By Cory J. Herndon
Very few game designers have attained the rock-star status of Tomonobu Itagaki, the leader of Tecmo's Team Ninja and the mind behind such brilliance as the Dead or Alive®fighting games and action-adventure masterpiece Ninja Gaiden®. But despite his celebrity, Itagaki-san doesn't waste words or time. Few worked harder at E3 2005 to get the word out about Team Ninja's continued plans for the Xbox® and Xbox 360™. At the end of a long, loud day, Itagaki-san was kind enough to sit down for a few questions with Xbox.com (well, with me, not with the whole web site. All of us would never have fit into the room). We discussed design methods, the Xbox 360 fighter Dead or Alive® 4, the original Xbox game Ninja Gaiden® Black, his feelings on Xbox 360 hardware, and why there had to be monkeys.
Itagaki-san and the DOAU champs.
Xbox.com: Now that the new system has been unveiled, we can finally ask: What do you think of the Xbox 360? What does the new hardware allow you to do that you couldn't do on the original?
Itagaki-san: It's a wonderful machine to work with. I never lied about my impression of the hardware. It's definitely software-friendly hardware. From a developer's perspective, it's exactly the kind of hardware you want to work with.
Dead or Alive 4 is a stunner.
Xbox.com: Let's talk about Dead or Alive 4. Since it's on the new system, should we expect a new beginning for the stories of the characters? Or will we see a continuation of the ongoing story from the first three games?
Itagaki-san: Before, the story was of the ninja [characters], this time it's the story of Helena in the game. So to a certain extent, it is an extension the previous stories.
Xbox.com: Does that mean we'll see more of Christie, as well?
Itagaki-san: There's a high probability of that happening, but I'm still in the process of writing and finishing the story, so I don't know for sure yet. My impression of Christie is that she's simply an evil woman. So she's not ever going to be the key person.
Evil Christie gets kicked.
Xbox.com: Christie was a new addition for Dead or Alive® 3. Will we see more new characters this time around?
Itagaki-san: Kokorois one of the new cast members, female, the one who wears the kimono. Her fighting style is [a three-syllable word I'm not even going to try to spell], a Chinese martial art.
Xbox.com: When you incorporate real-world fighting styles like that one, how do you ensure authenticity?
Itagaki-san: We use the master of that martial art to do the motion capture.
New fighters challenge the returning cast in DOA 4.
Xbox.com: In terms of online play, should we expect a natural extension of the type of play we saw in Dead or Alive® Ultimate™? What's new for Xbox 360 in terms of online tournaments and the like?
Itagaki-san: DOA 4 online mode will look completely different from DOAU. [But] the systems that are used in DOAU will be improved upon and be used.
Xbox.com: So the original serves as a foundation for what you're doing with the new game?
Itagaki-san: It's not exactly a foundation, but the systems that we've completed, we'd like to improve. Along with that, we will be using Tsunami. So the idea and the plan is that Tsunami will take care of that.
Xbox.com: What do you think will surprise long-time fans of the DOA series?
Itagaki-san: I think they will have big smiles on their faces.
Xbox.com: We first saw DOA 4 referenced in Dead or Alive® Xtreme Beach Volleyball in a cinematic featuring Zack. How long have you been planning and working on the game?
Itagaki-san: We didn't really start untilDOAU was completed. Of course, the pre-production started a long time ago.
Xbox.com: Before you start work, do you try to plan the game out in your head ahead of time?
Itagaki-san: There are many ways to do it, but if it's a really critical and important project, we lay out the plan, [and] the areas that are critical are laid out ahead of time. When I'm critical, there's change. For instance, in the trailer, you see where monkeys appear. Those monkeys used to be a bunch of tourists and I didn't like that, so it ended up becoming monkeys.
Xbox.com: Any particular reason you went with monkeys?
Itagaki-san: I'm just simply convinced it had to be monkeys, for some reason.
Bass learns DOA 4's new mechanics the hard way.
Xbox.com: With each game, there have been innovations in the fighting mechanics—blocking, reversals, that sort of thing. Will the fighting feel more like DOA 3, DOAU, or some combination of the two? Will we see all new fighting mechanics, especially considering the addition of new fighters?
Itagaki-san: First of all, the difference is going to be substantial from the previous games. So traditionally, the way DOA 2, 3, and Ultimate plays is nice and easy to [pick up and] play. But DOA 4 will take a more aggressive approach to the fighting. Other fighting games will rely on your ability to practice certain moves repeatedly and to replicate the same moves, while DOA 4 will require you to have some ability to read opponents' moves and will require you to have instinct. So in other words, with other fighting games, if you use a programmable controller, you will be very, very strong. But if you do that with DOA 4, you will probably lose.
Xbox.com: Tell us about Ninja Gaiden Black for the original Xbox. What is NGB, exactly? A compilation?
Itagaki-san: One of the things that motivated us to work on Ninja Gaiden Black is the idea of leaving the best and the ultimate action game on the current console before we move on to the 360. We desired to do that.
Xbox.com: So you consider this to be the completeNinja Gaiden experience? Sort of "Ninja Gaiden Ultimate?"
Xbox.com: Are there plans to bring a version ofNinja Gaiden to Xbox 360?
Itagaki-san: (laughs) Well, since the 360 will be backwards compatible, maybe people won't need another Ninja Gaiden.
Ninja Gaiden Black: Hot Ryu-on-Ryu action!
Xbox.com: One of the most distinctive qualities of Team Ninja's games is the solidity and mass of the character models in games like Ninja Gaiden and DOAU. How do you pull off physics that just feel right, which other games can't seem to match?
Itagaki-san: When I play those other games and the control just doesn't feel right, I get sick. At Team Ninja, we describe those as games that "will give your fingers cancer."
Xbox.com: Thanks for your time at the end of this long day. Anything else you want to tell Xbox.com readers?
Itagaki-san: 360 is the best. So we should wait with a great anticipation.