I met with "Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword" producer Yosuke Hayashi twice last Thursday: the first time at his hotel on Manhattan's east side to talk ninja gaming, the second to show him New York City as viewed from the 29th floor of the MTV News offices in Times Square. It was his first time in Manhattan.
At our first meeting he told me that New York smells just like Tokyo, a reference I'm still waging an internal debate about whether it was a compliment or complaint.
I invited him to come by the MTV offices later in the afternoon so he could see the city from above. From the 29th floor he looked out over the Times Square and then went to a westward-looking window and saw the Hudson and New Jersey. From each of the three sides of the building that I brought him to, he looked out of the windows and said "Sugoi!" That means he was impressed. More impressed with New York, I hope, then when I'd asked him what he thought of his trip to Manhattan during our first meeting. Through a translator, he had mustered: "Oh wow, there are hot dogs on every corner."
I'd like to think I taught him a little bit about the Big Apple. If so, maybe it was a fair trade? During our interview earlier in the day he taught me a few key things about "Ninja Gaiden" on the DS.
This is what I learned:
- "Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword" is good enough for Hayashi's mom. "She hasn't played a 'Ninja Gaiden' before," he told me after I asked whether he thought his game could cross over to more casual DS players like his mother (or mine). "It's probably similar to the situation with your mom. If you give her the controller for the Xbox 360 or PS3 they're not going to hold it. They're going to [say,] 'No, that's not for me.' My mother has been playing the brain training games and the puzzle games and I gave her a copy of [my game] and she said, 'This is okay, I can handle it.'"
-"Ninja Gaiden DS" was made to be played with the DS held vertically (book-style) to help lefties like me. "When we didn't have it book style, if the action goes to left to right and you're right-handed, or especially from left to right if you're left-handed then it obscures a lot of your movement. We wanted to maximize the use of the screen."
- Hayashi can spot people playing his game in public without seeing the screen. "There are only so many DS games that are played book-style and most of those book-style games don't have this movement where it's zigzagging really quickly. That's almost 'Ninja Gaiden DS' identity."
- The game is designed to move at the pace of penmanship. Hayashi started working on "Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword" after wrapping work on the PS3 game "Ninja Gaiden: Sigma." Taking the DS game's reigns from his boss, Tecmo Team Ninja leader Tomonobu Itagaki, he re-designed the controls and made a breakthrough. "Itagaki had programmed the jump to double-tap," Hayashi told me. "When I played it, I just didn't get any sort of attachment to it. When the double-tap happened it didn't feel like the character was going to jump. So I proposed the idea that, when [series protagonist Ryu] jumps it [requires stroking the stylus] from down to up. When I chose that, there was no doubt that this is the way we should use this… This opened up our concept to how we were going to use the stylus."
I asked if the stroke-based controlled were influenced by favorite strokes of letters in the Japanese alphabets. He said, "Rather than [any one] Japanese character, it has more to do with the pace when one is writing, either in English or Japanese … Someone can write really fast or really slow, but there's a tempo we thought worked really well."
- Tecmo won't share their DS knowledge with other developers; wants to be challenged. I suggested that the "Dragon Sword" controls are so good that Tecmo could license their technology to other DS developers. Hayashi had a different idea: "I don't think Team Ninja would share our game engine with any outside developers. But in a way, just like we were influenced by some other titles while working on 'Ninja Gaiden,' I hope that this in a way has affected some other developers… We would like to see that challenge toward 'Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword.' It only makes everyone move forward."
-Hayashi doesn't want to stop working on the DS. "We see more potential and more possibilities within our own team," he said. "We definitely see a future for our team in working with the types of controls that we were able to come up with. We would definitely want to continue to work on DS titles."
-Dozens -- hundreds -- of ninja-based video games have barely scratched the surface of the ninja lifestyle. Hayashi, who, you must realize, works at the Tecmo development team Team Ninja, dismissed my suggestion that the many, many video games about ninjas have strip-mined the possibilities of the ninja genre. "There's a lot more we can and will continue to pursue in order to make an ultimate ninja game that tells a complete story of anything that is associated with a ninja," he said. "We are kind of just picking up one aspect of 'Who is a ninja? 'What does a ninja do?'… I would say out of the entire image that you have of a ninja, we only have grabbed 10% of that. So we have this whole other 90% to go."
I asked him to elaborate on that missing 90%. He told me that ninja games have only adapted a slice of a ninja's life. "Just like a human lives in its 20s, 30s and 40s, [ninjas] have a life to live too," he said. "It would be impossible to tell that entire life story in one computer product or game, so in that sense there is still a continuation that we need to work on, in order to explore the ninja ways of living."