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Serving 'damn good sushi' is the Japanese developer's path, says Team Ninja
Serving 'damn good sushi' is the Japanese developer's path, says Team Ninja Exclusive
June 20, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

With the development of Ninja Gaiden III, Team Ninja faced a lot of challenges -- modernizing the franchise, pushing it forward without creator Tomonobu Itagaki, and trying to make it fit in with the current generation of games, one in which Japanese games have often been a poor fit.

The team chose to try and Westernize the series' aesthetics and gameplay, with disastrous results. The game was widely panned by critics as losing the soul Ninja Gaiden -- arguably Tecmo Koei's most important franchise in the West. The team lost the battle of expectations, despite delivering a solid game.

What happened?

"It seems like we made a Japanese hamburger for the West," says Team Ninja head Yosuke Hayashi, who spoke to Gamasutra at E3.

When the game was released and reviewed, he was forced to face the fact, however, that "maybe as a Japanese developer, we need to make good Japanese food... and thatís what people are wanting from a Japanese developer."

Unfortunately, he says, "the state the Japanese industry is in right now" means that developers are "doing everything they can just to basically stay above water." This has lead to attempts to pander to Western tastes at the expense of what they do best, but Hayashi is optimistic that everyone giving their all to try and solve problems will result in "answers for how to move forward, and how to make things work in the future."

For his part, Hayashi has decided to retrench on his team's strengths, because that's what players want, and he's well aware what his team is actually capable of. "We really felt that we need to emphasize our strengths as a developer and push those further, moving forward," he says.

"The biggest thing for us, when you come here to LA, thereís always going to be Japanese food. Thereís always going to be Japanese restaurants. And thatís us."

At E3, Japanese games were even less prevalent in the press conferences than they had been in recent years -- and Hayashi took notice. "Maybe if the industry is going for that Hollywood blockbuster direction, we can offer something that's different," says Hayashi. "Itís not like everybody wants to see Transformers every day."

"I like Assassinís Creed, but thatís not the only game I want to play. We canít compete directly with that, and we donít want to. Thatís not where we are," he admits. It's not simply a matter of skill, either; it's a matter of resources. Team Ninja does not have the staff Ubisoft does.

Even if the team can't punch at that weight, he says, "we can still offer solid entertainment, and make sure that it reaches the people that are looking for that solid entertainment."

"If we can find the people that enjoy that kind of entertainment, then we can win. We can be successful."

The place where Japanese games unquestionably excel is in precise, high-speed action. Many of the arguments critics levied against Ninja Gaiden III, in fact, revolved around the fact that the game is more forgiving in its controls than prior installments.

"The actions that youíre doing should link really closely with what youíre seeing on the screen, and we think that Japanese games have that stronger connection," says Hayashi. "Looking at Western games and Japanese games, I think you can tell that thereís a difference."

The key to a Japanese game is that you get an "instant response on screen," he says. "That feels good and that draws players into the game itself."

Moving forward, he says, "gameplay will be first... Weíre not going to offer burgers anymore, but weíre going to offer you damn good sushi."

In the future, Team Ninja won't try and "hide who we are," says Hayashi.

"I really liked The Last of Us. It looks good but I donít think thatís a direction for us to go in," he says. "We're a Japanese developer. That's us. That's who we are."

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Kris Steele
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Still doesn't give me faith. There has to be some point in the game development process when you playtest (or play yourself) your game. A game as bad as NG3 should instantly throw up red flags and yet this never seemed to happen. Or they didn't care. Either way, not good.

Benjamin Quintero
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It's not really that easy Kris. I get the feeling, from his statements, that they were making a game that wasn't exactly to their own taste but it had all the right ingredients of games they may have played from the West (thus his Japanese burger comment). They might have tried to make a game that was a little looser and more forgiving with the controls because that seemed to be the Uncharted way of handling characters for example.

He's admitting that it was a wrong step for them and they are probably going to pull back and make something that is uniquely Japanese; nothing wrong with that. NG4 may be the best one yet if they truly learned their lessons here...

There are plenty of developers who are in survival mode right now, making casual games they may not enjoy and aren't very good, but it pays the bills enough to keep the doors open. Sometimes you do what you think will sell, not what you think is right. Sometimes it pays off, but more often it fails.

Dedan Anderson
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i've played the game and it's far from terrible or bad, i understand that didn't live up to expectations but to me those are two different, subtle perhaps but different points.

It looks like tecmo reacted to the western complaints with the wii/u version. Curious to see how it will be received by the ninja gaiden fans.

Craig Page
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So next time I run out of buns I'll just BBQ up some Japanese hamburgers!!

John Byrd
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I like his metaphor and his understanding of what his company does well. I bet their next game will be awesome as a result. Doing what you're most passionate about consistently produces better results than trying to pander.

Yasuhiro Noguchi
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To take the sushi metaphor further- the problem is, a lot of western folks have a different idea of what "sushi" is when compared to the traditional Japanese-style sushi. For example, deep fried rolls stuffed with cream cheese and salmon is not something you'll find in typical Japanese sushi joints.

It'll be interesting what kind of sushi the team will be serving up in their future releases.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Any developper out there, regardless of its location, should both do its own thing *and* learn from other's successes - or failures -.

They shouldnt try to copy western developpers, but that doesnt mean they have nothing to learn from them.

David Holmin
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"The actions that youíre doing should link really closely with what youíre seeing on the screen"

So true.

John Brittenham
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NGIII was an incredible disappointment. It doesn't even look as good as the five year old Ninja Gaiden Sigma, which was pretty cutting edge at the time of its release. Team Ninja just doesn't seem like it has much of a future without its original creative auteur running things. Tomonobu Itagaki may come of as obnoxious but the man knows how to make a hard game that's still a lot of fun. There aren't really many people in the industry that can do that.

Ujn Hunter
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Hopefully it's not too late, seeing that Team Ninja had to ruin two franchises before realizing they were driving away the people who supported them all these years. I don't know if I'd take a chance on buying another Team Ninja game in the future, which is sad, seeing they were once in my top 5.

Matthew Dickinson
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I guess I enjoy Japanese hamburger then. :/ I think it you see it as its own game it's really fun. A very good action game held back by a few annoyances...