I knew Ninja Gaiden II would be violent and bloody. I'd read Nick Breckon's impressions, which detailed limbs falling from the sky. I'd seen the multiple screenshots and videos depicting the gallons of blood and severed limbs that litter the battlefields. I thought I knew what to expect. I thought I was prepared, that I would be able to sit there and view the on-screen violence objectively, without surprise, without a giant smile creeping across my face.
I was wrong.
It started off rather simply, with a severed arm and blood squirting everywhere. Lead character Ryu, under the control of Team Ninja head Tomonobu Itagaki, chopped off both of an enemy's legs and, in one smooth motion, decapitated him before he had time to fall over. After the battle, Ryu flicked his sword to clear it of the excess blood.
Up against an endless horde of baddies that seemed more than eager to lose their limbs, Itagaki appeared invincible, slicing an arm off here, severing a leg or two there. But then, something surprising happened. One of the dudes who had lost an arm rushed Ryu and tackled him to the ground. Then, with his gaping wound still squirting blood, he attempted to drive a sword through Ryu's neck with his one remaining hand.
In response, Itagaki did what any good ninja would do. He threw a giant fireball that blew the one-armed bandit across the stage and left his corpse in flames. As the demonstration continued, he showed off a number of tools at Ryu's disposal--a bow and arrow used to pick off jumping enemies, a giant scythe that seems to severe a limb with every swing, a set of Wolverine-esque claws and accompanying bladed boots--but none that packed the same eye-opening oomph as that fiery explosion.
Just like that, the demonstration ended. The renowned game designer, who is known to be notoriously difficult with the gaming press, paused for a moment. He removed his trademark sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. Then he threatened to cut me in half.
Shack: I just saw a one-armed enemy hop on top of Ryu and attempt to drive a sword through his neck. How much damage can those guys take?
Tomonobu Itagaki: They can basically keep fighting until they are completely in pieces. A one-armed enemy will still fight.
Shack: Does that mean you can cut an enemy in half and they'll still crawl around?
Tomonobu Itagaki: You wanna try? We can probably find a sword somewhere [laughter]. We have to be realistic to a certain extent.
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Shack: Even though it's far from complete, I notice that Ninja Gaiden II already has a much more robust tutorial than the previous game. For example, there are now movies that demonstrate actions instead of just text.
Tomonobu Itagaki: The first game was great and had a lot of depth, but we weren't necessarily able to get everyone up to the level of skill where they could use everything the game had to offer.
Here we really want to make sure that everyone is on an even playing field, so to speak, in order to get through the game. It's a tutorial, but you still feel like you're being a badass ninja.
Shack: What other concessions have been made for those not as skilled in the ways of Ninja Gaiden?
Tomonobu Itagaki: There are four levels of difficulty all together. The easiest one is called "The Path of the Acolyte." We're doing a lot of special considerations to players who play on that difficulty level to make it a little more accessible.
Shack: Can you be a bit more specific?
Tomonobu Itagaki: Some elements of the game design in and of itself are different on Acolyte. It's really meant for people who want to see as much of the game as possible, and that's their main goal.
I really think that this game is fun, just playing it, just killing enemies is fun in and of itself. The upper three levels are for people who have played Ninja Gaiden and consider themselves fans; they just don't want to see the whole game, they want to kick its ass. They want to beat it in the best way possible. There have been several tweaks that have been made to cater to both types of gamer.
What I want to stress to your readers is that The Path of the Acolyte difficulty level in Ninja Gaiden II is not like Ninja Dog mode from Ninja Gaiden Black. In Ninja Gaiden Black, Ninja Dog difficulty was basically artificially boosted. You would get healing items on a regular basis for free to help you get through the game, so it was almost like performance-enhancing drugs.
That's not the way it should be. Difficulty should be adjusted not through indirect methods, like a Band-Aid on top, but through more direct methods--things that will make the player feel like they want to get further, to see more of the game, and assist them in a way that isn't artificially changing the rules.
Shack: Are you planning any sort of downloadable content?
Tomonobu Itagaki: Yeah, we're definitely thinking about downloadable content. In the past, when I've said I've been thinking about something, there have been times when I haven't followed through. This time, you can rest assured that I'll follow through.
It'll be something that'll make you say, "Whoa."
Turn the page for additional Xbox Live talk, Itagaki's take on recent action games, Yoda and Darth Vader in Namco Bandai's Soul Calibur IV, and more. _PAGE_BREAK_
Shack: What about a downloadable demo? A Team Ninja Xbox Live Arcade game? Perhaps a downloadable Xbox Originals release of Ninja Gaiden Black?
Microsoft PR: We're not commenting on that at this time.
Shack: What are the chances of an eventual re-release, a la Ninja Gaiden Black, that would contain all of the downloadable content?
Tomonobu Itagaki: I haven't thought about that at all.
When we did the first Ninja Gaiden on Xbox, the attach rate for Xbox Live was still low back then, in number of subscribers.
I felt it was unfair that only the people that were part of the fledgling Xbox Live service back then were able to enjoy all of the content we had done for the Hurricane Packs, so I wanted to give offline-only users a chance to experience all of the content as well.
But now, it's totally different. The attach rate for Xbox Live on the 360 is huge. I don't feel like I have to worry about that any more.
Shack: Now that Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden have both made the transition to Xbox 360, how much further can you take them? Is there anything left for you to expand upon in future iterations?
Tomonobu Itagaki: In terms of Ninja Gaiden versus Dead or Alive, Ninja Gaiden is still a franchise in its infancy, we're just going from one to two at this point. Whereas Dead or Alive, I really feel, has really gotten to the point where there's still things that can be improved on, it's pretty close to perfection in terms of being a good fighting game.
I think there's still a lot of areas, undiscovered territory, in the Ninja Gaiden franchise in terms of core gameplay elements and core game design elements.
For Dead or Alive, when we moved to 360, because everything was at such a high level of completion, we could focus on things like online play or creating the lobbies, whereas for Ninja Gaiden it's really about pushing the boundaries of what we can do with the actual gameplay.
Shack: Namco Bandai just announced that Soul Calibur IV will feature Star Wars icons Yoda and Darth Vader as playable characters. Some folks think this is incredibly awesome, while others see it as a blatant cash-in. What are your thoughts?
Tomonobu Itagaki: As far as the announcement, I guess people are going to have to be careful not to get eaten up by the Star Wars characters [chuckle].
On a more serious note, I've heard that each of the Star Wars characters are exclusive to one of the platforms, is that right?
Shack: Yes, that's correct. Yoda for the Xbox 360, Darth Vader for the PlayStation 3.
Tomonobu Itagaki: Speaking as a producer, I would say that I don't agree with that approach. I think it's a disservice to gamers.
I feel it's fine, if I'm doing a multi-platform game, to say, "Buy one version." But this is like saying, "You gotta get both if you want to get everything."
They should either make all the content the same on both or just focus on a single platform and do [the game] only for one platform. I think that's what you have to do to be fair to the gaming public.
As far as a guest character appearing in one of my games, as you probably know, in DoA4 we had Nicole the Spartan inspired by Halo. When we were doing that, one thing I really felt was that it's a big responsibility to be in charge of taking someone else's work that they've lovingly crafted and try to shoehorn it into your game.
You have to really approach it with respect and delicacy, it's not as easy as it looks. When we were putting the Spartan into DoA4, we were struggling with how to balance her character with the rest of the roster. If you make her the strongest character, then Halo fans are probably going to be upset because it's boring to have one character dominate the others. But if we made her the weakest, they would obviously be upset because she's not supposed to be weak.
It isn't just as simply as throwing it in there, you have to think about it closely. It took a lot of thought and a lot of careful design to figure out exactly where she should fit in with the rest of the characters.
Shack: Have you had the chance to play any of the recent action games, such as Heavenly Sword, No More Heroes, or Devil May Cry 4?
Tomonobu Itagaki: I played the demo for Heavenly Sword and I thought that one thing it did well was showing the weight of the weapon and how the main character swung that heavy weapon with her relatively light frame. You felt the fragility of the main character, I thought it was good animation.
However, I think the overall sum of the game design parts left a little to be desired, so I'll be looking forward to a sequel in that franchise. I haven't played No More Heroes. DMC4 will be out soon, so I'll be sure to play that as well.
Shack: What are your thoughts on developers selling actual downloadable content on Xbox Live versus keys that just unlock content that's already on the game disc?
Tomonobu Itagaki: I think both are equally valid approaches. I believe, of course, that downloading completely new content, for the price, should be the main way to go.
However, there are plenty of people out there, like me, who are older, don't have a lot of time on their hands, they want to see everything a game has to offer but they're not able to put all the time into it. So you're basically saying, "Well, instead of asking you to put X number of hours into a game to see this content, we're going to charge you."
I think that's a valid option for people that are older or don't have as much free time. This industry has been around for over 20 years, it's time that we accept that there are other types of gamers out there. We should be open to all the different possibilities.
When I like something, I say I like it. When I don't like something, I say I don't like it. So you'll know I'm speaking the truth when I say I like games like Ace Combat 6 for Xbox 360 from Namco. And I like unlocking new planes in that game, but I don't have time to jump through all the hoops and do everything that's required to unlock a game. So if they offer to allow me to unlock a game for however number of Microsoft Points, I would take that.
Shack: What about when the content is on the disc but can only be accessed through an Xbox Live purchase, not through regular gameplay?
Tomonobu Itagaki: That's worse. That's awful. Games like that should cease to exist from this planet. Are there games like that?
Shack: Yes, many. Namco Bandai's Beautiful Katamari and Frontier Groove's Japanese-only fish tank simulator AquaZone, just to name a few.
Tomonobu Itagaki: That's not very beautiful, is it?
An Xbox 360 exclusive, Team Ninja's Ninja Gaiden II is slated for release sometime this year.