Ninja Gaiden is arguably one of the most anticipated Xbox titles slated to ship this year. The game is the latest entry in Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden franchise, whose roots stretch back to the days of the arcade and the NES. The series has come a long way from its humble, sprite-based beginnings, with appearances across just about every major game system, both console and portable systems. The latest entry in the franchise, titled simply Ninja Gaiden, offers a new chapter in the series' mythology that will let main character Ryu Hayabusa do what he's done best since his days as a lowly sprite: hack up all things evil. This is the first Ninja Gaiden game to be done in 3D, and it will attempt to portray the addictive gameplay of its predecessors in three dimensions by tapping into the power of the Xbox. After the game's flashy unveiling at last year's E3, Tecmo offered a tasty follow-up at this year's show, with a live demo of the game by Team Ninja director Tomonobu Itagaki at the Microsoft booth. The demo gave an all-too-brief glimpse of what Team Ninja has been doing with the game. We had the chance to talk to Team Ninja director Tomonobu Itagaki about what to expect from this impressive-looking game.
GameSpot: When did development start on the game?
Tomonobu Itagaki: If my memory serves correctly, it was 1999.
GS: Was it always scheduled to be an Xbox game?
TI: Are you serious? (smile) We began development of Ninja Gaiden in 1999. At that time, we were using the Naomi arcade board in order to develop fundamental algorithms. Please don't misunderstand me; this does not mean that we were developing Ninja Gaiden for Naomi. Naomi was an extremely able "computer" and was suited to the development of algorithms that are not dependent on the specific platform. Major examples of these algorithms are important elements in action games such as the camera engine and motion engine.
To software engineers like us, both the Naomi and the Xbox are simply two examples of a computer system. Of course, this applies to the PS2 as well. Hardware engineers often tout the novelty and uniqueness of their computer architecture; we are not interested in this, and frankly, we don't care. Why? Because software engineers with a decent amount of expertise doing "ordinary work" can eliminate the differences between machines quite easily.
However, there is one difference that not even the most highly skilled software engineers can overcome, and that is the pure power of the machine.
Ninja Gaiden in 1999 was designed to operate on a number of data processing computers. However, the reason that the Xbox was chosen amongst the multitude of gaming computer platforms to run Ninja Gaiden is, to put it simply, for the reasons listed above
Let me say this once again today: The Xbox is still the most powerful game machine on the planet. Not only is this the greatest compliment that a software engineer can give to a piece of hardware, it is also a reflection of our appreciation of the Xbox for allowing us to run DOA3, DOAX, and now Ninja Gaiden with the quality that we, Team Ninja, hoped for.
GS: How did you approach updating the franchise--in terms of story and gameplay?
TI: Let me start with the story. The story of the three installments on the NES has been completed, and we have no intention of fiddling around with it any further. We will carry on the spirit of the NES games as people who know ninjas. However, the story we have prepared in order to portray our super ninja will not take into account the stories of the NES installments any more than is necessary.
In terms of gameplay, I want you to think of this Ninja Gaiden as completely different from the previous games. In the first place, 2D and 3D are completely different. We have absolutely no intention of producing an easy revival of an old game in the name of "faithfulness." We, Team Ninja, have been pursuing the idea of 3D action within the fighting game genre since 1995; now we want everyone to look forward to our 3D action adventure game, Ninja Gaiden, which we are creating with pride and all the skill we can muster.
GS: What were the key elements of graphics and gameplay that you felt the game needed to have to be true to the license?
TI: First, to have Ryu Hayabusa reign supreme in this world as a super ninja. Second, to complete Ninja Gaiden for Xbox as the greatest action game of its time, much as the original was on the NES. That is all--there is nothing else.
GS: What's been the most challenging aspect of developing the game so far?
GS: What can you tell me about the game's setting and story? Where does it fit in with the existing games?
TI: I must apologize, but I have decided not to talk about the story to anyone at this point. I do not wish to disappoint the fans who are eagerly awaiting this game by taking away their future enjoyment.
GS: Will there be any ties to the previous Ninja Gaiden games?
TI: I, too, am a fan of the previous Ninja Gaiden games for the NES. Although I can't give details as yet, I am planning to add plenty of elements in the form of homage and service to fans that all who love Ninja Gaiden should enjoy.
GS: How will the graphics engine be taking advantage of the Xbox hardware? What HD res will the game support? Will it have Dolby 5.1? Is it based on DOA3 or DOAXBV? Or is it new?
TI: We are still in the planning stages regarding the sound specifications, so I can't comment on that at this moment. As for the graphics engine, we are utilizing something completely different than DOA3 and DOAX. The engines in the DOA games were mainly designed to beautifully display a small number of characters; however, the purpose of the Ninja Gaiden engine is different.
This is because it must seamlessly handle huge stages that cannot compare with the backgrounds in fighting games and move dynamically and beautifully a large number of enemy characters.
GS: Can you elaborate on the Xbox Live features the game will have?
TI: I have decided to discuss this once it is complete.
GS: What kind of structure will the game have? Will it be mission based? Nonlinear?
TI: Nonlinear missions are unnecessary in a pure 100 percent action game. In addition, I am not so impudent as to make two or three paths through a stage and call the scenario branching "nonlinear."
GS: How would you describe the gameplay in the game? Is the emphasis on action or platforming?
TI: Well, the emphasis is 100 percent action. We have great confidence in action, speed, and intensity of this game. Each stage is not only designed to describe an outlook on the world with various art settings, but also to present solid and three-dimensional riddles that require Ryu Hayabusa to perform super actions. Ryu may find various weapons and items during his adventure. It is also important to fully take advantage of those weapons and items to beat powerful monsters.
GS: How large a part will the story play in the game? How will you tell it? Through CG movies, real-time cutscenes, or both?
TI: We spent an entire year on preproduction of the story movies for Ninja Gaiden. At the end of our deliberations, we decided to use both prerendered movies and real-time movies for storytelling purposes. All cutscenes will be expressed using the method that best suits them.
GS: Are you taking replay value into consideration as you develop the game? Will the game give players incentive to go through the game again?
TI: Of course. (smile) Since forming Team Ninja in 1995 to create DOA1 we have become acutely aware of how important American gamers feel replay value is to a game. I won't profess to have always provided everything that the fans have expected, but with our newest game, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, I believe I have answered the expectations of fans. It goes without saying that I consider replay value to be one of the most important points in Ninja Gaiden as well.
GS: How difficult is it to make the camera work for a fast-paced action game like this? Can players control it manually?
TI: If there are any action games that force players to manually control the camera, that just proves that the cameramen they are hiring are idiots.
GS: Since the game still has some exploration elements, how will players be rewarded for finding hidden rooms or other areas?
TI: There will be a variety of things, trust me! (smile)
GS: How many weapons will Ryu have access to? How many different types of magic attacks will there be?
TI: We are right in the middle of choosing the weapons and ninjutsu (magic attacks) that will go into the game; therefore, I can't say anything for sure at this point. However, we will be done with our selection within a matter of weeks. We will let you know once things have been decided.
GS: Thanks for your time.