It was Halloween, 2013. You don't forget a day like Halloween.
That day, Tecmo Koei released an obnoxious and divisive trailer for the upcoming Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. This was the trailer that featured the game's star uttering the line "I've always known where to stick my sword, sugar-tits" to Miss Monday, his mission guide. The one where he asks, "Can I see through your dress with this thing," and responds with "Then who gives a shit?" when the answer is a firm "no."
And that's all less than halfway through the trailer.
I don't know many people that responded positively to this barrage of misogynist profanity, and I myself posted to my Twitter and Facebook profiles--rather harshly--that the trailer was creatively bankrupt. And given how little we knew of the game at this point, I could only assume that the game would follow suit. Like so many other scowling Ninja Gaiden fans, I was ready to dismiss Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z out of hand.
This week, I played a good stretch of Yaiba, and spoke at length to Spark Unlimited's Charles Babb (the game's senior associate producer) and creative director Tom Lee from Team Ninja. Team Ninja has taken a novel approach to Yaiba's development process, bridging the East/West divide by assigning Spark and Comcept as co-developers. And with that pairing comes a lot of baggage--the baggage of Ninja Gaiden 3, which many fans saw as a betrayal of what makes the series great; the baggage of Spark's legacy, which includes disappointments like Legendary and Turning Point: Fall of Liberty; and the baggage of other developers' unsuccessful attempts to broaden a series' appeal to Western audiences.
We're the guys that created Ninja Gaiden, and we're the guys that destroyed your beloved Ninja Gaiden. And we want to test the mettle and say hey, we're willing to put Hayabusa into this mess, put this thing in his world, and spin it in a way you've never seen it before.-Tom Lee
Both Lee and Babb are keenly aware of the baggage. Says Lee, "We've heard all the rants and the criticism after Ninja Gaiden 3, and I think we wanted to put Ninja Gaiden, the actual hardcore franchise, out of the way for a while. And when this idea presented itself, we wanted to show a different side of us that we rarely get to show. In fact, we'd probably never have gotten to do this before. We've been so controlling in the past of our products, but given this opportunity, we told Spark, we told Comcept, to basically go all out, go balls out. You can see that some of the stuff, it's like kids in a candy shop. We're not sure how far to stretch this. We don't have any limitations or barriers in front of us. You're seeing a little bit of this. It's growing pains for us. We wanted to show our audience and our fans that we're willing to take chances. Hopefully, with this in mind, you can at least forgive, and understand, and see the potential of what we can do with this experience."
Playing Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, I was struck by the "kids in a candy shop" approach, which came across successfully at certain points, and not so successfully at others. Babb says of Yaiba, "This is more gonzo, this is more grindhouse, this is a comic book," and that's certainly true. It wasn't Ninja Gaiden that the game most reminded me of, but rather a mixture of Splatterhouse and God of War. The Splatterhouse element was most obvious in the vivid comic-book art style and the preponderance of blood and dismembered limbs--not to mention some stubborn camera angles and some wonky collision. The God of War element was apparent the moment I used the flail, which resembled Kratos' blades of chaos, to rip apart hordes of zombies in just a few powerful swings. These aren't Yaiba's only murderous tools, however: he's also got a sword, along with a cyber-fist that allows him to pummel the undead and punch through weakened walls so that he can plunder the secrets held within.
And I have to say, the action won me over. In only a few minutes' time, the zombies were too numerous for me to button mash my way to grotesque glory. I began to use my repertoire of moves to defeat them, and the game helpfully displayed the button combination I used whenever I stumbled upon combos by accident. More intriguingly, after the zombie hordes thinned out, I was up against a miniboss--a miniboss that soundly defeated me due to my inefficient blocking and tumbling. This wasn't Ninja Gaiden, but it wasn't Dynasty Warriors either, and I wouldn't be able to let my eyes glaze over and disengage my brain.
After a while, however, my fingers learned the rhythm. You can perform disgusting executions as you do in plenty of other games, but the camera doesn't linger long, and you need to exercise precise timing to string multiple executions together. Nor does the game crowd the screen with annoying button prompts announcing the potential execution. As a result, the flow of combat doesn't stutter or drag, and you can focus on defeating the enemy rather than cursing the game for prioritizing action-movie antics over fluid action. It was fun--and it was fun from the get-go.
We're expecting viewers, and the audience, and players to understand that this isn't to be taken so seriously.- Tom Lee
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z isn't all about combat, however. Babb showed off the Yaiba "chemistry set"--a system that lets you combine objects of three different elements (bio, electricity, and fire) for various purposes. For instance, when bio and electricity meet, they produce a breakable crystal that congeals enemies inside. Such elemental interactivity also figures into the game's various puzzles, allowing you to, for instance, crystallize an electrified fence so that you might smash it and make your way past. The non-combat feature I enjoyed most, however, was simply traversing environments. Wall-running and grappling segments had me zipping about like my old friend the Prince of Persia, though such sequences were palate cleansers rather than main dishes.
The main dish--combat--was best served up in Ninja Gaiden Z mode, an arcade-type mode that rotates the camera to the side (and sometimes flips it overhead) and asks you to cling to life while mowing down as many enemies as you can. This is where I had the most fun, in part because I discovered a new use for my fist: charging it up, and then rocketing through lumbering mutants and other baddies. Once I figured out how to fly into the air and land on my target with a splat, the killing really began, but my limited health pool forced me to control the crowd wisely lest I succumb to undeath. And succumb to undeath I did. This may not be Ninja Gaiden, but there's still a trace of that old NG challenge.
As much as I enjoyed my time with Yaiba, the game's obnoxious, in-your face, "xxxxxtreeeeeme" vibe was inescapable, though it wasn't as prevalent as it was in last October's trailer. Even so, I cringed when Babb was showing off Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z's hidden rewards and scrolled past a poem written by stoic Ninja Gaiden star Ryu Hayabusa in which he professes his adoration of Momiji and refers to his own manhood as a "wee-wee." Because it rhymed.
Says Lee, "The trailer reflects our enthusiasm for being able to go as far as we wanted to go, meaning this is far from goodie-two-shoes Ryu Hayabusa, the all-time traditional Japanese ninja. We wanted to go and celebrate this villain, this anti-hero of sorts. So in hindsight we may have pushed things a little too far, with some of the narrative and whatnot, and certainly the actual game probably doesn't reflect the dialogue and sexist remarks as much as the trailer did. We pushed that trailer to make sure that everyone understands this isn't your grandma's Ninja Gaiden. Everything takes place in the Ninja Gaiden universe, but we wanted to really try and make a statement that we're introducing this brand-new character, and he's basically a walking middle finger. He's punk rock, he's completely different than Hayabusa is."
Lee adds, "We're the guys that created Ninja Gaiden, and we're the guys that destroyed your beloved Ninja Gaiden. And we want to test the mettle and say hey, we're willing to put Hayabusa into this mess, put this thing in his world, and spin it in a way you've never seen it before."
Nevertheless, Team Ninja, Comcept, and Spark are all aware of the game's potential to offend, but hope that they can win players over by poking fun at Ninja Gaiden's typically staunch attitude. "You really can't take a game seriously when it has both ninjas and zombies in it," laughs Babb. Lee chimes in: "We're expecting viewers, and the audience, and players to understand that this isn't to be taken so seriously."
"Now mind you, there's a lot of things happening, things we're throwing at you," says Lee, "but when you look at a movie like Django [Unchained] for instance, I don't think Tarantino set out to make a racist movie. There are certainly a lot of racial slurs in that movie, and it is very violent, and very brutal in that sense, and some people have condemned that movie as being exploitative. But the way we look at it, the way we're treating this, it's more of a commentary on violence, more of a commentary on those types of games. It's very adult and mature. We're not saying we condone these actions, but this guy, this douchebag of a character, is interesting. He's like the Sid Vicious in our sphere. And in this day and age where everyone is so squeaky clean, where everyone is very concerned with being politically correct, we felt it would be kind of fun for a change. And we can get away with it, because it's ninjas and zombies, you know?"
I may not be wholly convinced that Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z's attitude is always going to land on the "funny" side of the equation, but it landed there more frequently than I expected. At one point during the demo, I crashed a zombie wedding, ultimately taking on a corpse bride that may or may not have been poking fun at the so-called "bridezilla" stereotype. Either way, I couldn't not laugh at the rows of undead waiting patiently to throw rice on the happy undead couple, who seemed a match made in hell. It's not yet clear whether Tecmo Koei's merging of two creative teams from opposite sides of the world is an equally successful marriage, but it's still one worth talking about, even if the love letters they write refer to Ryu Hayabusa's wee-wee.