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Joystiq interviews Team Ninja's Tomonobu Itagaki


It's not too long into our interview with Tomonobu Itagaki before he issues us with an impromptu challenge. "If there's a game out there that is more beautiful, more interactive, faster and has better action than this game, please let me know." The Team Ninja boss has a train of thought that truly exemplifies the bluntest characteristics of that phrase. It's an unstoppable machine barreling down a track without diversion and without apologies -- because it's a train.

We conducted (oh dear) an interview with the outspoken developer at the Team Ninja offices shortly after the Tokyo Game Show, focusing on the aforementioned title, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. After the break, you'll find Itagaki's concise thoughts on Dragon Sequels, dual-screen slashing, how the competition stacks up and why multiplayer Ninja Gaiden might just piss you off.

The DS is known for being a casual system and Ninja Gaiden strikes me as a very hardcore series of games. How do you reconcile those two reputations?

Yes, the title is Ninja Gaiden and of course, it belongs to that franchise, but I don't consider this installment to be hardcore as much as games in the past. In fact, we want to really tailor it for the audience that's going to be playing it on the DS. The other thing I want to make clear to hardcore gamers of the world is that little kids tend to be a lot more open towards challenging games than people think, and they'll continue to play until they get better. I don't think they have anything to worry about with this title.

Related to that point, Team Ninja has a reputation for targeting powerful technology for its games. The DS is technically considered a weaker piece of hardware, so it seems like a departure for you. What sort of technical challenges were involved with switching that mindset from developing high-end, well presented titles to something on a smaller scale?

I've been at this a long time, and I remember the days of working on the Super Nintendo. Working on the DS, we can go in and look at it from a different approach than we would for a high-end console, using techniques that are both new and hearken back to the days of older game systems.

Does it run at 60 frames per second? It seems like it does.


That's certainly not a common feature in portable games -- or even new-gen games, come to think of it.

There are a lot of games out there that call themselves "action games," but they don't necessarily put a premium on making the action look its best. People are almost hysterical about finding out what resolution a game runs at. "Oh, if it's not 1080p then it's not true next-gen." That's because they're breaking down the individual parts of the game and what's shown on the screen into those kind of numerical values, making sure it's 1080p or whatever. But people don't seem to mind as much breaking down time into numerical values. We're making a game where the screen is refreshed 60 times a second. We feel it's much more important than the numerical value of the screen resolution.

How does the development cycle compare between developing a DS game and a console game? Is it more compact?

The size of the team is completely different, but time wise it takes about the same amount of time.

Dragon Sword's less demanding controls and lower difficulty are things I wouldn't necessarily associate or expect from Ninja Gaiden. Clearly, Hayabusa is a central figure, but across different platforms and titles, what elements are required in a game before you can call it "Ninja Gaiden?"

That's a good question. The Ninja Gaiden franchise represents the best action game that can run on that piece of hardware. Since this is the best action game running on the DS, it's worthy of the Ninja Gaiden name.

If I imagine a stylus-based action game, I always picture people just scratching their screens wildly. What's to stop gamers from playing like that? How do you strike a balance between being simple and intuitive, but also being precise and having the game recognize specific inputs?

You're right, most people when they start the game, they just kind of scratch about wildly on the screen. The key is that showing the player that each time you scratch, you're having an effect on what the character is doing. I've shown this game to a lot of people, and within 2 or 3 minutes, everyone realizes the connection between what they do with the stylus and what the character does, and then they learn to defeat the enemies.

Was there ever any consideration of a control option that didn't use the touch screen and relied on the face buttons?

No, not at all.

There are a lot of DS games that come out that don't use the touch screen at all. Why do you think developers don't use one of the primary features available to them?

Well, they're free to do what they want. I'm very accepting.

Is there any possibility of a multiplayer mode in Dragon Sword? Was that ever considered?

Yes, every time we make a new Ninja Gaiden game, I think about the possibilities of multiplayer content. But when you really come down to it, Ninja Gaiden is a solitary game. You have a solitary ninja going around killing enemies -- it's really more geared to a single player. I mean, let's say you're playing the game and some other guy comes, he could even be an NPC and not necessarily a player controlled character, and they start fighting so much better than you. Wouldn't that piss you off?

I suppose it might.

Or, let's say you're playing and an NPC comes on screen and you're playing really well, but they're just really lousy and holding you back. You'd feel like you'd want to kill that NPC.

In that case, what about a competitive mode, or a versus mode?

I think that's a good idea, but that's a seperate game in and of itself.

I noticed that the character portraits and the art style seemed a little more comic-like compared to how Ryu is presented in the console games. Is the change in art meant to appeal to a wider audience?

It's my job to exploit the strengths of all the people on our team, so while we were developing the game I noticed all this great artwork coming from them. I thought it would be really good to feature in the game.

But would it be more beneficial to the acceptance of the game? For instance, the Castlevania DS games share a much lighter, more cartoonish art style compared to the gothic art styles used for the games on other platforms. They consider it to be more appealing.

Sorry, I haven't seen the Castlevania games that you're referring to, but I've heard they're pretty popular in the US.

What other DS games have you played? You say you've got the best action game on the DS, but you haven't played Castlevania? Granted, that's not a strict action game per se, but what other titles have you tried?

No, I haven't played other games, really.

You haven't played the competition yet...

Yeah, I don't really care.

Dragon Sword is going to be better, no matter what?

Yeah, of course. Who knows? If there's a game out there that is more beautiful, more interactive, faster and has better action than this game, please let me know.

But for now, there's nothing that's very interesting on the DS for you?

It's not that I don't have an interest, it's just the competitors I don't care about. I've been playing some DS games, like Chibi Robo. It's really good.

Casual games are extremely successful on the DS, and it's spurring a lot of developers and publishers on to make games like Brain Age and whatnot. I'm curious, do you ever see Team Ninja making a game like that?

I think it's best that people who are good at those kinds of games continue to make them. We're action fanatics, so for us to not make an action game is just a waste of everybody's time.

The DS is also very popular because it uses alternate input methods. Are those really intriguing for the action genre specifically? Does it make you want to move away from traditional controls once you get into them?

I think the interface is really attractive, and I believe that we are producing one of the best implementations of this interface and really utilizing the capabilities of that particular hardware, which is one of the hallmarks of a good action game. So, to rephrase my request from earlier -- if you know a game that is more beautiful, faster, more interactive, more fun and uses the hardware interface better than this game, please let me know. See, I'm so accepting.

Do Wii controls interest you? Is a Wii project something you'd consider?

Yes, I'm interested in the Wii, but I can only make one or two games at a time and I think all my fans know that by now. I don't want to start saying things here and then later on have the fans tell me, "No! Focus on what you were working on, don't try and broaden out things yet." Recently, my fans apparently don't want me to bring out my games on time. [laughs] If I say things like this, people will get upset, so I'll just leave it at that for now.

That's probably a smart decision.

Yes. Everyone should be more accepting like me. [laughs]

I noticed the magic in Dragon Sword has more uses besides attacking enemies. You use it to overcome obstacles now -- is that going to be a recurring task throughout the game?

For me, it's really about creating a battle engine and making sure that you have the great input system and that the animations and movements of the character reflect your input, that you're getting a great amount of feedback from the screen and that the action is satisfying and speedy. These are really the things I'm focusing on the most, and I leave the details to the other members of the team to work out. Of course, if it's just action action action and only action, it can get a little bit tiring, so we need a little change of pace here and there to mix things up. The Ninpo is one such idea.

Is there any consideration of bringing other Team Ninja franchises to the DS now that you've had the experience of working on it?

First of all, I think that if a lot of people end up playing and buying this game, I'll definitely consider continuing the Dragon Sword franchise on the DS. As for other existing franchises, I haven't really thought about that yet.

The DS is becoming this huge, unstoppable console all over the world and the PSP is doing pretty well too. That must weigh heavily on the Japanese developer's decision to choose between consoles. The Xbox 360 doesn't do well in Japan, the PS3 has a comparatively small install base and third parties don't do well on the Wii. So it's tough to choose a platform there... is a system like the DS a "win-win" situation?

I would disagree that a DS title is "win-win." We're making Dragon Sword because we want to, not because the DS is popular and selling well. To your comment that it's difficult to develop on consoles now because of the problems on each platform, you have to remember that most people developing for consoles are just ordinary guys. Do you think an ordinary guy is going to be able to succeed automatically when he makes a game?

It's a balance in the market like anything else. You've got good games and bad games, and people buy the good ones and don't buy the ones that are bad, so nothing's guaranteed. There is no guaranteed seller. It's just up to us to make the best game we can and have people buy that and play that game.

Do you see the Ninja Gaiden brand becoming more of a bankable and recognized phenomenon?

I'm not nearly as concerned with the brand value of the name as when I say that the Ninja Gaiden franchise signifies the best action game for that platform, it's my duty to fulfill that statement so that I'm not lying to people. That's much more important to me than building the name of a franchise.

You've gotten Ninja Gaiden on the DS now -- while developing it, was there anything you wanted to change about the DS? Anything that got in the way of making the game you envisioned?

I did think that if you could interact with the stylus on both screens, then it would truly be a piece of hardware that would have no fault whatsoever. I did talk to Nintendo and tell them my thoughts, and there were a lot of difficulties why they couldn't do it this time around. Hopefully, sometime in the future we'll see something like that.

It should be noted that my mom loves the DS. Do you think Ninja Gaiden is going to be something she'll want to play? Do you think moms and grandmothers who bought the DS are going to be interested in Ninja Gaiden?

I don't know... one thing I can say is that usually my games are for males. So, if we're talking about females and older people, even for me that's something I can't really calculate. [laughs] Give it a try and let me know, see how she reacts!

[Translation provided by Andrew Szymanski.]

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