By Michael McWhertor
Team Ninja is known for their flash. Whether it's producer Tomonobu Itagaki's rockstar look, Ryu Hayabusa's penchant for decapitating everything in sight, or the cup sizes of every Dead or Alive female fighter, understated is usually not an adjective that appears in sentences describing Team Ninja. But the developer's offices are so bland, so utilitarian, so... office-y we wondered if we had been led into the wrong building. Soon, however, Itagaki emerged, a hint of tobacco and hard liquor on his breath.
We were lucky enough to have a private interview with the head of Team Ninja about their upcoming venture, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, so we (as quickly as we could) got down to business.
The interview took place in what looked like the team's demo room. Nothing more than a couple couches, a big screen TV, an Xbox 360 and a pair of statues—Master Chief from Halo and Kasumi from Dead of Alive—adorned the room. Outside of a trio of low-key posters for DOA and Ninja Gaiden, you'd have a hard time placing the developer. But the katana on the display stands might have helped.A pink Nintendo DS with the TGS demo was on hand, so I cracked it open while we talked to Itagaki via his translator. One of the Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword staffers was on hand, but he let Tomonobu do the talking.
Team Ninja is known for their graphical expertise, claiming that they only work on the most powerful hardware for each generation. So why the DS? Itagaki was refreshingly honest, saying that developing for the Nintendo portable was "kind of nostalgiac". How so?
"The time it takes to go from a spec sheet to a program to actually being able to see something on screen is much shorter than it used to be," he said. "If I put in a request for a change, I can see it within the day. That's what it was like ten, fifteen years ago."
But times have changed. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 demand more time, more tinkering, more people. Itagaki wanted to get under the hood, figuratively. "With old cars, when they would overheat or something, you could pop the hood and dig around, fix something by hand. You could fix your own car. Now it's all sealed... everything is enclosed and CPU controlled. You have to take your car to the dealer and have him diagnose it just to fix it. That's what it feels like. [Developing for the DS]feels like working on an old car."
Putting down the Nintendo DS and the game, I asked Itagaki about presenting the Nintendo DS fanbase with a less action oriented, more puzzle focused adventure game. That won't be happening, he said. "I don't intend to put a whole lot of puzzles in. Basically, stuff you only have to give a little bit of thought to to figure out what you should do." Referring to the giant rock (and poor Kanji reading skills that had me stuck) he clarified, "There are boulders like that, from time to time. Hopefully, you'll be appreciative that we didn't decide to make the rocks explode."
Thanks for thinking of us, but we only hate exploding barrels.
So why make an action game for the Nintendo DS, when puzzle games, training games and testing software is all the rage?
"On a personal note, when I look at the current state of the [DS]market in the terms of titles that are available, I think it's kind of sad." No tears were visible behind the ever present sunglasses, but he told us "I think that since the DS is a very unique computing device, when I originally announced the title, I had expected and hoped that people would be bringing out very game-like games, games that utilize that interface. But what we've found is that a lot of games are out there that are almost like applications, things that aren't using the full extent of what the DS is capable as gaming hardware."
So who's doing it right? "I think Metroid Prime Hunters is a very good example of a very game-like game, so there certainly are other titles, but I definitely want Ninja Gaiden DS to be an example of that." Itagaki likes FPS games?! He sure does, revealing that "The only first person shooters I play are Halo and the Metroid Prime series."
Ninja Gaiden for the DS is a welcome surprise, one that plays well and uses the stylus in a totally unique way. Western audiences will probably snap it up, but what about something that will dominate Japanese sales charts. I asked Itagaki if Team Ninja has any plans to make a ninja training application for the DS.
He laughed it off. "That's impossible," he said. "Those kind of application type games you can literally make yourself using a PC in ten hours or so. I wouldn't want to try to make that and market it for money for people."
"I'm not trying to be on the defensive. I think it's O.K. that those games exist," he said, "But that's not the kind of game that I want to make. I don't think that really matches what we're trying to do here with Team Ninja."
The Team Ninja lead then got a little hypothetical on us, doing some spur of the moment game design.
He wondered "what kind of game I'd make if someone put a gun to my head and said 'You gotta make a training game or else I'm going to kill you'. I think it would be like a military commander decision simulation or something like that. I think it would be something that would try to show the difficult decisions that generals in the military have to make."
The design document jazz odyssey kept on grooving, with Itagaki saying "I think if you made a straight up quiz type situation, if you chose what that commander actually did, you would get points. Now we have military historians that say this general should have done such and such at this battle, if you actually go in and choose what they should have done instead of what they actually did, you might get points as well. Something like that could be interesting."
Hey, we'd buy it. But Itagaki thinks the game is perfect for "businessmen to understand how to choose during difficult situations."
"We have a game concept happening right now!" he exclaimed, "I'll give you this idea for free. Go ahead and make it."
We'd heard that Itagaki was a decision-making ninja, issuing every "yes", "no" or "Tekken sucks" in under sixty seconds. "Yes. It's true," he confirmed. "Basically, I'm just living moment to moment. It's kind of a miracle I'm alive actually."
I told Itagaki that I'm not a quick decision maker and that his unnamed decision making non-game was perfect for someone like me. "What should we title it? Make it a good title in English, please. Try to do it before the end of this interview." And one condition, "I want to include 'light' and 'shadow' in the title of the decision making game, so..."
"Decide Before Dawn?" I offered. The sound of crickets chirping echoes across the table. At least Ashcraft laughed.
Given that the Nintendo DS generally appeals to more casual gamers, the type who buy millions of copies of Nintendogs, New Super Mario Bros. and Animal Crossing Wild World, we were a little concerned that Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword might be too easy. Boulder aside, it certainly wasn't difficult to tear through the Tokyo Game Show demo. Not to worry, said Itagaki.
He calmed our fears, saying "It would be against my philosophy to dumb it down just to make it easy. Games should be challenging, that's what makes them fun. You have to keep that element of forcing the player to go up against the game, and lose, but get better, so that they can conquer it. There are ways that you can do that, but make it more approachable."
During this dicussion, Itagaki gave us an aside, one about the "evolution of games".
"In the past, our president came to me and said 'Create a game concept. Something that no one has effort thought of before. And you don't have to think about technological limitations. It's because we're worried about technology all the time that we can't come up with good ideas, so give me a concept that no one has ever thought about.'"
"So I gave him a single piece of paper with an idea which is that when you push a button on the controller, the character's hand comes out of the screen at you. So, the president was at a loss for words. Eventually he asked 'Why would you come up with an idea like this?' I said that 'Hey, you said we didn't have to think about any technological limitations.' So that was kind of an expression of me saying as an engineer, don't underestimate the limitations of technology."
The concept of Ninja Gaiden DS is not unlike that one-page design document. The team's goal was tap into the immediacy of the physical interaction involved by cradling the Nintendo DS in your palm, using the motion of your hand to physically manipulate the ninja.
As we were wrapping up, we learned what Itagaki likes less than dealing with technical limitations and the executives who don't understand them—game development seriously eats into his sleep. And his drinking. "I love to sleep. I love to sleep and I love to drink," he responded to a question about his least favourite thing about working in game development, "If I could just drink and sleep, that would be great for me."
That drinking, he says, while enjoyable, eats away at his ability to enjoy games recreationally. He tells us "Unfortunately, the more I drink, the more my eye for details is stimulated. I start breaking games down and analyzing their good and bad things."
Finally, I ask Itagaki the most obvious question (since we like drama). "Who are your rivals on the DS?" I ask, touching the dreaded T-word from rival Namco. He responds, "This is the first time we've made a portable game and so I'm going to be very modest. We couldn't possibly have any rivals." Does this signal a kinder, gentler, more diplomatic head of Team Ninja? He laughs. "I shouldn't lie to you like that. I'm sure there are a lot of good rivals for us out there. I'm sure that when most people see this game, they're going to say 'There they go, at it again.' In a good way. Hopefully, we'll be able to shake things up a bit."
Well, when Namco publishes Death By Degrees DS, we'll ask you again.
"Death by Degrees DS?", he sneers. "Okay, we'll take you up on that."
A puff of smoke and one botched Justify Your Game later, Itagaki and team are gone. It's Sunday and the team is going back to work, either tweaking their handheld debut or killing another bottle of scotch. With love.