Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z’s tale of tongue-in-cheek slaughter

By Catherine Cai
1 July 2013 14:23 GMT

Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z doesn’t take itself seriously, so neither should you says Catherine Cai. Speaking with Team Ninja’s studio head Hayashi Yosuke, it’s clear that this will be the ‘Blood Dragon’ of slashers.

”We’re not trying to compare it to Ninja Gaiden or be different from Ninja Gaiden. We’re trying to find the best fit for a ninja and zombie game and to make it its own thing.”

Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, a collaboration between Team Ninja, Keiji Inafune’s studio Comcept and Spark Unlimited, is to the original series what Blood Dragon is to Far Cry 3: it’s ridiculous, over-the-top, and absolutely irreverent to just about everything Ninja Gaiden stands for.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously; it can’t. It’s already difficult enough to talk about the plot of the game—an undead cyborg ninja slashing his way through hordes of zombies to pursue his mortal enemy—without feeling at least a little bit silly.

Silly isn’t a bad thing. I think in the games industry’s lofty pursuit of making grittier, more “meaningful” games, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that, amidst all the moral angst, they’re supposed to be fun. And that’s exactly what Ninja Gaiden Z is supposed to be: fun. It taps right into that Michael Bay part of your brain that – maybe against your will – allows you to enjoy the stupid and the utterly impossible stunts that you see in a blockbuster action flick.

In any case, the point is, if I haven’t already made myself clear, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z isn’t a Ninja Gaiden game. Or, at least, it’s not the game that Ninja Gaiden fans were expecting; that Holy Grail of a Ninja Gaiden game that touches on nostalgia. The very same nostalgia that made Ninja Gaiden III and its lack of brutal difficulty, found in its predecessors, such a disappointment.

No, with Yaiba, Team Ninja is moving towards a different direction, one with a protagonist that’s a little less deadpan than Ryu Hayabusa. I had a chance to sit down with Team Ninja studio head Hayashi Yosuke to discuss this rather drastic change in vision. I had a lot of questions, and they ranged mostly along the lines of: Why did this comic book aesthetic for Ninja Gaiden? Why not just make this into an original ‘zombie vs. ninjas’ IP?

I don’t know what I was expecting as a response, but it was probably one that was deep and insightful. “In discussions, we were just trying to find the best fit for the core concept of ninjas vs. zombies and what art style would work best for that,” Yosuke said through a translator.

“That has been the first priority. So it can be different from Ninja Gaiden, but we’re not trying to compare it to Ninja Gaiden or be different from Ninja Gaiden. We’re trying to find the best fit for a ninja and zombie game and to make it its own thing.” Essentially, the feeling I got was that Team Ninja made the change in artistic vision because… they felt like it.

So then, why the zombies? Developers, movie makers, and authors have been lining up around the block to bring their own take on the already over-saturated zombies/post-apocalyptic genre. Keiji Inafune himself has contributed to the problem by working on two little known zombie franchises that you may or may not have heard of called Resident Evil and Dead Rising.

Developing a zombie game are you? The industry is chalk full of zombies already. Take a number and sod off. Maybe you can bring back werewolves and vampires. Except Team Ninja won’t be sodding off, thank you very much. They’re taking zombies to a realm that video games – surprisingly – haven’t already explored.

“As far as the zombie play goes and bringing something new to zombies – we have Yaiba ripping off zombie arms and using them as nunchucks.”

“So we think that Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is not the same as other zombie games,” said Yosuke. “Has there been a ninja vs. zombie game? So that for us is a fresh take on zombies. And it hasn’t been done before. It seems like something that someone should have thought of before, but they haven’t, so we’re happy to bring it out.

“As far as the zombie play goes and bringing something new to zombies – we have Yaiba ripping off zombie arms and using them as nunchucks. One of the concepts that we’re working with is zombies are enemies as well as weapons and so it should just be a lot of fun to play against the zombies in Yaiba. Zombie game fans should have fun with it as zombies. They should be able to appreciate these zombies, but it’s not a horror zombie game.”

After the recent successes of games like The Walking Dead and DayZ, the focus on the zombie genre has been about survival and the human element. Ninja Gaiden Z isn’t exactly concerned about those themes and it’s about as horrific as the original Night of the Living Dead where all the zombies look more like tripped out surfer dudes than the undead.

It’s much more about poking fun at the shambling horde, so long as you can get over the smell of rot and intestines. This means that Yaiba can pick up and sling any zombie around as a weapon using his cyber-arm. And, should there be a mundane task at hand that Yaiba, as a robot ninja master, is above doing, throwing a zombie at it will suffice in getting it done.

Ninja Gaiden Z’s brought quite a few changes to the table and certainly, they’re not ones that hardcore Ninja Gaiden fans were expecting. However, Yosuke made it very clear that though Ninja Gaiden Z carried the series’ label and was set in the universe that it not be judged on those standards.

“With Yaiba taking place in the Ninja Gaiden world, there’s obviously going to be similarities,” he said. “And with Team Ninja’s involvement, we definitely want to make sure that Ninja Gaiden fans will have fun with Yaiba. Maybe that’s not necessarily giving the exact same gameplay—it’s not a copy of Ninja Gaiden. We still want Ninja Gaiden fans to feel that this could work in Ninja Gaiden.

“And as far as the difficulty for Ninja Gaiden itself, we released Ninja Gaiden III looking to ease the difficulty a little bit. We got a lot of feedback from our core fans about that. We released Ninja Gaiden III: Razor’s Edge with increased difficulty and we got a lot of positive feedback from that. Again we think that it’s a core game that our core fans would enjoy.”

Indeed, Ninja Gaiden Z isn’t as brutally difficult as Ninja Gaiden I and II, but I think to judge it on the same scale would be unfair. Ninja Gaiden Z is about taking a well-known and popular series and turning it on its head, a developer parodying its own work, if you will. Those looking for the same tough love that they found with the first two games in the series need not apply.

You won’t find a trace of that among the rubble and burning cityscapes in Ninja Gaiden Z. Instead, you’ll find crude jokes that, while they won’t necessarily make you laugh out loud, will give you the occasional chuckle. Yaiba is no Ryu Hayabusa, but if you’re playing a game about a robot ninja, is that really what you’re looking for?

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