As part of the hands-on time I got this week with Tecmo Koei’s Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, I was also given a first look at a new mode inspired by classic arcade side-scrolling beat ‘em ups.
Titled “Ninja Gaiden Z Mode”—which isn’t at all a confusing name given the subtitle of the package it comes as a part of—this bonus feature will see the game’s main protagonist Yaiba on a mission of a different kind: trying to recover his lost bottle of Japanese sake. Taking place across four different environments, Ninja Gaiden Z Mode harkens back to old-school hits like Final Fight or Double Dragon while retaining all of the advanced techniques and combat maneuvers of Yaiba’s main offering.
Also in the spirit of those retro quarter munchers is NGZ Mode’s difficulty. In contrast to Yaiba’s many checkpoints and liberal dose of life replenishment, the challenge level here is far higher, enemies have a better chance of doing major damage to the player, and health items are scarce. Talking to Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z’s lead designer Cory Davis, the team at Spark Unlimited is still trying to work out the perfect difficulty balance—but he assured me that, even if the mode ends up easier from what I played of it, it’ll still be much harder than the main single-player portion of Yaiba.
Though I knew that it might come off a bit like looking a gift horse, I had to ask: why put together such a mode as a bonus offering in the game, versus selling it as DLC or giving it as a pre-order bonus?
“We decided that we really wanted to put together as cool of a package as we could in the time that we had,” answered Davis. “It wasn’t a business decision on our part at all. It’s something that we want to give to fans, and hope they enjoy.“
Part of that decision to give the game-within-a-game away to all who purchase Yaiba had to do with the mode’s origins. Ninja Gaiden Z Mode actually originated as part of the prototyping phase for Yaiba, when the team at Spark was doing research on what might be the best options in terms of camera angles and character rendering.
“We played around with a lot of different camera modes; we looked at older Ninja Gaiden games, the current ones, other action games, things like that,” Davis continued. “We saw that our prototype rendered nicely from this angle—we really liked the way that it looked, and how it made the characters pop. One of our designers put together sort of a prototype of what it could be like, and we really liked it.”
Even with the decision to transform what stared as an experiment into a full-fledged bonus option, NGZ Mode itself won’t be shying away from trying different things. Davis noted that there will be “a lot of crazy stuff” as you go through the mode’s various stages, with bonus levels that serve as homages to beloved classics like The Legend of Zelda, Smash TV, and Street Fighter II’s barrel-breaking segments.
All of this brought up a concern I couldn’t help but ask about. With so much effort seeming to go into what constitutes a bonus batch of side content, were there ever any concern that effort would get in the way of finishing up the main portion of Yaiba?
“No,” Davis answered emphatically. “We bit this off really early, so it was part of the plan. At the start of a project is when all of those plans come together, and you really sort of try to lean on the things that are successful in your early prototype stages. This was something that was part of the flavor of this game from the beginning that we really wanted to express.”
The biggest surprise surrounding Ninja Gaiden Z Mode was also its smallest element: the fact that you can unlock this bonus game via a cheat code. Sure, you can play through the storyline and unlock it properly, but you can also input a secret code to make NGZ Mode accessible right from the start.
“We wanted everyone to be able to play it as part of the main offering,” explained Davis. “I assume some people will buy the game because they want something old-school, and we don’t want them to have to go through the chore of playing the single-player—unless, of course, they want to.”
A relic of an almost forgotten era—cheat codes—to unlock a tribute to that same era. Fitting, I suppose.
“Yeah,” Davis says with a laugh at the sentiment. “[A game offering a cheat code] is sort of retro.”