Ninja Gaiden Z: "Character Is More Important Than Combat"

With Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, a beloved series swerves in an entirely new and potentially troubling direction.

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"LIKE A BOSS."

"Yuck. Totally scuzzy."

"I can't help it when you go all ninja and f*** everything up."

Colorful comic book panels featuring dialogue like this flipped past on a computer screen again and again at this week's Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z presentation at GDC in San Francisco. As this limited amount of art endlessly repeated itself, Team Ninja's Yosuke Hayashi and Comcept's Keiji Inafune walked a roomful of games press through their plans for this Ninja Gaiden spin-off. And those plans involve graphic violence presented in a comic book style, and painted with broad humorous strokes that hark back to Inafune's Dead Rising games.

"We think that's really cool" said Inafune via a translator, and indeed, there's something striking about the way Ninja Gaiden Z looks. He stated that the panels were created from in-game assets, even though they had a vibrant hand-drawn style, the shadows and blood splatters looking as if they were brushed onto a page rather than rendered by a computer. If nothing else, Ninja Gaiden Z looks attractive when displayed in still images, though its artistic flair is in no way reminiscent of any other game in the series. Nor, for that matter, is any other element of the game.

"The character is more important than the combat system." These words from Inafune made it clear that whatever hope you may have had that Ninja Gaiden Z would signal a return to the series' challenging, combo-driven roots should be reserved for later, if not downright abandoned. The character in question is the titular Yaiba, the game's star. Yaiba is rival to series mainstay Ryu Hyabusa and is, in Hayashi's words, "crazy" and "not typical Japanese." The game has been created to fit the character, whose name means "blade"--and who sports a mechanical arm and a cybernetic eye. And his main adversaries aren't powerful ninjas, but rather, zombies--thus the "Z" in "Ninja Gaiden Z."

Just what that arm and that eye will bring to the gameplay isn't yet clear, though the team described Ninja Gaiden Z as a hack-and-slash game with cybernetic abilities. What is clear, however, is that Hayashi and company are approaching the game with tongues planted firmly in cheeks. In Inafune's words, "I think that zombie games need that sort of [comical] atmosphere." The gameplay will reflect the humorous bent by allowing you to (for example) yank limbs off of zombies and use them as nunchuks.

Presumably, then, dialogue like "My name's Yaiba, and I'm having a bad day" is meant to be campy, but it's so far removed from what we've come to expect from Ninja Gaiden that it's hard not to question the series' direction. Ninja Gaiden 3 felt like Team Ninja's meek attempt to make an action game with broad appeal, and Ninja Gaiden Z seems no different. Team Ninja and Comcept have enlisted the help of American developer Spark Unlimited, the developer leading the charge on the upcoming Lost Planet 3--and the developer that brought us less-than-stellar games like Legendary and Turning Point: Liberty. Why enlist the assistance of an American developer at all? Says Inafune, "If we really wanted a genuine ninja game, this would be a fully Japanese game." But he thinks that while the Japanese know their ninjas, Americans "get" zombies better, and so the collaboration was sensible.

And from these ideas has been spawned a campy, cel-shaded game that prioritizes character over combat, and features a lead character expressing his glee with lines like "No such thing as half ninja, baby." It may be a spin-off, but aside from Ryu's presence, and ninjas in general, it’s unclear what else, if anything, ties Ninja Gaiden Z to the rest of the series.

Most of this information was communicated through Inafune and Hayashi's presentation, with the assistance of the onscreen comic and concept art that was passed around the room. The event concluded with a gameplay sizzle reel that showed a flurry of cel-shaded action, including side-scrolling sequences suggestive of the series' NES days. In motion, the game didn't look as impressive as it did in still shots: animations looked awkward, and the gameplay choppy. In fact, given the comic art style, uneven animations, its use of limbs as weapons, and side-scrolling cutaways, Ninja Gaiden Z seemed remarkably similar to 2010's Splatterhouse--not a comparison that works in this game's favor.

Team Ninja will provide more information about the game--as well as its protagonist and his relationship with Ryu--at this year's E3. It's hard to say at this stage what Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is; it's easier to say what it isn't. And this spin-off isn't anything at all like the Ninja Gaiden you used to know.

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