Last night, I beat Ninja Gaiden 3. I wanted to check it out, as it's the first in the series helmed from the start by Yosuke Hayashi, Tomonobu Itagaki's successor at Team Ninja, whom I've always found interesting.
But I really got curious when IGN, the first consumer site to publish a review, gave it 3 out of 10 (which is "awful," per the site). Could it really be that bad -- fundamentally flawed?
More bad reviews followed that first score. But it isn't bad. It's a decent game -- I feel entirely comfortable saying that. The point of this article, however, isn't to rebut the critical mass.
The truth of the matter is that the game industry is continuing its rapid evolution -- and as developers chase new trends, they're in danger of being abandoned by once-loyal audiences. Why did Team Ninja go wrong, despite Hayashi's obvious conviction the game was heading in the right direction?
You Didn't Really Want It
One thing that's interesting to me about the failure of Ninja Gaiden 3 to meet the expectations of the hardcore press and fans is that, as best as I can tell, Team Ninja tried to do exactly what we've been accusing Japanese developers of being incapable of doing.
The game takes a lot of cues from Western games. Some of them are superficial and silly, like the addition of Modern Warfare 2-style hand-over-hand wall-climbing. Some are great: a Dead Space-style "find the right way to go" quick-look system on the right stick. And, of course, the game has a "thrill-a-minute" Disneyland action movie-style structure that's obviously influenced by the Call of Duty series.
The thing that's nice about the game is that these things do not feel forced (as Western ideas shoved into a Japanese game can) and they don't feel chintzy, either. The game is put together well, looks good, and is just as responsive as previous series installments. Most importantly, it still feels like a Japanese game, at its core, in the good ways, with great animation, control, and meaty melee combat.
What is a Series?
So, yes -- the team thought hard about what mainstream Western audiences like and want before jumping into production on Ninja Gaiden 3. That was their major mistake, ironically.
What brought the series into the limelight eight years ago upon the release of the original installment was that its developers single-mindedly pursued one goal: creating the ultimate action/adventure challenge. It forced players to improve at the game to proceed, and to really learn the gameplay systems. This created a sense of mastery that made the game compelling and gave it weight that its contemporaries lacked, and more than made up for its obvious deficiencies.
The team, this time, instead of honing the formula, sought to inject it with new ideas that would bring it into the present day, and pitch it at the mainstream. These work okay, against all odds -- probably because they really do like and play Western games. And maybe Team Ninja really did succeed in making a Ninja Gaiden that Call of Duty fans will like better. But will those fans ever find it? Can they possibly care?
Team Ninja studied and learned from Western games. The right lesson from this isn't another installment of the "Japanese developers just don't get it" metastory that is the current generation. This isn't a repeat of Tecmo's earlier Western-flavored failure, Quantum Theory, a tragicomic attempt to clone Gears of War. This is a more prosaic story of developers forgetting their audience, losing sight of their game.
It's about developers forgetting what got them where they are.
How it Should Be Done
So what should Team Ninja have done? Beyond looking at the previous two games in the series for the obvious clues, the answer is found in Dark Souls, of course. Hidetaka Miyazaki's team at From Software did everything right with that sequel: it built upon all of the best ideas in Demon's Souls. It shows both careful restraint and boundless vision.
While the Dark Souls team clearly observed the West for clues as to what direction the game might take -- might need to take -- there was no aping of trends to try and appeal to a wider audience (which the game still managed to do, by the way). It's a creative success of the purest kind: it's true to itself, and acclaimed because of that -- like Ninja Gaiden once was.
Where Hayashi's Team Ninja really erred in judgment was, in the end, putting emphasis on injecting the game with new stylistic flourishes -- whatever the source -- instead of working tirelessly to perfect the core of the Ninja Gaiden experience.
What Matters More
It's funny. In September, when I spoke to him, Hayashi said that Team Ninja's focus was "just making good action games that people like," and that an emphasis on appealing to Western players wasn't in the cards. "But the more of these external influences and external needs that you have, the vision, the core of the game, sort of gets blurred," he told me.
That means that this is the creative direction he wanted to take -- which is, as we all know, not unusual. So many developers truly do want their games to be just like the bigger, more expensive, and more popular ones, because those are the games they love to play.
The problem is that nobody is punching at that weight but a very few developers, and the corners that were cut to make Ninja Gaiden 3 happen are really obvious to the average person who might sit down to play it (the game is short and linear, with small, modular levels, and is full of repetitive enemy encounters), as well as long-time fans of the series (it's got too few weapons and doesn't add any meaningful gameplay features to the franchise).
If the core of what Ninja Gaiden has been up to now was going to be sidelined, it should have been sidelined to pursue another, just as weighty goal as the original game's focus on destroying its competition and challenging its players. Instead, the team ensured Ninja Gaiden 3 would never be what it could be by pushing it to be what it simply can't be -- and that is where things went wrong.
That said, the game is not a failure because of this. This is worth pointing out. It still works. It's fun to play, and still has the moments of flow and fiero that its developers clearly strove to inject it with. Out of pique, I broke out Ninja Gaiden II while writing this piece and, to be honest, the team made some changes I like to the third game.
The game doesn't, frankly, deserve a 3. That score is an insult to the developers. That score is a symptom.
It's a symptom of what's happening all over the industry right now. Mid-tier console games' days are numbered. More studios will close; more publishers will fail, or downsize, or increase their mobile and social development budgets while paring back to a handful of key, proven franchises.
That score may well be a glimpse into the future.
It seems plausible that Ninja Gaiden 3 is getting 3s because soon there will be Uncharted, Draw Something, and Fez -- and nothing else. There will not be room for Ninja Gaiden anymore, because it will no longer be profitable, and it will not scale neither up nor down.
I have lots of clear and pleasant memories of the first Ninja Gaiden, eight years on. I can already tell you that I will not have the same sorts of memories of its second sequel.
It really is a pale shadow, the more I reflect, and one tossed on the winds of fashion and trend. In this case, the storm that pummeled Team Ninja was formed when the low pressure area of the staggering Japanese industry smashed into the high pressure area of the Western race to be so-called "triple-A" or die.
Hayashi seemed confident when I spoke to him last September -- confident and optimistic. I can't guess what he's thinking or feeling right now as his game, which he put a ton of effort and thought into, is being crushed by the Western press. I don't doubt he'll bounce back. But the question remains, for all developers who are facing similar fates: what next?