Tomonobu Itagaki has been away for a long time. After finishing Ninja Gaiden II for Xbox 360 back in 2008, the man behind some of gaming's most flamboyant creations broke from his team at Tecmo to go independent. He founded Valhalla Studios in 2008 and announced Devil's Third in 2010. Shifting from the martial arts pyrotechnics of Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive, Devil's Third would be a third-person shooter of all things. After delays, disappearances, and the death of its publisher THQ, Third re-appeared at E3 2014 under an unlikely banner: the Nintendo Wii U.
"We developed the game up to an early playable version at THQ but then there was the unfortunate end of that company," Itagaki said via a translator. "Then, when we went looking for partners and found Nintendo who really supported my vision. I'm not really sure if it would have been possible ten years ago to be honest, but I've had a long relationship with Nintendo going back to the Nintendo and Super Nintendo. Once I went independent, I definitely went over to Nintendo to say hello."
It's been a long time since he went independent, though. Just like his games, Itagaki was alternately stoic and funny discussing how his development process has changed as he faced myriad challenges to get his game made.
"I like to think of myself as a warrior," said Itagaki.
"There will always be accidents on the battlefield. You have to find ways through those and adapt. The world has been through financial crises in the past few years yet we've all found ways to continue on. One thing that's different from my previous company is my relationship to the people I'm working with. Previously I wasn't necessarily responsible for hiring and taking care of everyone, but my position is different now and I feel a lot of responsibility for my team."
Itagaki's always had a penchant for physical games. Dead of Alive and Gaiden's combat was bombastic but always precise. Devil's Third may have that same spirit, but in a quick video demonstration it comes off as staid. At least at first. Taking place in an alternate United States where all electronics and satellites have been destroyed, Third sees the country embroiled in a civil war with militias vying to control vast swaths of territory. "I'm not one to go looking for fights in back alleys," said Itagaki, explaining why he chose to enter gaming's most crowded market. "I prefer to find them in a big avenue. That's why I tried to pick the most major genre I could think of, the modern shooter. That's what led me to make Devil's Third."
Even with Gaiden style sword fighting and melee combat added in, it looked more like SOCOM than something from the man that made Xtreme Beach Volleyball. Then smack in the middle, I catch sight of a soldier loading giant watermelons onto another soldiers back for seemingly no reason. Then a soldier jumps off a building following a conga line of rainbow-colored chickens. Then giant military propaganda posters with half-naked women pop up on screen. The Itagaki game is revealed.
"When people play this game I want them to think, 'What does it mean to live?' I want them to think about life itself. What does it mean to be alive? What does someone believe in a world like this? We're all citizens in a very fragile world order, as if it's made of a glass, that can shatter at any moment."
Whatever Devil's Third turns out to be in its final form, it's good to have the man back making games as only he can.