Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Revitalizing Ninja Gaiden

There's some buzz about in the vid game community these days about Ninja Gaiden 3 taking a new direction for the franchise. While many franchises seem to be undergoing some degree of a facelift (Halo: Reach, Zelda: Wind Waker, Resident Evil 4, Ratchet: Deadlocked, GTA4, etc.) in the past few years, this is hardly a surprise. (Personally, I'd rather see big stylistic changes introduced as an entirely new franchise, but hey! apparently there's less money in that) As a big fan of the franchise, I have mixed emotions about the news.

Dramatic changes in gameplay and/or style may accompany a solid game, but often lose some of the aesthetic with which the original drew us in. The best example of a franchise being reinvented to critical and commercial success is Resident Evil 4; so much of this game was pristine and polished, and it played like a gamer's fantasy come true. For all that can be said of its greatness, it was hardly reminiscent of the original titles. Granted, the radius-based control scheme with fixed camera angles was getting outdated, but it took a giant leap from slow, suspenseful horror all the way to heart-pounding, adrenaline-inducing third-person shooter. From the game's release six years ago to this day I stand my ground in my opinion that Resident Evil 4 and, subsequently, Resident Evil 5, ought to have been released under a new franchise license. The only bit carrying over from the original titles are characters (and I gotta say, Wesker's presence in Resident Evil 5 felt forced).

Don't get me wrong, Resident Evil 4 was a great game, and having played it recently I can testify that it even ages quite well. Resident Evil 5 is great fun as well, but I must say that it carries the franchise's name like a heavy burden. I am concerned that the same fate will befall Ninja Gaiden 3, and certain mainstays and franchise identity may hinder what could otherwise be engaging gameplay. Both Ninja Gaiden games were fast and fluid, which is certainly appropriate, seeing as how the premise of the game is assuming control of a suave, highly-trained ninja.

Team Ninja has said cited a handful of changes that will separate NG3 from its predecessors, and the one that most intrigues me is that it is Ryu's origin story. This is a logical premise to tone down Ryu's hyper-homicidal fighting style in favor of a style that feels more deliberate and cautionary, as well as requiring a bit more care and calculation.

Elaborating on the new fighting style which will let me "experience what it's like to cut through bones," I question the choice to remain under the "Ninja Gaiden" franchise if the gameplay is to be altered such a degree as what I am imagining. I'm picturing in my mind a third-person action game in which every kill feels like a victory, rather than a step toward the larger victory at hand. Every encounter with the opposition is a critically important scenario. Even a single enemy on equal footing can induce great harm and death to the player if they are not careful, and in that way the game feels more like the survival mode from Dead or Alive 4 rather than Dynasty Warriors.

Don't get me wrong, the thought of fighting for my life in a series one-on-one encounters and panic-inducing skirmishes with small groups of rival ninjas tickles me quite pink; but it's not Ninja Gaiden. Ryu Hayabusa doesn't get hung up on which way to attack a group of enemies - as gamers, Ryu Hayabusa empowers us to wall-jump into a group of baddies while severing five different sets of legs, right before effortlessly sending the lot of them to an early grave looking like a high-school student's anatomy kit. Ryu, rather than being frightened by another man with a sword, will cut off an arm, blast him into the air, and then super-piledrive him into the pavement - head first. If I'm playing a game that makes common enemies stand before me as legitimate threats, I don't want to be playing as Ryu Hayabusa, for he is the Chuck Norris of video games.

The original XBox's Ninja Gaiden was best embodiment of all things ninja that the industry has ever seen (although PS2's Shinobi was pretty bad-ass). Ryu is a sleek, smooth killer and doesn't falter even at the most dangerous of foes. Killing clans of horrible beasts and hordes of otherworldly demons as Ryu Hayabusa is simply a matter of reflexes and timing. The sequel, while overdelivering on the thrills and consequently made Ryu feel more like a superhero than a skilled fighter, still handed the player immense satisfaction after laying out hundreds of dismembered bodies. While I fully advocate the production and development of a game that puts the player in the shoes of an inexperienced assassin, that game is better invented as an entirely new franchise. As a different franchise, none of the wild acrobatics of Ninja Gaiden will be required to make it stay true to name, nor will any of the insane kill counts; Team Ninja will be free to give the main character as many imperfections and deficiencies that are needed to depict him as a novice in his art, with respect to both character and gameplay. Additionally, a mature, coherent story is better suited to a different franchise. If a meaningful narrative is to be written, it can only be justified under a new name.

After all, Ryu Haybusa IS THE GUY who, no matter how nervous he was when he began, will still be the guy who killed an underwater ghost dragon and three gigantic, flaming armadillos.

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