Team Ninja Interview: Tomonobu Itagaki

The Team Ninja leader on Ninja Gaiden 2, Code Cronus, Dead or Alive Ultimate, DOA4 and PSP, Nintendo DS development, in an exclusive 1-1 interview.

Team Ninja is responsible for one of the best games of the year so far, and easily one of the greatest experiences available on Xbox - Ninja Gaiden. And the man behind the project is Tomonobu Itagaki, an outspoken, passionate games designer, these days frequently mentioned in the same breath as Miyamoto, Suzuki, Kojima, Naka and Mikami.

An interview with Mr Itagaki is always guaranteed to deliver entertaining results (well, almost always, as one website recently found out) and his latest exclusive sit down with Kikizo is no exception.

Having finished the epic Ninja Gaiden, Mr Itagaki is now working on several new projects we'll all be hearing a lot about in the coming months and years. Our chat was kindly translated by Tecmo's Marketing Director John Inada, during the recent E3 show in Los Angeles.

Kikizo: We appreciate your time today, and I'd like to start by thanking you for the experience that you delivered gamers and to me personally with Ninja Gaiden.

Itagaki: Have you played it?

Kikizo: Yes, from start to finish, and there aren't many games I play from start to finish these days. I looked at the play time and I racked up about 100 hours on that game, and most of that was just one boss. So thanks!

Let's start with Ninja Gaiden, how important a project was it to you personally, and what do you feel you achieved out of it as a game director?

Itagaki: Personally, of course it was my most important project. To give an example if it were the navy, this would be the Atlantic Ocean while Dead or Alive is the Pacific!

Kikizo: The level of difficulty was described in one memorable review I read - Edge magazine's - as a "design flaw" and not a "badge of hardcore honour" because it limits what weaker players can get out of the game. How would you react to that?

Itagaki: It was done intentionally of course. The testers who tested this game went nuts. At first it was easier, but when the testers said "this is too difficult", I made it even more difficult. [everyone laughs]

Kikizo: So in fact, contrary to that review, you would describe it as a badge of hardcore honour.

Itagaki: That's correct.

Kikizo: How important was Ninja Gaiden's musical score, it seemed to add considerable atmosphere to many of the levels. How did you go about designing scores for each specific level - how did the music originate?

Itagaki: I didn't personally put the music together myself, but my concept was that because you spend so much time on one chapter sometimes, maybe as much as ten hours, if the music is too strong, you might get tired of it, so we tried to keep it as a background music so that it doesn't become annoying. Whereas DOA is quick, so you can be a little more dramatic and you can give more presence to the music because you're done in fifteen seconds sometimes, you know?

Kikizo: How accurately would you say the art of ninja is portrayed in Ninja Gaiden, and for that matter, other ninja themed games that are around at the moment?

Itagaki: It's hard to understand if you're not Japanese maybe, but there are different types of ninja and my concept of ninja is not so stealth; a ninja is supposed to be hidden, and not seen by others, to hide and kill - like a secret assassin, but my concept is more open, I just want to kill everyone who gets in my way! I think most kids dream of becoming a ninja of course, but they're not thinking of hiding and stuff, they're thinking that the battle scenes are cool and the way the hold the katana is cool - so I wanted to emphasise that aspect more.

Kikizo: You mentioned in a recent EGM interview that you will make a Ninja Gaiden 2. So I know it's fairly early to talk about that project, but what direction would you like to take the franchise?

Itagaki: Basically the concept will not change. What we have in Ninja Gaiden 1 will still be there, and we will add a few elements to it and spice it up with new weapons and that kind of thing.

Kikizo: What's the timeframe for that project?

Itagaki: It will be after Dead or Alive 4.

Kikizo: Moving onto Dead or Alive Ultimate, how do you feel about beating the likes of Virtua Fighter, Tekken and Soul Calibur in terms of getting the 3D fighting game online before those guys, and why didn't they do it first?

Itagaki: Both Sega and Namco get a big portion of their revenue form the arcade business so perhaps they don't have the resources for other venues, if the consumer version of their games has online features, then people wouldn't have to go to the arcade any more.

Kikizo: So is Tecmo moving away from arcade now, as DOA3 didn't go to arcade?

Itagaki: Yeah we don't plan to do that any more because we only have so much time, and by including an arcade version into the production schedule, everything else would be slowed down. For Namco and Sega, the reason they don't want to do it is for financial reasons as I explained, but our reason is not really financially driven, it's more technical issues.

Kikizo: And what about the issue of ping time, you know, what with the gameplay timing unit being 1/60th second, how does that work and is it a potential problem?

Itagaki: The people who say such things, they are not good developers and they don't understand technology. [smiles] We had an exclusive story with someone in our office a few weeks ago to test the work in progress, and the journalist was very happy and couldn't tell the difference between the normal game or online. There's no lag at all, so he thought it was a local link, but in fact it was online.

Kikizo: Sounds good. With Dead or Alive Code Cronus, you mentioned in the Japanese press recently that it isn't a fighting, volleyball or sports, so can we learn any more about Cronus at this stage?

Itagaki: In terms of scheduling it's placed much later than the other titles I'm working on at the moment. It would come after DOA4 and Ninja Gaiden 2.

Kikizo: So it's a big project?

Itagaki: Yes, very big, and very long.

Kikizo: So... it's kind of an epic adventure or an RPG?

Itagaki: Yeah... you know just like DOAX was like my hobby project, Code Cronus will be another hobby that is not really driven by financial incentives or anything like that, it will be my personal project.

Kikizo: As a developer and publisher you have a close relationship with Microsoft, but with Sony PSP and Nintendo DS, do these technologies tempt you to develop on those platforms?

Itagaki: Yes I do, and I will.

Kikizo: Something I was keen to get your reaction on, as you're a prominent character in the Japanese development scene, was Hideo Kojima said in a recent issue of Edge, and I quote, "all Japanese games media is shit" and he went into a big outburst, which doesn't make much sense to me when you look at something like Famitsu, so how would you react to his statement?

Itagaki: You know, most developers allow the media to review their game and leave it up to them to say whatever they want to say. But people like Kojima and I, we review their review! And we deal with them in a different way. Media will try and cater to their needs, and maybe that prompts what he said. It's almost like there are too many Kasumi covers. If you look at Japanese magazines, maybe 10% of them have Kasumi on their cover.

Kikizo: What makes Team Ninja the best developer for Xbox graphically, and what is your secret to get such a high visual standard?

Itagaki: Perhaps the difference is that I view our games as "TV games". That means it is a medium, which uses graphics and sound. And once you approach everything with that simple concept or philosophy, I guess it means we come up with the level of game that we do. You need to spend time not just on depth of the gameplay, it's about visual and sound because TV is the medium we have to use. In the past there was a company called Warp who made a game with just sound and no visuals, which is just nonsense! [laughs]

Kikizo: Thanks very much for your time, we're big fans of your games, so good luck with all of your future projects.

Itagaki: Arigato!

Stay glued to Kikizo for a whole lot more on all these titles.

Adam Doree
Editorial Director, Kikizo

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