With the highly anticipated release of Ninja Gaiden 3 right around the corner, EGM had a chance to sit down and talk with Team Ninja Studio Head Yosuke Hayashi about everything from the direction the series is taking to the shake-ups that have gone on at Team Ninja.
EGM: Obviously, the big question that can’t be avoided when it comes to Team Ninja working on Ninja Gaiden 3 is former Team Ninja head Tomonobu Itagaki’s departure from the team. With the fans all saying “Itagaki, Itagaki, Itagaki” when talking about Ninja Gaiden, and the rest of the team maybe not really getting the proper due, does that light a fire under them? Do they feel like they’re not getting the credit they deserve, and does it make them want to work even harder?
Yosuke Hayashi: Games are not something that just one person makes; it’s a team that makes them, and it’s been that way since Itagaki was here. So, for people who are worried about Ninja Gaiden without Itagaki, remember that it’s not just him. The staff knows that we made that game, too, and we’re a little bit hurt about that reaction, that people are so worried about just one person. We worked on the games, too, and we made them the games that they are, and everyone on the team knows that it’s a team effort. I’m the producer, the spokesman for the game, but I know that it’s not just me. I know that I’m not the creator of the game. It’s a Team Ninja game, and the individual creators on the team, it’s their creativity and their cooperation that’s made Ninja Gaiden as good as it is.
EGM: Now, on a similar note, Ninja Gaiden as a franchise does predate Itagaki, with the original games on the NES. On that note, has the team gone back and looked at those games for inspiration? Or is it more that you’re taking what Itagaki led and adding your own spin with this version?
YH: Yeah, we know we have a long history. Even before the modern version that debuted in 2004, we have a long history on home consoles. And we’re actually working on Ninja Gaiden 3 with one of the people who worked on the NES versions. We can’t tell you a whole lot about it at this time, but we’ll be talking about it more in the future. But we can say that we think of Ninja Gaiden 3 as a collaboration between the staff that created the modern versions and the original Ninja Gaiden NES series.
EGM: Now, let’s get to the meat of Ninja Gaiden 3 itself. Obviously, the setting—at least, based on what we’ve seen at E3—is London. How did you decide on that as a setting? It seems like ninjas in London isn’t quite what you’d expect. Did you just think, “OK, where’s the weirdest place we could put Ryu?”
YH: Yeah, of course we were thinking it’d be cool to have ninjas in London! [Laughs] That aspect was definitely part of it. But the story also involves a rival character. If you’ve seen the trailer, there’s a guy with a red cloak and a mask who appears at the end of the trailer—he’s Ryu’s rival. We call him the Regent of the Mask, and he’s an alchemist. So, when we were thinking of possible settings, London seemed to work really well as base for Western alchemy.
EGM: Now, does the game just take place in London, or does Ryu go around the world?
YH: Yeah, this is Ninja Gaiden, so you’ll be going all around the world, of course. The first stage is in London, but we can’t tell you specifics about what other stages and what other locations will be yet. But we can tell you that it’ll take place outside of London as well.
EGM: Do you feel like the gameplay will be definitively different than the last few games, or are you trying to keep it similar?
YH: There’s definitely a core to Ninja Gaiden that we want to preserve. The action and combat have always been well regarded, and you don’t need to fix what’s not broken. We definitely want to respect the core of Ninja Gaiden, the core gameplay. But for things outside that core, we’re definitely looking at how we can present them in a modern game-design sense. We’re definitely looking at updating or reinventing some of the other gameplay elements.
EGM: Are there any specifics that you can get into?
YH: Yeah, as you probably saw when you played through the demo, little yellow orbs don’t come out of the enemy’s bodies when you kill them. [Laughs] That’s not realistic, and that wouldn’t fit with the realism that we’re trying to go for with Ninja Gaiden 3. That’s one example of “game-y” elements that we’re trying to do away with as we make the world of Ninja Gaiden more “real” to give it a more immersive experience.
EGM: Now, to the question of difficulty, for which Ninja Gaiden is notorious. You’re not going to have an Easy difficulty, but other games—Bayonetta, for example, is a similar game with extreme over-the-top action and combat, but it has a Very Easy mode where novice players can have fun doing these crazy attacks but not have to worry about constantly dying. Why go that route of no Easy mode when other action games give the player that option?
YH: Well, I’m more of an “Easy” gamer myself. [Laughs] But action games are about reflexes, so there’s a bit of disconnect that’s just going to be there between novice players and more skilled players. Having said that, for people who’ve played other action games, it’s not about it being “easy” or “hard.” We look at them as bringing a different skillset to Ninja Gaiden. We want as many people as possible to play Ninja Gaiden 3, so we want to deliver the challenge to the core fans but also deliver something to people who maybe haven’t played a lot of action games or aren’t used to Ninja Gaiden. And it’s not just about having a bunch of difficultly ranks; we’re going to do something different that we hope will bring more people into the fold. It’s like two different entrances into the same content—two different ways in.
EGM: So does Team Ninja almost view this as almost like series reboot? Now that you’re not beholden to Itagaki’s vision, are you trying to expand the audience at all? Essentially, are you viewing this as a continuation of Itagaki’s worldview or launching your own worldview that we’ll see from now on with Ninja Gaiden?
YH: Back in 2004, we originally set out to make Ninja Gaiden the No. 1 action game, the best action game out there. Somewhere along the way—we don’t know why—it became about difficulty; people began to consider it just a hardcore franchise. That’s not what the original intention was; that’s not what the team wanted to create. So for Ninja Gaiden 3, it’s not about creating something completely new—we’re just trying to shift the direction a little bit and going back to trying to make the top action game. If you’ve played the demo—and a lot of people played it at E3—we don’t think a lot of people have died a whole lot of times. If people are playing through the demo and they think it’s boring, and they think it’s not Ninja Gaiden, then we’ve screwed up. But if you play it, and you like it, and you have fun, then we’ve done our job. And it seems like a lot of people are definitely having fun.
EGM: So, is the storyline focus going to get back to more toward just being about Ryu and not any side characters—not bringing them in as playable or anything like that? Is that part of the shift you mentioned—getting the series back to what you believe it was originally about—getting the focus back on Ryu and not any of the ancillary characters?
YH: He’s been the main character for the entire series. It wasn’t like we were trying to focus on Ryu Hayabusa from the beginning; he was just the main character. So, seeing him as a main character, we wanted to learn more about him and tell a story that deals with him as a human and what makes him tick. He’s been this mindless killing machine up until now, and we wanted to show the face behind the mask, and to show the humanity behind the ninja that goes around killing things. So that was the idea; we wanted to find his character, and that was the reason for focusing the story on him this time.
EGM: I spoke with Takeyasu Sawaki, the director of El Shaddai, and we were talking about how Westerners—not just game developers, but Westerners in general—are very interested in samurai and ninjas, these Eastern things. Whereas people in Japan—game developers, often—are interested in Biblical things. Evangelion, to give one example, the anime. It’s interesting how each side has a little bit of an idea about the other’s culture, but they don’t always completely understand it. But I wanted to ask you, as a Japanese person—even if I go to Japan right now, there aren’t any ninjas running around—but what do you think is “ninja”?
YH: [Laughs]I think that people tend to like other cultures just due to the fact that they’re different from what they’re familiar with, so they seem “cool.” For example, if you ask Japanese people if they like ninjas, they’ll probably tell you no. Ninjas and samurai are deeply rooted in Japanese culture. It’s not something that you like. It’s not about liking them or not liking them—they’re there. They’re just sort of there. Even little Japanese kids, they’ll play “throwing stars.” They’ll take a straw into the swimming pool and try to breathe underwater. They’re “being ninjas,” even as little kids. It’s not liking them or not liking them—it’s just part of who they are. So, for Ninja Gaiden, we’re trying to put all of that “ninja DNA” that we have into the game and show Westerners, “This is a Japanese ninja; this is what we feel a ninja is,” and just pouring all of that into Ninja Gaiden 3. The ninjas that we see coming from the West—Western-created ninjas—we look at them, and for us, there’s something off. It’s not a Japanese ninja. It’d be like if a Japanese developer were to make a game based on Ancient Rome, you’d have that feeling that something’s off. It’s probably the same.