A wandering ninja searches for an identity…
As a gamer who grew up with the intense ninja action of Ninja Gaiden on the NES, I’ve got to admit that it’s bothered me a bit that controversial developer Tomonobu Itagaki has become synonymous with the franchise in recent years. After all, the series existed long before Itagaki’s arrival at Tecmo—he was still in college when the original trilogy released. For me, this is what it all boils down to: The NES Ninja Gaiden entries were all about ninja assassin Ryu Hayabusa. The post-2004 releases were all about Tomonobu Itagaki.
While I certainly enjoyed Itagaki’s Xbox reboot for what it was—an over-the-top orgy of bloodlust and violence—I never fully embraced his self-indulgent vision of the franchise. That’s part of the double-edged sword of the auteur-as-game-designer; while I appreciate Hideo Kojima’s singular vision and bending the rules of videogame narrative in Metal Gear Solid, I wince at Itagaki’s over-the-top arrogance and viewing women as sex objects in Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive. For me, Kojima’s novel design decisions are always about how creative and clever he can be, while Itagaki’s more about justifying his hardcore cred…and how realistically he can make breasts bounce. So, I wasn’t merely convinced that the series could work without Itagaki—I was actively looking forward to Ninja Gaiden without him.
With Itagaki’s well-publicized 2008 Tecmo departure looming over Ninja Gaiden 3, developer Team Ninja knew they needed to find someone who could deliver credibility to longtime fans. Masato Kato, scenario writer on the original NES trilogy, was enthusiastic about revisiting his previous role on Ninja Gaiden 3. In fact, current Team Ninja director Yosuke Hayashi told me at last year’s Tokyo Game Show that Kato was essentially “the only choice” when it came to authoring Ninja Gaiden 3’s story, which reimagines Ryu Hayabusa as a “Japanese dark hero” who discovers that his bloody assassinations have real consequences. Hayabusa’s globetrotting quest feels a lot more like the classic cinematics of the NES versions, and while it’s not the best the series has seen, it would have been satisfying enough…if the combat held up its end of the bargain.
While Kato’s storytelling does offer echoes of the NES classics, perhaps it would’ve also been prudent to bring in a Ninja Gaiden veteran to oversee the action sequences. After all, while snake women with heaving bosoms haven’t always been a part of the series, intense challenge has always had its place. Unfortunately, Ninja Gaiden 3’s idea of challenge is a matter of sheer numbers rather than a brutal struggle against intelligent opponents.
And when the game does test the player, it’s merely through the accident of poor design than genuine difficulty. For example, quick-time events—more than played out at this point— add nothing to the experience and induce another level of frustration when you must attempt an area over again just because you missed a simple button prompt. Another curious control decision, clumsily climbing up walls with kunai using the shoulder buttons, fails to impart Hayabusa’s elite shinobi skills—a ninja’s supposed to feel like an unstoppable badass, yet these segments saw me constantly slipping and sliding. Ninja Gaiden 3’s online multiplayer—a first in the series—is another half-baked idea, as its confrontations come off more like watered-down Street Fighter than ninjas using stealth and guile to outwit their opponents.
Say what you will about Itagaki, but the man knows exactly what he wants. Ninja Gaiden 3’s major problem isn’t Kato’s throwback narrative or the fact that the game’s missing a certain sunglasses-clad superdeveloper—it’s that it doesn’t have a clear direction or vision. In looking to break away from Itagaki’s hardcore reputation, Team Ninja seemingly endeavored to satisfy every type of player—and thus satisfied no one in the end.
I have no doubt that Ninja Gaiden remains a viable franchise post-Itagaki, and perhaps with the lessons learned from this game and the upcoming Dead or Alive 5, Team Ninja will eventually recapture the intensity of the NES days and find its voice—but they certainly didn’t find it this time around.
SUMMARY: In trying to break free of Tomonobu Itagaki’s considerable shadow, Team Ninja crafts a tepid take on Ninja Gaiden that satisfies no one.
- THE GOOD: Free from Itagaki’s stifling creative vision.
- THE BAD: Free from Itagaki’s clear sense of direction.
- THE UGLY: Missing one button press in a quicktime event…and having to do it all again.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Primary version reviewed was on PlayStation 3.