a review of Ninja Gaiden II
a videogame developed by team ninja
and published by tecmo
for the microsoft xbox 360
text by tim rogers
Everyone talks about Tomonobu Itagaki as though he’s actually real.
The majority of people who regularly play or (gasp) write about videogames also think that Atlas Shrugged is ripping off BioShock, so who knows.
We happen to know for a fact that Tomonobu Itagaki graduated from Waseda University’s esteemed school of law. After that, he vanished from the face of the earth for a decade. We know that he was working for Tecmo, a small videogame publisher whose greatest strength was their ability to seamfully graft the name of their company onto the title of their games, and that he was doing menial programming work on games like Tecmo Super Bowl. Eventually, Itagaki was working as a game planner (that’s Japanese for “game designer”) on games like Aqutallion (aka Tecmo’s Secret of the Stars), which was a very slow-handed Japanese style RPG wherein combat was dull, dungeon-slogging was a chore, and the key game mechanic hook was a white-hot miracle: you play as two parties of characters simultaneously, each of them in opposite corners of the world; you switch between them with the Y button.
Tecmo had labored for years to be somebody. The problem was they had nobody to be. Someone must have told them that if they kept putting their corporate brand name in front of every product they released, everything would be alright. Eventually, fighting games were the rage. Street Fighter II was huge, and spawned numerous unsuccessful copycats; Virtua Fighter took a step in a new direction, and spawned Tekken. Someone at Tecmo must have said something about “getting in on some of that”; Itagaki was put to the task. We assume he was disinterested. The title “Dead or Alive” was conjured in a bone-rolling ritual. The Frankenstein-haired soothsayer-slash-CEO grabbed hold of his cheeks, pulled them out like a puffer-fish, exhaled hard, and said: “We will call this game Tecmo Dead or Alive“.
At this point, Itagaki did not own a single leather jacket. His hair perched atop his head in a greasy clump like a Scottish terrier that had fallen out of a window. He licked his lips, shaking with fear: “You know,” he said, standing up, “uhm, sirs: video games aren’t . . . they aren’t hecking cup noodles you know?”
“WHAT SAY YE?” screamed the CEO.
The fear of that moment transformed Itagaki; his muscles appeared out of the aether, exploding his buttoned-up shirt from his scrawny frame; his epidermis mutated into an exquisite snake-skin jacket.
“You geezers don’t get it. Companies don’t make games — hard dudes make games.”
After a fierce, hours-long staredown, the old men were swayed. Itagaki had arrived.
No photographs exist of pre-Dead Or Alive Itagaki, and for a good reason. Itagaki had no doubt given his coming-out some serious thought. Anyone with the balls to actually graduate from law school is literally obligated to possess scheming tendencies, and Itagaki is most likely no different. Whether you love him or hate him, you have to admit that you feel some strong emotion when you think of Itagaki (notice this sentence excludes people who neither love nor hate Itagaki). Can you say the same about most any other personality-possessing figure in the games industry?
Most of the talking heads in the games industry don’t actually talk — and this is a key symptom when trying to identify the obstacles that stand in the way of the phantom soon-to-come legitimacy of videogames. Take, for example, Koji “IGA” Igarashi: what, really, do you know about this guy? Have you ever met him? We have, and we talked to him for an hour and couldn’t get him to say anything about anything not related to Castlevania. All the world knows for sure is that he was some programmer schlub who got bumped up in the ranks because the management were incompetent glue-sniffers who genuinely thought that the best person to direct a franchise was someone who grew up engorged in love with it.
Itagaki saw a shining opportunity, like a subtly forming rift in an undulating wave of linebackers: he saw a hoop that was low enough for him — or anyone, really — to jump through. Rather than stand around and marvel about why no one had jumped through this deliciously low hoop yet, he jumped through it, becoming the Japanese games industry’s very first loud-mouthed jackass perpetually wearing a leather jacket, snake skin boots, and black sunglasses. He grew his hair to a length that any law office would find unemployable. He started carrying himself with a swagger, and conducting interviews in a bad-ass trash-talking persona. They say “no publicity is bad publicity”, which is true whichever way you consider its semantics: the only “bad publicity” is no publicity at all, and any publicity at all can’t possibly be “bad”. If nothing else, Itagaki got people curious, regardless of his games’ quality.
We here at Action Button Dot Net find it actually somewhat embarrassing that our fellow “media” “members” can’t see Itagaki for the calculated comic figure that he is. These people probably believe that Andy Kaufman actually hated women, or that he genuinely thought it was “funny” to read the entirety of The Great Gatsby to an audience of college students.
It’s like, look, dudes: sometimes, people possess senses of humor that don’t capitalize on every opportunity to curtsy in the face of established logic. Try reading the internet at some point; if you come away believing Everyone Is Serious, we recommend you start playing the stock market as soon as possible.
The forensics experts at the ABDN Police Department have just spent five whole minutes poking Dead or Alive with a toothpick under a dissection scope, and they have turned up the conclusion that the glaring fact that every female characters face is exactly the same has always been, from the start, an elaborate joke on the part of Itagaki.
If you still don’t believe us, take a look at this guy. I bet you look at him and think, “Whoa, stuff, that is one bad motherhecker; I would not want to meet him in a dark alley!” Then watch this. The point is tenuous, though we’re going to run with it anyway: in Japan, the overwhelming majority of long-haired trash-talking out-freaking hard dudes who dress in leather jackets and dark shades simply have an elaborate, refined sense of humor.
Once we were within earshot of one obese games journalist telling another that Itagaki was “a poser”, that he was just a “huge geek” and that he was only making himself look “ridiculous” by trying to “be cool”. To this, we can only say “duh”. Videogame designers in general are geeks, and their wild, beautiful, idiotic senses of humor have become objects of the highest pop-art over the years. Itagaki’s brilliance lies in just how subtle he is able to express his flamboyant, fairy-like humor. Capcom’s Devil May Cry team got ahead of themselves with Devil May Cry 3, eliciting one too many comments containing some permutation of the word “gay”, so they played it safe with Devil May Cry 4, making it all moody and broody at the outset. Itagaki, meanwhile, might have tricked his own team with the proposed outlines for cut-scenes to be crafted for Ninja Gaiden II for the Xbox 360.
Exhibit A occurs early in the game: hero Ryu Hayabusa fights through a forest-fire-like wave of enemy drones for a dozen and a half unbroken, frantic minutes before arriving in the shadow of a pair of phallic skyscrapers. A cut scene initiates: the camera tilts up, showing the skyscrapers from Ryu’s point of view. With a wipe, the camera is now hundreds of feet in the air, panning as though aboard a helicopter. There’s Ryu, perched atop the spire on the roof of one of the skyscrapers. We see his point of view again: there’s the girl who was kidnapped in the opening scene, tied to a chair, being slapped in the face by another woman. Cut back to Ryu: now he jumps, body pointed forward, forming a beautiful diagonal line cutting down below the horizon. He crashes into a window less than halfway up the opposite skyscraper. Vile enemy ninjas are waiting to do mortal combat with him. The playable portion of the game continues.
The typical obese ten-year-old (or videogame journalist) in the audience likely will exclaim “Bad-ass“; reportedly, every time this happens, Itagaki spontaneously palms his jean-crotch. Because, you see, more so than any overblown action scene in any focus-tested Hollywood blockbuster, this cut-scene in Ninja Gaiden II is hecking ridiculous. Itagaki is preaching to a deaf choir, here, and he’s loving every minute of it.
We will pick apart the cut-scene, in slow-motion:
1. Ryu has just killed literally hundreds of mutated cyber-freak ninjas singlehandedly.
2. Ryu stands before two skyscrapers of identical height.
3. The signposting of the level design is subtle enough for us to infer that Ryu has known from the outset where he is going.
4. In a flash, Ryu is standing on top of one of the skyscrapers.
5. However, it’s not the skyscraper where the girl is being held hostage — it’s the other one.
6. Ryu looks at the other building, and sees the girl immediately.
7. The girl is located in the top floor.
8. Ryu shows gravity the middle finger and soars across the void between the buildings, crashing through the windows of one of the lower floors of the opposite building.
9. Immediately, enemies surround Ryu.
10. The player must now fight to the top floor.
This is a riddle whose solution requires thorough answers to several questions. Among those questions: how did Ryu get to the top of the first building? Only Itagaki knows the answer, and we dare say we are not giving him too much credit. We’ve met the man in person several times before; he’s the only Japanese game development big shot who will sleep — or pretend to sleep — in a chair in the lobby of a large hotel during Tokyo Game Show. He will humor journalists and fuel their inevitable wacky anecdotes. Once, at E3, he flatly told us to “go back to Japan; right now; the women here do not understand men; go to the airport, get on a plane; if they say the tickets are sold out, give them my business card.” Some man-boys would tell this story to their friends, and then discuss how terribly “sexist” Itagaki is, or how “rude” he is to “journalists”. These people probably also think that standing with correct posture is “sucking in” one’s “gut”, and is in some way wrong (it’s not: it’s how a man is genuinely supposed to stand). These same people probably thought that the pink, flowery wristband permanently affixed to the player’s wrist should he choose to “abandon the path of the ninja” and play on the “Ninja Dog” difficulty mode in Ninja Gaiden Black was done out of pure homophobia.
Itagaki’s wackiness is confused en masse for sincerity, and this is why we here at Action Button Dot Net cannot stop not hating him; the man smack-talks other developers of other games at every turn, inspiring weirdly misguided anger from fans of competing franchises. What Itagaki does most effectively is increase his games’ fans love of those games. When other game designers claim to enjoy Ninja Gaiden, Itagaki’s public reaction is “duh”. He’s quick to recount anecdotes of meeting Devil May Cry developers in bars and telling them that their games are no match for Ninja Gaiden; these developers are quick to corroborate the story. Then there’s the case of Heavenly Sword, whose developers claimed Ninja Gaiden was a huge inspiration. When asked what he thought of Heavenly Sword, Itagaki said that the game, with its reliance on Quick-Timer (Action Button) Events, was “spiritually weak” in comparison to Ninja Gaiden. Itagaki’s a jerk, a pompous ass, to be sure, though he’s also a marketing tool with skin and teeth and hair. He’s a personality, in an industry so devoid of personality.
We must admit that we hardly ever played an Itagaki-directed Ninja Gaiden game prior to our intimate familiarity with his verbal legacy. It was the comments re: context-sensitive button-blasting in Heavenly Sword that caused us to look at Ninja Gaiden Sigma, and it was our time with Ninja Gaiden Sigma that made us actually pay money for Ninja Gaiden II. Hilariously bland as the situations, characters, and settings may be — good ninjas, Barbie-doll girls, bad ninjas, Japanese temples, very clean post-apocalyptic metropolises — the amount of frictive genius hiding behind the curtain of graphics is undeniable.
It’s said that Shigeru “Shiggy” Miyamoto began development of Super Mario 64 by first having programmers craft him a wide open space in which to become infinitely familiar with Mario’s basic movement. We do not hesitate to say that Ninja Gaiden II‘s Ryu Hayabusa is as tweaked. Every strike of his sword or spiraling spin of his body carries a pregnant belly of sumptuous weight. If you possess any sense of class or taste, if you’ve listened exclusively to albums engineered by Steve Albini for the last half of your life, chances are you will note the subtle masterstrokes of computer programming, 3D graphics modeling, and animation on fine display in Ninja Gaiden II. The current location of any given one of Ryu Hayabusa’s limbs will and should be as important to you as your parents’ phone number as he runs effortfully up walls, flips backwards, chops dudes in half, chucks a half-dozen throwing stars, and deflects enemy missives. All at once, Itagaki’s yawning dismissal of any game design that plops a button icon in the middle of the screen and calls it “interaction” makes perfect sense: in Ninja Gaiden, everything your player character does is so perfectly cinematic, and the enemies are so fierce and unrelenting that no amount of running up walls will ever look illogical or superfluous. Every little spat with a patch of grunts is a desperate struggle, a matter of matte-black life of blood-gushing death.
The first Ninja Gaiden game sold magnitudes more in the West than in Japan; the reason was perhaps not that the Japanese version was heavily censored. Either way, the sequel was released in Japan with all blood and gore intact, thanks to a spellbinding sleight of hand that we can only attribute to Itagaki: that is, the violence is all contextual. You know an enemy is dead when his head is cut off — period. Nick an enemy and you’ll lop off one of his limbs; the more limbs you lop off, the more pissed-off the enemy gets; the more pissed-off the enemy gets, the less he comes to value his own life; the less he comes to value his own life, the more probable it is that he will bite down on your ankles with his hecking teeth if he has to, and incant the sacred ninja body self-explosion technique to cause Maximum Damage. In addition to being One with the Matrix at any given second, your gamer’s eyes should be constantly scanning the battlefield for arterial spurts, breathlessly seeking to snuff out anything that’s still alive. Don’t let those ankle-biters heck with your Ninja Plans!
To put it bluntly, Ninja Gaiden II‘s priorities are straight as an apricot in a sack of potatoes. This is a game about slashing the stuff out of evil mutated men with tireless vigor. This is a game where the opening credits play during a cliche cut-scene in which a woman with breasts larger than her legs is tied up and rocketed away by ninjas, where the director’s name displays just as the main character materializes and slashes a guy in half vertically.
So of course the bosses are an afterthought. There’s this big snake-like thing in a level that takes place in the subways of New York, and it plays essentially like the internal monologue of a Kyoto corporate executive when someone tells him, “So, we’re making a videogame with a bow and arrow in it”, and his only question (“What’s a videogame?”) is answered by “a kind of simulation, crafted for entertainment purposes”. To be most blunt, the bosses in Ninja Gaiden II who do not wield swords, brag about having killed our ninja master, or otherwise laugh shrilly are mostly exercises in boredom-related shock, to the level of actually succeeding in being kind of offensive.
We bring you this review of Ninja Gaiden II, today, in light of a recent experience playing a demo of From Software’s upcoming game Ninja Blade, which looks so much like Ninja Gaiden (half-helmeted Kevlar ninja tip-toe-running across skyscraper roofs and battle big mutant insects or evil Kevlar ninjas) that we won’t be surprised if Itagaki publicly dismisses it as stuff. Some friends of ours have called Ninja Blade “Ninja Gaiden in slow motion”, which is actually pretty accurate and fair, though not at all in a negative way. Slowing down Ninja Gaiden is, kinda, like slowing down a good round of cooperative copulation: a slower thrust is a heavier thrust, et cetera. Itagaki will laugh off Ninja Blade‘s Quick-Time (Action Button) Events, to be sure, because they are lame, because there’s no consequence if you fail (it just fades to black and loads you a split-second before the button press), though one thing he can’t knock is the boss battles. The boss battle in the demo we played pit our hero against a sonic-boom-spitting spider atop a skyscraper. From a distance of a hundred meters or so, he alternately spits horizontal or vertical sonic booms. Your goal is to run toward him while jumping over the low waves and dodging the high vertical ones. When at last you navigate this gauntlet and meet the hairy spider, you hack the stuff out of him for a bit, until he retaliates with a sonic boom of tremendous ferocity, which our hero automatically attempts to block with his sword.
This is where it gets interesting: a “Y” button icon appears on the screen (ugh), and you tap the button as hard as you can as the hero braces the back of his sword with his armored upper arm. The faster you tap the button, the more forward movement our hero makes; fail to meet the speed quota, and our hero gets pushed backward. What’s most important the note is that he gets pushed backward in real-time, so that when at last the sonic boom and the cinematic presentation relents, the distance between our hero and the spider is precisely reflective of our performance in the button-bashing interlude. The spider then begins to spit more sonic booms; we must re-navigate the gauntlet to get our next shot at the boss.
In summary, Ninja Blade gives us Progressive Action Button Events. The boss battles in Ninja Gaiden II just can’t compare to this, unfortunately. We will, however, give Ninja Gaiden credit for inspiring the main character of Ninja Blade‘s headgear. (Warning: we will probably never review Ninja Blade.)
What we’re saying is that the revelations re: how Ninja Blade handles boss battles have made us go back and replay a bit of Ninja Gaiden II again, and rediscover how disgustingly splendid the weight and impact of that fighting truly is. From a short distance (say, between a minimalist designer sofa and a modest-sized HDTV), the sterility of the game’s atmosphere and the homogeneousness of the enemy horde blend together into something more than a little endearing. The controller pops and thrums at all the right milliseconds, the music is awful cheesy guitar chuggy stuff of Nobel-prizewinning production value. The experience is not a “throwback” to the “old-school” Ninja Gaiden so much as it is quite obviously crafted with that whole sketchy era of innocuous character design, just-hip-enough visuals, and rapidly ramping difficulty in mind.
More than anything else, the indisputable truth slipping into view is this: there’s no way in hell Tomonobu Itagaki doesn’t absolutely love videogames.
It’d be hard for any Japanese game-designing man not to love the original Ninja Gaiden games on the Famicom / Nintendo Entertainment System. They were a seamful patchworking of Megaman‘s rock-hard side-scrolls and conceptual boss fights with the fleshed-out, morbidly convoluted back story of a PC-only text adventure. You might have heard that the extraordinary, elaborate cut-scenes of the NES Ninja Gaiden games were conceived and then written by Masato Kato, who would later go on to write part of Chrono Trigger, and then all of Xenogears, Chrono Cross, and, most recently, World Destruction. Ninja Gaiden, originally conceived as a port of the side-scrolling arcade beat-em-up, had morphed into something else entirely, more suited to the NES’s technical limitations.
Itagaki’s reboots of Ninja Gaiden are somewhere in the middle of the old arcade experience and the iconic Famicom trilogy. You can see a true comic genius foaming up in the background. Out are the long cut-scenes that coax discussion of world politics, and in is a girl built like a brick house, with breasts longer than her thighs, with hair the same color as her skin. Where the original Ninja Gaiden games’ rock-hardness most often stemmed from microscopic annoyances such as the hecking birds who would fly diagonally down at you every time you tried to jump off that hecking ledge, Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden is full of genuine moment-to-moment desperate, flailing, punctual button slamming. When you die, it never feels like a little bird’s fault.
Ninja Gaiden II is, for the most part, so vanilla that its every injection of personality is a little groan-worthy; this isn’t Devil May Cry, with nunchuks made of wyvern bones or bosses wielding guitars. Chances are, if you’re playing Ninja Gaiden II instead of, say, something else, you prefer your action to be a little vanilla. You’re most likely concerned with the feel and the flow of the action, not with how “awesome” the characters are. There’s a chance — a big one, even — that if you’re playing Ninja Gaiden II, you aren’t thinking of it as a videogame so much as an “entertainment experience”, like some sort of sci-fi movie abstract VR headset that issues static electricity to your temples. When we — by which we mean you and us, all of us mature adult grown-up highly cultured, bizarrely intelligent independently wealthy Ferrari-drivers who make more money yearly off our fashion-modeling hobby than most people will ever see in their 401k — were children, our groins would have exploded at the opportunity to witness wish fulfillment as slick as Ninja Gaiden II: that little finely tuned pet ninja in that there TV screen is an extension of our synapses; he moves one-to-one with the speed of thought. So it’s weird to see the combo counter ticking up with every uber-cinematic slash of steel. And the 2D comic-booky blood streak underlining the numeral is so gag-me-with-a-spoon. We put an un-friend to the test, and bemoaned the combo counter in his presence, and he hooted about how it offered “visual feedback”. That schlubhecking doilyfluffer probably thinks the green red and blue dots are the “heroes” alluded to in the name “Guitar Hero“. Ninja Gaiden II is a game about a Kevlar-coated bulletproof ninja flipping and cartwheeling, steel shinging against steel with tambourine rapidity, limbs filing restraining orders against sockets amidst an orchestra of circus strongmen tearing wet cabbages in half with their bare hands; Ninja Gaiden II is a terrifying latex lump of undulating bodies struggling to kill the avatar in the center of the screen; it is flipping, jumping, running up walls; it is shing-shing-shing and the stunted screams of sudden sequential serial decapitations; it is geysers of blood and and flipping crazy demon-men wielding tools of execution. Why can’t any of that be the “visual feedback”? At the very least, show us the hecking combo number only when the combo is finished.
This highlights an intriguing — and scary — possibility: that “get a hundred-hit combo” might actually be a wish that game designers seek to make come true for gamers. “Get a hundred-hit combo”, thanks to the magic of Xbox Live Achievements, has become as worthy of celebration as, you know, getting the chance to be a ninja. Considering the gravity of this induces a glue-sniffing-like vertigo: we the people who grew up pressing buttons are now letting the buttons press us. It’s kinda creepy, to be most blunt! Since we’re pretty certain we’ve never had a conversation with the “real” Itagaki (and halfway certain there might not even be a “real” Itagaki at this point), we can’t say whether or not we’d be giving him too much “credit” for assuming this is a “joke”. We can at least hope.
When, two years ago, Itagaki got slapped with litigation re: sexual harassment, it’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that the whole thing — right up to the out-of-court settlement — was fake as a three-thousand-yen bill. Whether any of that really happened or not, the fact stands that the record shows that Itagaki boldly crunched on that new, petty snow: he was officially the first video game designer to face a highly publicized lawsuit over alleged sexual harassment.
And then, shortly after the release of Ninja Gaiden II, Itagaki staged a badass walk-out, suing Tecmo for unpaid wages and rather loudly causing the company’s collapse. What really happened, no one is a hundred percent sure. We’d like to say that “Ninja Gaiden II is what happened, dude”, though, looking back at it, it isn’t really the hugest and/or most amazing work of art.
Then again, what Japanese-crafted entertainment these days is? Japan has perhaps been lost in its own pop-culture labyrinth ever since Yukio Mishima died. Reading Itagaki’s recent interviews — wherein he talks incessantly about fighter jets and reuses the Japanese proverb “the weaker dog barks more” in a way that suggests he is baiting the interviewer to laugh at him — makes us think that he might have a Mishima complex. Except Mishima — who wrote genuinely beautiful literary fiction with the queerest, subtlest sense of humor — is an act that one must die to truly follow. Mishima spent the last decade of his life lifting weights in preparation for a ritualized suicide. He starred in gangster films, he posed nearly nude in front of motorcycles. He tutored writing students in the art of the samurai sword, and eventually marched into the Japan Self-Defense Forces in full samurai garb and demanded that Japan wield military might once again. The reply was a hearty round of laughter, and a confused, “Dude, it’s Yukio Mishima, prize-winning author and star of a bunch of gayesque films!” No one expected Mishima to actually commit ritualized suicide right there, gutting out his own intestines with a samurai sword — least of all his three devoted followers. They must have all thought they were playing a part in an elaborate prank — and they would have been right. The only thing they had underestimated was how elaborate the prank had been. From that day forth, the average Pop-Culture-Savvy Japanese Human Being has had very little tolerance for irony. We’re hardly exaggerating when we say that Yukio Mishima was that important a cultural event.
Something tells us that Itagaki gets what Mishima was driving at: last time we saw him, he told us to quit our job, start bodybuilding, and then start gambling. “If you lose all of your savings, at least you’ll still have the muscles. A man is nothing without muscles. If you have muscles, earning your savings back will happen just like that.” He snapped his fingers. Then he touched our hair and asked us what brand of shampoo we were using. This is no joke. Man, if Itagaki had demanded Tecmo’s shareholders hand over everything to him and then committed seppuku when his proposition was refused, we’d be giving Ninja Gaiden II four stars just for the hell of it. As-is, it’s just a weak dog barking pretty unobnoxiously.
*note #1: one of the weapons in this game is a spear.
note #2: the spear in this game is awesome