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How  Ninja Gaiden 3  failed: losing the battle of expectations
How Ninja Gaiden 3 failed: losing the battle of expectations Exclusive
April 4, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

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.

Chasing Shadows

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?

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Harlan Sumgui
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lets see...silly overwrought story with unstoppable cinematic cut scenes, check...banal, repetitive gameplay, challenge for the player, marketing budget to speak of in the west to buy ad space on game review sites, check. Of course it was going to get bad reviews.

Many game developers have forgotten what makes a game a game, and why people play them.

Putting together a project that offers no challenge, no refined gameplay mechanics, and a complete lack of engagment (interactivity) is bound to disappoint no matter how creative the decapitation animations or the 'epicness' of the cut scenes.

bad gameplay = bad game.

Dedan Anderson
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no challenge??? did you even play the game?

Christian Nutt
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The cutscenes are skippable, too.

Dedan Anderson
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and there are no decapitations.

Michael Bilodeau
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Not to defend the 3rd sequel because I haven't played it. But the original Ninja Gaiden on the console wasn't amazing, in fact it was really unbalanced towards the middle. And led to me NOT buying the sequel. I'm all for challenging games, but punishing games consistently is ridiculous and people who enjoy them have a masochistic side to them that they should investigate in therapy. Sorry that's just not fun. Maybe I'm in the minority. Anyways...YES all the old school games when we were little were extremely punishing. But that didn't make them good, it force you to play it consistently and as an adult we neither have the time or patience for a game that you are beaten over the head with just to gain little ground. Again I'm not defending what the new Ninja Gaiden did or attempted to do. But they did it trying to recapture what they were losing, which was new and lost fans by adding more variety, but did it in an unfocused and unrefined way. It didn't evolve in a natural and fun way, so it failed as a sequel and Ninja Gaiden the original though was a fun experience did need to work on progression and more interesting interactive experiences (NOT QTE's). Again this is just my opinion, but I did play the original and the next gen versions (minus the latest).

Kevin Lozandier
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Michael Bilodeau, I think you're making a 'just because it happens, doesn't mean it ought to happen' argument. The reason I say that is Ninja Gaiden 1 was far more balanced than any action game of its generation. When you failed, you had what many reviewers, players, and surveyors of the series felt, was a clear reason why. Like how Dark Souls and Demon Soul's have been praised, it had diffulty that seemed punishing if you attempted to play the game 'generically' rather than within the constraints and confines of the game.

Prior to Ninja Gaiden 1, action games in that generation, especially on Xbox, did not have as robust moves (and thus options) to obliterate enemies as wide varied as you could in Ninja Gaiden 3. Even today, very few action games have had combat options almost as robust as a fighting game, but provided reasonable and sound ways of executing them to suceed in the game, rather than having them for the sake of having them.Other Action Games had 'cheap' thrills to make combat difficult, but in Ninja Gaiden, if you followed the systems of the game, and surveyed the patterns your enemies had well, you FELT like a bad ass and had spectacles that went on during combat that further reinforced that. THAT's what made Ninja Gaiden for current generation players.

Ironically Ninja Gaiden 2, felt unpolished of achieving that sort of feeling. From the truly frustrating rocket-ninja moments and more, it felt Ninja Gaiden 2 ironically was trying to be more difficult and more flashy without making contextual moments to use them and instead had things for the sake of having them, something that Ninja Gaiden 1 did not have problems with (which it was praised and well received for).

More importantly in Ninja Gaiden 2 & 3, You left a bloody mess whereever you went, but you didn't feel skilled doing it and did not have to execute strategy or makee good use of the move set available to stand victorious.

With Ninja Gaiden 3, the combat is just dreadful. From removing the Flying Swallow, with an even further lack of need to utilize the moveset you have available; and QTEs that feel forced rather than having any true need to be there, it's almost tragic the same team that was behind Ninja Gaiden 1 created this abysmal combat system. Not even mentioning how the story is as nonsensical than with any other Ninja Gaiden game, I think overall Ninja Gaiden series progress will be a case study of not listening to fans and not taking in more consideration their inputs while still attempting to make games for them to consume and have fun with, which is doomed for failure.

Dedan Anderson
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the fact that IGN scored NG3 lower than Kinect Star Wars caused me to lose what little trust i had left in professional reviewers...

maybe the true problem doesn't lie in the creators...

Daniel Martinez
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I may be going out on a limb here, but it is slowly beginning to seem as if a good chunk of Western consumers (and critics alike) exhibit microagressions towards the once-hallowed Japan. I dunno, perhaps I need to reflect on this idea more. Just a thought.

Michael Bilodeau
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Is it me or are reviewers trying to be more "Shocking" with their title of their stories and more bashing of games? I mean I know reviewers are bored with anything if it's similar to any other of the millions of games they need to play. Which btw. is why their opinion is really, really skewed. But it seems they'll give high praise to ANYTHING that's remotely different, and if you make something in vein of another popular title, they'll bash it immediately just on premise. REVIEWERS: Take a hint, try a different genre of game, or take a break and give someone else less jaded a chance to write an article. Or hell at minimum take a consensus among a variety of consumers and see what they think. I'm not angry, just seems like either reviewers are extra harsh if a game isn't completely original, or tote the game as the second coming if it's a franchise they love or is very "different".

Kevin Lozandier
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No offense, but if you compare Ninja Gaiden 3 to previous Ninja Gaidens, it's even certain that the same sites that reviewed previous games would not rate this game higher than either past game. Any reviewer who played previous games of the series would not rate this higher than previous games.

Even those who did not play previous games of the series felt this game was abysmal ('s Reviewer) and when they played previous games felt it was better. Can it just be that this sequel is not that good?

The core aspect of the game that fans overwhelmingly liked, the combat is significantly worse. Common criticisms of the series have been the story and lack of platforming. That was worse. If that wasn't enough the former was focused on for this game to be a drastic improvement. It can be argued that the story is even in a worser state despite the more money invested in it this time than previous games.I don't think you have a strong argument that reviewers are flawed for rating this game so low. However, any disdain you have with a certain reviewer, is an argument that's attempts to stray away from the main point of this article: This game is undoubtedly the worst Ninja Gaiden ever, ignoring what arbitary number it got from certain reviewers. There are many reasons, which the article writer points out well in my opinion.

Kyle Redd
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I don't disagree at all with those who argue that game critics have progressed from having minimal integrity and standards to having absolutely zero of either, but maybe an easy solution in Ninja Gaiden 3's case would've been simply to not call it "Ninja Gaiden 3"?

If you've made games 1 and 2 of a series that contain elements that players and critics express enormous praise for only to remove or simplify them in number 3, you're setting yourself up to be disparaged for holding the simplistic belief that sequels always sell better.

Since they had already changed the lead designer, they might have saved themselves some trouble by treating it as a spinoff, calling it "Ninja Gaiden: Generic Subtitle," or even just start a new franchise and make it clear at the outset that it's targeted at less hardcore gamers. I'm not familiar with the series but I don't believe it's known for having a particularly original story, so I assume it wouldn't have been too drastic a step to take.

Dedan Anderson
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reading the article i thought the same thing... but is that also selling critics short, should the name of a work really affect the analysis??? I mean it's obvious it does but i would think it shouldn't... Should we demand critics to take their job (and their ability to influence) a bit more seriously? I know bonuses can be based on critical reception shouldn't we expect (or demand) a certain maturity from them?

But hypotheticals aside the smartest thing or the most clairvoyant thing (remember the game was actually received pretty well in Japan 36/40 famitsu score) for tecmo to do would be to rename the game. Perhaps Ninja Gaiden Gaiden would have worked lol...

Kevin Lozandier
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No. Different reviewers scoring different games will come up with different scores that don't necessarily paint a picture that one game is in fact 1 point better than another. Reviews are more meant for you to read what the game has to offer, whether it is a game worth buying and playing if you're interested in that genre or the premise of the game; and details about the game compared to expectations.

Then with a scoring system, a PARTICULAR reviewer tells you how good he believes the game is overall with explanations throughout this review. It is recommended to go to multiple sites or use sites like MetaCritic if you're attempting to gauge if a game is good or not solely through a score.

Ninja Gaiden 3 is Horrible in the sense it plainly leaves little incentive for returning players of the franchise to be further hooked NOR does it fare well for newcomers. That's a arrangement of a bad sequel (or one that won't be as successful or good as you expected others to enjoy). Period.

An Action Game, must have good action; it doesn't necessarily have to be the same as it was before unless it was genre-leading.

Even ignoring the fact that it arguably was, the new additions to the action fail to add to the game in a way that either audience I named above would appreciate or like it its executed.

It can be argued, the older combat systems even thumps this new game, which the reviewers of the game hints at (NE1 combat execution is absolutely better in my opinion).

Patrick Davis
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It's been said a few times now. The game would have been fine if they had made it a new IP or played it as a spin off of Ninja Gaiden with a different lead hero. Oh, and maybe if they hadn't removed all of the weapons you gained in the previous games to sell back to you as DLC.

Jeremie Sinic
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Let's not be so desperate about the state of our industry. I think it's all about cycles.
I don't see games getting more simplified and easy forever. And hardcore gamers are not disappearing, they are just getting comparatively more niche as the overall gamers' demographic stretches.
But hardcore and generally dedicated gamers are by definition more dedicated to gaming, and they are the people who are ready to support Kickstarter projects (see Wastelands 2) and that kind of supposedly niche games.
I can totally imagine a (real) Ninja Gaiden game finding much success through crowdfunding in a near future.

Kevin Lozandier
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Ninja Gaiden 3 failed because it didn't do due diligence of analyzing what fans expected from a game that's part of the 'Ninja Gaiden' series, how to manage such expectations with new additions. That or they flat out did not listen to their fanbase and current action game fanatics. That's a kiss of death if you're making a game meant to be fun by others who love a specific type of game you hope for them to play.

Rob B
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'That said, the game is not a failure because of this.'
How is it not a failure because of what is essentially the fundamental collapse of its core appeal?

Ninja Gaiden games have pretty awful stories, really cliché characters and didnt particularly push the limits in sound or visuals. The games had no strong redeeming factors except the massively polished combat system, its entire draw, the core of all it is was in that perfected combat. Ninja Gaiden 3 turned it in to a button masher...

No set of weapons to choose carefully from and master, your ninpo doesnt have to be used with any care, no choosing your upgrades and utilising the new strengths of your arsenal, no real timing to perfect. I could go on but in short they gutted the combat system and that leaves nothing else.

Is it still fun? Mildly. Is IGNs 3 justified? Hard to say. The game is probably deserving of more in its own right but the line of games was specifically targeted at a certain audience. I love a bit of button mashing slaughter and sillyness, I _do not_ buy a Ninja Gaiden game for that. I also couldnt care less if the developers are insulted, they took a line of games known for one shining pristine feature and tore it apart then sold it under the same name.

If you build expectations in a line of games then utterly defy them then you are either incompetent or using the reputation for a money grab. Either way the criticism is well earned.

Andrew Tilot
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The score of 3 is not justifiable. It takes alot of depth away from the sword and it puts back into an engaging cinematic experience. I am not saying this is for the best, but some elements including the music and fx, animations, and core fighting system are all there. The game should have played of the ninpo attacks allowing multiple moves for engaging finish cinematics. The story would be strengthened by the fact that ninpo would level up, and not the player leaving the linear path in tact. This game was definitely aimed at the core audience and i believe that just enough players wont see this game to understand its value. Show Team Ninja some respect and raise the damn score. At least a solid 6.5/10, this game is underrated.

Kevin Lozandier
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This game is not underrated for the reasons many here have stated over and over again: Ninja Gaiden 3 took a big risk removing features and elements that previous owners of the series felt was the 'essence' of Ninja Gaiden to better appeal to a 'core' audience.

The game fails to appeal to such 'core' audience and already risking alienating the previous audience of the games that it would be something they can still accept and be happy with, it failed there too.

The game thus is a poorly executed game. The fact alone the execution of the game makes you think a LOT to think this is even a OK game from the sum of scores that's out there compared to previous games warrants this game being labeled a failure.

There's no debate that this is the worst Ninja Gaiden game ever made.

Blackjack Goren
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Oh, lord.

@ Harlan Sumgui, and Others Who Think Ninja Gaiden 3 Is Easy

The game is quite challenging in the hard difficulty setting, which can be accessed at the start of the game. Strategy is required on harder enemies, and this increases exponentially in Ultimate Ninja difficulty, which I'm currently enjoying. All wrongful claims about the game's lack of challenge are a little unsettling to me, as I expect reviewers to give a game a deeper look before jumping to misinformed conclusions; conclusions which are passed down to their readers carelessly. For those that were playing the game, and were feeling unchallenged, there was no reason not to restart a new game with a harder difficulty setting. There is no reason not to do this, especially if you're reviewing a game and need to explore all of its options.

@ Kevin Lozandier

Kevin, the Flying Swallow technique is still in the game, and can be pulled off the same way (jumping forward + hard attack) as in previous games. The move is actually less effective as more enemies can block it now, leaving Hayabusa vulnerable to a counterattack, but it's still strong against weak enemies.

@Michael Bilodeau

Many share your views, so I'll make no attempts to persuade you to my way of thinking. However, hard games like Ninja Gaiden and Dark Souls require a level of commitment from the player akin to playing arcade games. Some of us grew up in arcades, and we had to focus and make the best of one quarter. This led to players replaying games from the beginning before they could ever progress, as sometimes they could not put more quarters to continue after failing, which (intentionally or not) led to players developing the skills to beat the game in one go (1 quater = 1 credit = 1cc); in other words, it led players to master the game, which is an extremely satisfying feeling that not everyone has felt playing games (as games worth mastering take time and patience to master, and not everyone has the time or desire to do it). This satisfaction, which some like you may label as masochism, is offered in some of today's action games, although with far less frequency. Easier games, no matter how well made they are, cannot arouse this type of satisfaction from players. Therefore, there is a place for really hard games that require the player to die a lot before their skills prove they can move onward (not to mention the satisfaction of seeing a new level as a reward for improving in the game).

@dario silva

While I appreciate if someone reviewing the current Ninja Gaiden games has also played the originals on the arcade and NES, the bottom line is that the 2D action platformers provide no critical insight on a 3D melee-action game. It's much more useful for reviewers to compare Ninja Gaiden 3 with other 3D melee-action games, like the previous two NG games, God of War, Devil May Cry, God Hand, and Bayonetta. The mechanics and experience are different enough where a comparison is useless.

I'd also like to make a general point that, despite many complaints about the removal of items, weapon upgrades, ninpo changes or simpler level design, nobody has really explained why these are a such a bad thing (outside of "it was there before, I'm familiar with it, and now it's gone."). In fact, the real issues of the game, which apparently went over people's heads as they played the game in Normal, is the AI. Harder difficulty settings will ramp up the frequency by which the enemies' strongest attacks are done (e.g. grabs). The game is certainly cheap, with some situations relying on luck more than skill. The game also has inexcusable slowdown that screws up player input, which is a major issue when playing in harder difficulty settings.

The bottom prompts, by the way, aren't QTEs. In fact, the game slows down to let the player know he needs to press the right button to progress (i.e. not QUICKLY). Pressing the wrong button does nothing, and these prompts are actually reused throughout the game, so the player will eventually learn to use them instinctively based on the situation, not need the button prompts, and thus make these unique actions seem as natural to the experience as the combat. Good work on Team Ninja for that, despite some interface and communication issues (i.e. Not showing the player a new prompt when it first appears in the game if the player has chosen to turn off prompts).

I just wish more men and women that get paid to review games take their jobs responsibly, and accurate review a game before sharing his or her thoughts with their readership. Had I followed IGN's review, or merely looked at the Metacritic score, I would have missed out on a rewarding, challenging, if at times frustratingly flawed, action game. Please, if you're a game reviewer, be mindful of what you write.