ninja Gaiden never made me feel anything -- except maybe, "Oh yeah, I'm killing s---!" If every kill suddenly feels like a major victory, if each decapitation is a challenge, if Ninja Gaiden III makes you earn it, then maybe (just maybe), there's an emotional toll for what you've done. Make the bodies matter. Make every death feel personal and the game itself should feel personal.
No One Likes a Quitter
Achievements and Trophies have had one significant impact on game development. For the first time, developers get real data not just on how many people finish their games, but on how far people get before quitting. I have to imagine Team Ninja looked at the Achievement rate for Ninja Gaiden II completions and saw that the majority of gamers gave up fairly early. I don't even knowmany hardcore gamers that finished Ninja Gaiden II -- can you imagine how many casual fans stopped a third of the way through?
I love Ninja Gaiden because it's hard as hell. If you beat it, you've accomplished something. But I imagine a developer must be disheartened to spend two or three years making something only to have few gamers play it all the way through. Hell, I'd make my game easier too if I knew no one bothered to get to the end.
That doesn't mean Ninja Gaiden's past gameplay was flawed. Old fashioned, yes, but great for what it was. For the most part, I kept plugging away at Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II because they were so tough, not because the sword fighting was amazing or the story was at all intriguing. It was the need to beat those bastards down. If Team Ninja can replace the extreme challenge with something equally compelling, then I won't miss the difficulty. That's a big "if."
Our Verdict on Ninja Gaiden II
I have a good feeling about Ninja Gaiden III. It's undergoing a lot of changes, and that takes some courage, especially for a development team that honestly hasn't shown an appetite for risk-taking. It's a bold new direction, but Ninja Gaiden needs it.
Team Ninja won't show Ninja Gaiden III until June, at E3 2011, so it will be a while before any of us knows if the risk saved the series. What I can say, and what I know is true, is that if Ryu's adventure hadn't changed, eventually Ninja Gaiden would be ruined.