Tuesday, January 28, 2014

IGN Presents The History of Ninja Gaiden

IGN Presents The History of Ninja Gaiden

Tracing the long and bloody legacy of Ryu Hayabusa.
by Rus McLaughlin

He's a quiet, philosophical man, a 21st Century ninja, a shadowy anachronism who routinely pits ancient skills against modern weaponry with absolutely brutal finesse. Common thugs, trained soldiers, armored tanks, combat cyborgs, rival ninja and all the demonic hordes his Dragon Sword can reach... nothing survives Ryu. Stealth isn't a component of the Hayabusa school of ninjitsu. Killing everything that moves, and then killing it some more is. Ryu Hayabusa is a thorough man indeed.

Games propelled by his unwavering sense of honor are legendary for their difficulty, easily among the most punishing games ever developed. They've become an unofficial test for separating button-mashers from true masters. Millions have eagerly queued up for their masochism fix over the last two decades, wading through different genres and changing platforms and flexible backstories just to get the only guarantee that matters.
If the game is called Ninja Gaiden, it's going to kick your ass. And make you like it.

Ninja Theory
Tokyo-based Tehkan Ltd. changed its name to U.S. Tehkan, Inc. in 1981 one month prior to releasing its first videogame; prior to that, it had spent two years of selling cleaning equipment and fourteen building pachinko "amusement machines." Co-produced with American game distributor Centauri, Pleiads was billed as a loose sequel to the popular shooter, Phoenix, but came across more as a simple Galaga knock-off. More such "homages" followed. Tank shooter Senjyo was a weak Battlezone. Guzzler was decidedly Pac Manish. Star Force took us right back to Galaga country again.

By the mid-'80s, Tehkan morphed into Tecmo, and some originality crept into the repertoire. Bomb Jack and Solomon's Key were showing gamers something different. Football sim Gridiron Fight won some attention, and yo-yo shield-wielding Rygar added a solid action-adventure game to its 1986 portfolio. Tecmo Bowl arrived the next year, refining Gridiron Fight into a highly addictive earner. Nevertheless, the huge success of Taito's Double Dragon meant it was time to add a co-op brawler to the roster.

Characteristic of Japanese corporate culture, Tecmo gave the assignment to a special team assembled for the purpose. Newly minted Team Strong, led by Shuichi Sakurazaki, took full responsibility for delivering Tecmo's next hit game.

Under Sakurazaki's direction, the game patterned everything off Double Dragon, but added a few platforming challenges courtesy of a special button on the joystick, and then cranked up the pain. Ninja Ryukenden (Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword) hit arcades in 1988, featuring young and (mostly) unarmed ninja Ryu Hayabusa as he side-scrolled through armies of hockey-masked brutes patrolling America. The non-plot - hunting his father's killer - explained Ryu's trip to the States, but was otherwise ignored. Players didn't have time to dwell on it.

Sakurazaki threw scores of enemies at them from every direction, far more than other beat-em-ups dared. Many seasoned gamers never made it past the first level. On the plus side, playing a "Ninja in USA" and hurling baddies through semi-destructible environments was incredibly cool. The proud few who cleared the end boss, a two-sword giant straight out of The Road Warrior, watched Ryu triumphantly return to his ninja throne in Japan. Most ended on the gruesome Continue screen, where a circular saw slowly lowered on a helpless, panicking hero.

Either way, the game ate a lot of quarters.

"Ryukenden," however, was deemed too tough for English-speaking audiences. The UK renamed it Shadow Warriors. For the U.S. market, Tecmo went with Ninja Gaiden... literally, Ninja Side-Story, even though it wasn't a spin-off; except possibly from Double Dragon... depending on who you talked to.

By this point, Tecmo regularly ported its successful arcaders to the home console market. Rygar had already jumped to the Nintendo Entertainment System in slightly modified form and done well. Tecmo Bowl did even better. But when Ninja Gaiden's turn came, instead of simply transferring his game to a new platform, Sakurazaki kept the name and kept the ninja and scrapped everything else. The loose beat-em-up became a tightly controlled action-platformer, more Metroid than Double Dragon, and this time Sakurazaki equipped his ninja like a ninja. Ryu came standard with the Dragon Sword, a tempered blade carved from a dragon's fang, threw shuriken and windmill shuriken, and used magical ninpo attacks like the Art of the Fire Wheel. Naturally, the difficulty level rose to a ruthless degree to compensate.

Ninja Gaiden for the NES arrived in stores that December. The box proclaimed it "The fight of your life." It wasn't kidding.


Running with the Devil
More than that, Sakurazaki had a story to tell -- a real, if somewhat cheesy, story -- and he made it move with over twenty minutes of cinematic cutscenes... a first for the NES. Ryu still went to America to avenge his father's murder at the hands of Bloody Malth, but now there were bigger issues at stake. Two ancient statues recovered by his not-quite-dead father put Ryu in contact with attractive CIA agent Irene Lew and her mission to stop Malth's demonic superior, the Jaquio. A demon god was trapped in those statues; Jaquio intended to unleash it on the world. Ryu intervened, chopping up Malth, Jaquio, the demon god and hundreds of others in an epic series of battles. As a reward, CIA director Foster ordered Irene to kill Ryu. She became his girlfriend instead.

Ninja Gaiden became a solid winner for Tecmo. Sakurazaki went back to work, and "Hard to Beat!" Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos released just seventeen months later.

Almost immediately, the evil wizard Ashtar baited a trap with Irene as part of a plan to unlock the gates of Hell with Ryu's super-ninja blood. When that failed, Ashtar fatally stabbed her and sent her soul to the Realm of Chaos. Not a good thing for the Realm, as it turned out. Ryu tore it a new one to get Irene back, then twice dispatched old nemesis Jaquio -- fully rested from his previous beating and armed with the titular demon-grown sword -- before resurrecting Irene with his Dragon Sword. All in all, the experience proved only slightly easier than the first game and surprisingly bloody for a Nintendo title. Fans approved, and almost universally loved Ryu's new "split clone" technique that created multiple Ryus that did three times the damage. Ninja Gaiden had set a high bar; Sword of Chaos held up.

But after three Gaidens, Sakurazaki was done. Runmaru, a designer on the first two NES games, took over writing and directing for Ninja Gaiden III: Ancient Ship of Doom. The split clones were dropped. Upgrades for the Dragon Sword (despite vaporizing when it saved Irene) were added. Runmaru beefed the threat level back up to a proper Ryu-killing quality and then some, penning an unusually convoluted story that kicked off with Ryu murdering Irene.

The real Ryu wasn't amused. With help from rogue CIA agent Clancy, he tracked his "bio-noid" doppelganger to its creator -- Foster -- and went in heavy to take his twenty pounds of flesh... as did Irene, having faked her death. Her old boss had tapped supernatural energies spilling from a dimensional rift to create a personal bio-noid army, and Clone Ryu became one of the toughest opponents in franchise history. Other notable cruelties included a level that forced Hayabusa to constantly flee ever-rising lava while enemies sniped away, and power-ups placed in tempting, easy-to-die locations. Eventually, Clancy betrayed them all and took command of a super-dimensional warship. Hideously mutated, he offered Ryu a chance to help create a new world order by annihilating the current one. Ryu annihilated him instead.

Ship of Doom closed on the traditional note: Ryu and Irene observing the enemy fortress crumbling from a safe distance while enjoying the sunrise... their last one together. All three games were ported to the SNES and Atari Lynx, and Ninja Gaiden Shadow briefly appeared on the Game Boy's black-and-white screen (converted from a "Shadow of the Ninja" game), but that ended Nintendo's involvement in the series.
Unfortunately, Tecmo had gotten its fill of ninja, too.

Game of Death
Diminished returns led Tecmo to license the franchise out rather than continue it themselves, and SEGA swept in with disappointing results. Ninja Gaiden for the Master System kept the gameplay and dumped the continuity to send Ryu hunting for the Dark Samurai who wiped out his Dragon Clan and stole a sacred Bushido scroll. It was only released abroad, and fared poorly. A portable Game Gear version did little better. Plans for a Genesis beat-em-up molded after the arcade original died in beta, and by 1992 SEGA had given up on the franchise as well. Ninja Gaiden was dead. 

Tecmo soon went public with less than five hundred employees on the books and a five-year drought in the hit games department. The company badly needed a big win, fast. Noticing SEGA's recent arcade triumphs, upper management sent down new marching orders: create a Virtua Fighter-type game, only better. The job went to Team Ninja, a group assembled to port the NES Gaiden trilogy to the SNES, but the responsibility rested with a programmer whose claim to fame was working on the SNES port of Tecmo Bowl: Tomonubu Itagaki

Born the same year Tehkan was founded, Itagaki carried himself like a rock star right down to the ever-present shades and attitude for all occasions. He'd fought for this opportunity. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with it. A gambling man by nature, Itagaki promptly made a bet with the President of Tecmo that he could deliver a quality 3D fighter to recapture the market, naming his project "Dead or Alive" to symbolize his all-or-nothing approach to a do-or-die situation. He first came off as entirely too arrogant... until he backed up every word. 

Dead or Alive arrived in Japanese arcades in 1996, running on the same SEGA-licensed hardware as Virtua Fighter 2, but the similarities ended there. Where all other fighting games allowed simple blocks, DOA introduced a unique countering system that depended on swift, precise reaction. It moved faster, too, and every stadium was booby trapped with Danger Zones. The roster of fighters participating in the Dead or Alive Tournament Executive Committee's (DOATEC) mixed martial arts didn't stand out much from the dozen other fighters on the market, but there was a familiar name in the crowd. One of Itagaki's early mentors at Tecmo was Yoshiaki Inose, a designer on the original NES Gaiden series. Tapping Ryu Hayabusa to fill out DOA's ranks was an easy call. 

Although Itagaki already won his wager in the arcades, Dead or Alive did even better when ported to the SEGA Saturn and PlayStation. Always the obsessive perfectionist, Itagaki tinkered with the formula for the PS1 version, adding three new playable characters. One, based on a training dummy model, became a young, purple haired girl ninja named Ayane. It also gave the series a reputation for misogyny by including a menu option for "bouncing breasts" in the game config, governed by a dedicated physics engine. From that point forward, the women in DOA became known far and wide for chest-born independent suspension systems. 

In spite of -- or more likely, because of -- that, Dead or Alive became Tecmo's first successful franchise in years, and Itagaki used the sequels to develop a strong continuity around his characters. Ryu became the stoic man on a mission, friend and ally to ninja wonder twins Kasumi and Hayate and their half-sister, Ayane. He also became the instigator of some very tough love when he deemed it necessary, occasionally pounding the crap out of his friends to spare them more grievous injury down the road. The tournaments themselves seemed like mere sideshows to Ryu. His focus was on defeating Bankotsu, a Tengu demon bent on world destruction in DOA 2, or helping his fellow ninja foil the more sinister motivations behind DOATEC.

In Dead or Alive's ever-changing cast, Ryu became a popular mainstay and fan favorite, even among fans who didn't know his game of origin. They knew enough: Ryu Hayabusa was a serious badass.
Itagaki knew it, too, and he knew there was more to be done with his wayward Dragon Ninja. Dead or Alive was Ryu's real "side-story." Itagaki wanted to build the main event. 

Real Ultimate Power
Itagaki and Team Ninja started plotting Ryu Hayabusa's return to form in 1999, between DOA sequels. Eight years had gone by since the series' last release. 

First, Itagaki rebooted the entire franchise. Again, his loyalty was to gameplay, not old storylines, so Irene and the NES adventures dropped off the radar for good... though the plot Itagaki chose sported more than a cosmetic resemblance to the SEGA Master System version. The new Gaiden was tailored to fit inside the Dead or Alive continuity, set two years prior to DOA 1, but with a harder edge. Both the tone and the gameplay would be completely unforgiving. When testers complained the rough builds were too tough, Itagaki went back and made them tougher. He wasn't building Shinobi, after all. This franchise had a reputation to maintain. In other action games, Itagaki liked to say, the enemies existed for you to kill. In Ninja Gaiden, the enemies existed to kill you. He insisted on holding his game and his gamers to a higher standard. There were plenty of easier games to play, if that's what made people happy. Marbles, perhaps, or Go Fish. Anyone planning to conquer Gaiden would have to man the hell up. 

While that stand made a few people nervous, the main problem was more technical; the designers didn't know what system they were developing the game for. Work started on an arcade board, and then transferred to the Dreamcast, a system Itagaki loved, until it imploded at the start of 2001. A playable build was already testing in the Tecmo offices, but without a platform to program towards, progress stalled. The "Next-Generation Ninja Gaiden Project" shifted towards the PlayStation 2 more by default than anything else. 

Luckily, an alternative presented itself. Microsoft shipped the first Xbox dev kits to Tecmo in the closing months of 2000 and Itagaki - renowned for his harsh appraisals of gaming hardware - took to the platform immediately. To him, it was the only choice. The dev kits made perfect sense to him as a programmer, coming as they did from a software-first company, and the hardware made his games look spectacular. All Team Ninja's PS2 development permanently stopped in early 2001. Dead Or Alive 3 became an exclusive launch title for Microsoft's big black box and Ninja Gaiden soon followed suit, though Tecmo didn't make the official announcement until E3 2002. It made Tecmo one of the first and few Japanese developers to throw all its weight behind Microsoft's fledgling console. 

Once he got DOA 3 out the door and finished "hobby" project Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, all Itagaki's attention fell back on Ryu Hayabusa. Finally, after five years of development and a thirteen year wait, Ninja Gaiden brought the mayhem to the Xbox on March 2, 2004. 

It didn't start gradually. After some soothing conversation and violence with his uncle, master ninja Murai -- an unusually tough first boss to set the proper mood -- Ryu learned Hayabusa Village was under attack by the Greater Fiend Doku. A living blue flame in samurai armor, Doku razed the village and slaughtered Ryu's clan. Ryu made challenge and was cut down by Doku's new prize: the evil Dark Dragon Blade, a soul-eating sword guarded by the Hayabusa clan for centuries. 

Brought back by a spirit animal (his namesake "Hayabusa" falcon), Ryu tracked Doku back to the Holy Vigoor Empire, a country that guarded its supernatural origins with a high-tech military. Neither was a very good deterrent. Ryu mercilessly carved up troops, zombies, Spider Clan ninja and an army of monstrous, once-human Fiends, constantly guided by teenaged ninja spy Ayane. Amid his Scorched Earth campaign, he crossed paths with elderly blacksmith Muramasa (who also cameoed in DOA) and Rachel, a spectacularly unlucky Fiend Hunter out to kill her own transformed twin sister; even extinguishing Doku, while highly satisfying, only lead to further complications. A curse progressively turned Ryu into a Fiend, and the dark sword passed into the Holy Vigoor Emperor's possession. Ryu pursued it and him straight into his hellish underground sanctuary to administer last rites, ninja style.
After all-out war with the godlike Emperor, discovering and punishing Murai's betrayal - taking the Dark Dragon for himself - was a minor nuisance. Clearly, Murai forgot the sword was made powerful by Ryu's astronomical body count.
The Xbox's Ninja Gaiden was bloody and it was beautiful -- an amazing sixteen levels. Upwards of thirty hours of pure ninja carnage, not counting frequent death-assisted replays, and everything ran smooth as steel. Weapons and magics were fully upgradable, even to the point of turning a useless wooden sword into the Unlabored Flawlessness. Huge maps with near-invisible loads allowed for free-roaming havoc. Even the hidden Golden Scarabs had tangible in-game rewards when collected.

The variety of weaponry might've been inspiring, but the sheer depth of the combat system made the entire game. Dozens of combos waited to be discovered and used to devastating effect. Most were vital to long-term (or even short-term) survival, and hyper-responsive controls made pulling them off easy... not to say they made the game easy. Complacent gamers constantly found themselves blindsided, shredded, eaten and pin-cushioned with explosive shuriken; in Ryu's world, players learned to constantly adapt or suffer. Like the arcade and NES games long before, some checked out of the experience, frustrated by the sometimes overwhelming difficulty. Everyone else enjoyed the hell out of it. In a year that also saw Half-Life 2, Halo 2, Burnout 3, Fable, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and World of Warcraft make their premiers, Ninja Gaiden still carved out a space all its own.

Itagaki, on the other hand, saw room for improvement.

Downloadable Hurricane Packs added new enemies, missions, weapons and combat techniques, all of which and more were combined for Itagaki's 2005 "director's cut," Ninja Gaiden Black. Itagaki even grudgingly added an easier -- but not easy -- Ninja Dog difficulty level, but at the cost of once-respectful Ayane giving you some lip. While many fans have said that Black is the "perfect version," the junior team at Team Ninja re-mastered the game once again to produce Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PlayStation 3 in 2007 (allowing Itagaki and his senior team to work on the upcoming Ninja Gaiden II). Rachel went playable for a few new chapters, and while it looked better and felt as relentless as ever, some felt Tecmo had cranked the same meat-grinder once too often.

That assessment didn't bother Itagaki. If he was recycling old content, it still bought him time to do the real sequels he wanted, on the platforms he most wanted to exploit.

There Will Be Blood
Things are about to get seriously ninja on us all over again.

As far back as 2004, Itagaki swore he'd develop games for the Nintendo DS, and now he's making good on his word. This March brings Ryu back to the company that made him famous in Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword, Team Ninja's first portable effort. Ryu gets a playable disciple named Momiji, whose abduction kicks off 3D Ryu's latest rampage through a pre-rendered 2D landscape (boss battles will go full 3D). Taking full advantage of the DS touch-screen capabilities, Itagaki has made movement, jumps, and attacks all stylus-based. Even ninpo is activated by tracing split-second Sanskrit-like characters. All that speed and ferocity will be a big change from normal DS fare, and thus far, Team Ninja is keeping the frame rate impressively high, as tradition dictates.

Later in the year, Ninja Gaiden II brings the head-chopping fun home to the Xbox 360, not to be published by Tecmo, but Microsoft. Background development started back in 2005, even before Dead or Alive 4 shipped, and while Dragon Sword brings innovative gameplay to both the franchise and the DS, Ninja Gaiden II will change the way Ninja Gaiden is played.

Where the earlier game often put Ryu on defense, waiting for an opening to start the dismemberments, this time out he'll start on the offensive and stay on the offensive. That bodes especially well taken together with impressive early looks at the new scythe and dragon claw weapons, which have equally sharp counterparts on Ryu's boots. The menu system, regarded as a notable flaw in the Xbox Gaidens, has also been swapped out for a streamlined in-game selection menu that doesn't break the pacing.

Perhaps more disappointing, Ryu's health will self-regenerate to certain (and shifting) degrees; shutting down the need to constantly search out and use potions. The move has the core faithful worried Itagaki's going to take easy on them. Just as likely, it means he has far more ways to hurt Ryu than ever before.

Itagaki and Team Ninja aren't passing out story details, but given that it's Ninja Gaiden, odds are someone very, very stupid has wronged Ryu. While the last outing let them mash together vastly different architectural styles to create the fictional Vigoor, this one puts them in more real-world locales. A Venice-like level has already been seen, and it's confirmed we'll see "Ninja In USA" once again when Ryu shows up to cull the New York nightlife. The city that never sleeps will be lucky if it's still breathing by the time he leaves. Not for nothing has Itagaki tagged Ninja Gaiden II's official genre as "Violence Action," and tweaked health issues aside, the sequel is shaping up to be as mean and intense as its lineage suggests.

As it should. That's their appeal. A bucket of blood and the raw, insane challenge are what makes Ryu Hayabusa's exploits so very rewarding when the impossible odds are finally overcome and entire armies of darkness are laid to waste. Ever since "Ninja in USA!" first flashed up on an arcade screen twenty years ago, the words "Ninja Gaiden" have always promised hardcore gamers a hardcore experience, and slim hopes at a victory that feels worthy of the effort.
Ryu Hayabusa knows how to keep a promise.

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