"The last of his people comes to a strange land."
part i | Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is a suicide note
As a reminder, only sociopaths take full, physical glee in videogame violence.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge positions the series' main character, Ryu Hayabusa, as an outdated, barbaric relic. All he does is slaughter. He's kept his face hidden. He hardly talks. His favorite weapon is a sword, one sharp enough to hack off limbs. You can't track him. His agility is inhuman. Other global forces from outside Japan whisper tall tales about the ninja and just how many people he has killed in his life. The actions of a videogame character are being dragged into a realer light—what, did you think nobody would notice when you just spent two full games leaping over rooftops, summoning demons to modern cities, killing the demons, beheading people, and then vanishing off into the secluded hills of Japan. It's like, man, Japan is full of psychos, isn't it?
In games and in real life, I mean. Right? There is a western videogame producer somewhere snorting over his early-morning Monster Energy Drink, wondering who makes a game where your avatar is a masked, remorseless bladestorm in this day and age? When will the Japanese learn that that isn't what videogames are about anymore?
Ryu the super-ninja is outdated.
Developed by Koei Tecmo and Team Ninja, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is a post-Tomonobu Itagaki Ninja Gaiden game, the series' former director. Ousted after Ninja Gaiden II's release for allegedly sexually harassing female employees, an example of a games "persona" drinking too much of his own creepshow Kool-Aid. Koei Tecmo seemingly made a deal with the devil to turn their most famous franchise into something that was more in line with What Videogames Are About. It has battleships, jet-planes, military guys, helicopters, and deserts, as if to say, "Itagaki is gone, everyone, this is us stepping into modernity."
That above-described post-Itagaki game was called Ninja Gaiden 3 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. I'm told it was an unbalanced, dysfunctional steamer of a game, blorped out to nobody's satisfaction. That is not this game that we're talking about. We're talking about Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge, the refined re-release, specifically released to zero celebration or excitement at the Nintendo Wii U's launch. I won't wine and dine the Wii U's forgotten launch-window games, if that's what you're thinking. I recently had the misfortune of purchasing the Wii U edition of Darksiders II on sale, quickly learning that it was about as fun as attempting to find one's way out of the Zynga employee parking garage in San Francisco, California, trying so hard to block out the worker's excitable, self-important side-conversations echoing through the concrete structure.
No, we aren't defending the Wii U, and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge came out on PS3 and Xbox 360, too, so knock it off if you were thinking that, and if you were, you should probably call your orthodontist back, your braces need to be tightened. This is a singular game we're talking about. What we have here is an underrated, passed-over game that is very conscious of what it is, delivering a strong message about game design, violence, and Japan's place in the world.
It's obvious by the scenery in Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge's very first mission set in London's rainy streets that ninjas are vicious psychopaths, and real men fight with guns these days. Real men use batons. Real men wear night vision goggles. Swords are for crazies. Real men fucking SWEAR, man!
"FAUKK YEWWW!!" the Cockney bloke shriek-spits through bloodied teeth when his arm has been trimmed off.
Then his head is plungered down into his shoulders by Ryu's flying aerial piledriver, smashing gallons of blood and giblets in every direction like spilled lobster bisque. This wasn't a videogame monster that was killed—a true, speaking, human person was just obliterated in full-frontal brutality. The game's enemies are right to call Ryu a freak.
"Neither a hero nor a monster," a Japanese guy in a business-suit says near the game's closing. "That is what it means to be a ninja."
That kind of terrifyingly intimate, yet oddly elegant bloodshed is the sound of Japanese videogames making one thing clear: this isn't their world anymore. Satisfaction and honor aren't their own rewards in the west—someone's gotta FUCKING DIE AND KNOW IT in western storytelling. Whereas God of War was more about a powder-white fantasy man-monster razor-sweeping zombie-centurions in ancient Greece, all in the name vengeance, Ryu is killing live humans in the shadow of Big Ben, and we are clearly not checking with mom if it's okay to stay out so late. You're brawling with the big boys. Someone might get shot and DIE. All that gore, that was merely game design through visual feedback. It wasn't put in there to horrify or slowed down to emphasize its aching, wretched physics. That was the game reminding you that the enemies are ferocious, they will kill you, and Ryu will fight back with equally-ferocious, heroic bloodshed.
Heroic bloodshed is a term frequently used in reference to action-director / dove-stroker John Woo, a Hong Kong film auteur in the 80's. It's okay for a hero to go buck-nutty if it's in service of heroism, and motivated by emotion. He's speaking with action, and if it's graceful, and beautiful, then it's heroic, in spite of its violence. Ryu originated in 1988 in the arcades and on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and he is an ageless 1980's hero. He's John McClane with a katana blade. Today though, he's a horrifying dinosaur. Have you seen A Good Day To Die Hard (that's Die Hard 5)? It's unwatchable. Mostly because of the bad jokes and its insistence on being a film with a massive scale. It laughs at John McClane, telling him, "hey this is the modern era, man, you can't just yipee-kay-yay whoever you damn please." Anyway, the point is that it forces Bruce Willis, who seems like a genuinely good guy, to realize that he's getting old, and being a looney-cartoony 1980's action hero isn't okay anymore. Leave this to John McClane junior.
To wit, John McClane junior is a schmo. He's a whiny jerk. His name is technically Jack. He has a bad, buzzed-down haircut that looks designed by an American game studio's marketing department ("Cutting it close and clean is IN, you guys! And it's easier to render."). He hates his dad with child-like petulance. That guy's secretly working for the man and he still sucks at it.
A videogame needs John McClane. It needs Ryu Hayabusa. Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is a game with somersaulting demon-beast army-guys. It has mutated devil-apes with a hunger for human flesh. It has two T-Rexes, one grown in a lab with biomechanical enhancements, one made of discarded robot parts stitched together by magic. It has three helicopters attacking you at once, and you don't have time to sit behind cover and pop them with a rocket launcher like Die Hard 5 wants you to—you need to stab the chopper to death with a sword. Because it's faster, and because the sword is just that sharp. Stop asking questions. Stop gawking. Stop whining about how fast textures render, or what engine this is using, or what is or is not fair.
There is always a way. You're Ryu "Ninja Gaiden" Hayabusa! You're a free-falling laser-razor. You don't care about consequences. You get the job done and you answer to nobody. Ryu is so determined that the player affects his clarity of vision. You want to kill everything. You want to survive at any cost, humanity be damned. And that's weird and disturbing to certain people.
part ii | Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is not a game for people that wear t-shirts
Ryu shows no remorse. After the first mission, his arm is cursed by an alchemist with a red coat and pretty cool fencing saber. The curse is called The Grip of Murder. The alchemist says that it's payback for all the blood Ryu has spilled over the years, (across all those videogames). Yet, Ryu does not lament this. He doesn't pity himself. Half the time, he just sticks to the mission to figure out the alchemist's real plan, accepting that, yes, he has killed more people than the Texas justice system, so this blubbering, infected arm is deserved. He isn't even brooding or self-loathing like protagonists in games published by Electronic Arts, your Dead Space, your Crysis, your Battlefield kind of real American hero.
(It should be noted that the above-mentioned games were made by people from Washington, Germany, and Sweden, respectively. It sure is easy to appeal to the lowest common American denominator. Have a 4-pack per day voice. Adore PAYBACK. Etcetera.)
And yet, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge has gotten a bad rap. In this case, we have a game worth defending because it's essentially about the old guard having to bow out. This is an action-combat game in a first-person shooter's world. This is a stoic protagonist in a landscape where a producer is yelling at the obedient, crunch-time developers that, "you gotta make them feel for the guy's conflict! This is the most important thing in the game! If we can't connect with them here, they won't stick with the game!"
Why don't you make the game more fun to play? That made me stick with Ryu. Not his yearning for a dead family. Not a quest to xenophobically defend America. Ryu has accepted he's old-fashioned. He was only sucked into the game because the world drew him in—the bad guys request him by name in the very beginning.
The game is fun to play. That is the motivation. Proving the Ryu, and Japanese games, by proximity, are still relevant—no matter their contextual absurdity or number of dinosaurs fighting ninjas—is the between-the-lines subtext. While you might think this is a revenge or redemption story, it is not, because Ryu does not feel guilt for what he has done to be afflicted with the curse. He feels loyalty to a mute little girl, the adopted daughter of his CIA handler. That's about all. The story has no revelation. It has no judgment. It has no rebellious uprising against the system. It is not the origin story or retold legend. It has no moral-choice system.
There's this generation of t-shirt wearing chumps that seem to only read videogame news sites, chugging down re-worded press releases like it's plain, white yogurt, musing on the topic in a loud voice to nobody in particular, as though yogurt needed to be declared good or evil right there on the spot. These are the industry-followers that have enough money to feel in the know about games, and to parade that knowledge around on a leash as though they had tamed the thing, but not enough money to feel comfortable getting a haircut that makes them look less like Eric Draven from The Crow. It's my perception from the stink of the bile on the comments sections on game sites that the following things are commonly accepted, because, I mean, c'mon, guys, we can all agree on this, right? It's safe to say this? We all agree on these things?
1) PC games are better and cheaper.
2) The Wii U is a failure, and terrible.
3) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the best (for the record, it's trash-garbage, I got kicked out of a bar arguing with a friend about this).
4) The Japanese don't make good games.
People have been inventing the recognized canon of accepted facts for thousands of years. It's tribalism. At the heart of everything, you just want to feel safe that we agree on a few things. Videogames, and to some extent, consumerism, is tribalism.
It's fashion. It's choice. It's agreement that one thing is best for the following reasons. That isn't enough for some people though. Why simply exist when you could also WIN? Sometimes, the other tribes need to be eradicated for one's fanaticism to fully make sense. It's addition by subtraction.
It's becoming harder to interact with games like Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge because there are fewer of them and because our vocabulary for understanding them has atrophied a little. We know how to criticize and discuss the modern console wars, we have that same conversation every day, over and over ("Fuck the Kinect, it's spying on you!"). Now that the arena has been established, and it still takes up so much time, some have taken to striking down games that are ambiguous or on less-popular systems. They focus instead on games and companies that will ENGAGE them in conversation. Through that engagement, these fans hope to replicate the feeling of collaborating each day at grade-school recess.
For example, does anyone know where Level 5 is in Zelda 1's second quest? They want the conversation's inclusiveness.
That longing to converse is the voice of the industry, and the voice is increasingly incoherent. We want to know that we're on the right side, that we're talking about the right thing. People that play games are still an insecure bunch.
There's still doubt that your investment in a piece of software is justified. Because your whole life couldn't be a lie, right? Go ahead. Squeeze some more blood from that stone. Make Mass Effect 3 into the game that you assumed it would be. Demand that it end properly!
(Wait, I should clarify.)
The ending of the Mass Effect 3 was this ambiguous three-way choice. Your character can destroy all life in the galaxy, destitute and horrible, as you have observed, these space-species constantly warring. On the other hand, you, in all your wisdom, can declare yourself king (or queen) of the robotic space-faring murder-machines, and assume you can judge life and death benevolently. Or there's option three, you can force all organic and synthetic life to merge and co-exist.
The sound of a backed up toilet whirled in every fan's mind when confronted with this choice. I know I sat there for a bit, trying to work it out, the atmosphere above planet earth burning up like the California hills.
Notable things to consider: One choice was blue. One choice was red. One choice was green. Mass Effect is based around a binary point system—good and evil. Paragon and renegade. Blue and red. Autobot and Decepticon. When the color-coded endings didn't seem to make sense with people who had sided with blue or red / good or evil for three whole games, brains broke. It stopped being binary. It started being interpretive which was the right ending for you to choose, hero or villain, and it stopped being tribal.
So, yes, there wasn't the gentle hand on your shoulder, helping you sound out the words phonetically.
"You aren't a dork, Jimmy, we're all over here talking about Titanfall, too."
Ambiguity and mystery in games? Fascinating. Did you know there's only one guide for Ninja Gaiden 3 on GameFAQs? Did you know there are NONE for Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge? You're just gonna have to figure out the sphinx's mystery on your own. This game will itch the juiciest parts of your reflex nodule, ones that you hadn't used in ages because modern games are about separating fans into categories and then leading them down a corridor. We've been tutored to know that choice is good.
However, you will also be presented with the simplest choices imaginable. I'll demonstrate with some Q&A:
Q: Good or evil?
A: Uh, well, what kind of character do I feel like playing today?
Q: Here or there?
A: I'm sick of being here. Take me there. Activate the fast-travel.
Q: This game or that game?
A: Which one got a higher score from IGN? Okay, give me the review. I want to scroll to the bottom and read the comments. I want to see what the people are saying. Well it looks like people are saying it's too short. Or the multiplayer is already dead. Or the open world is kind of empty. Or I'm sick of games like this, why do they keep rebooting games, how about something new?
Do you see where this is going? Game fans are talking in circles with each other, repeating news story language and vocabulary that the journalists summoned from a publisher's marketing copy, all to convince you that you're making a good investment, gradually siphoning off the ability to criticize.
part iii | the micro-million moral choices in Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge
Most people say that most fun part of Telltale's The Walking Dead games is making the decisions and watching the horrible consequences. That's a wind-it-up and let-it-go game, and it's bloody good drama. All you're doing is making quick choices on what is basically a menu. Maybe you choose to pick up a hammer and one of the other characters ends up dying because they would have picked up that hammer later to kill a zombie and save themselves.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is those choices, faster than you can blink, over and over, and you have to prove to the game you want to live. It's bloody good drama.
Choice is the modern excuse for not designing a game world very well.
"Well, you can choose to explore, or to follow the main quest," the PR director says to journalist demoing the new Bethesda game, let's say, Skyrim. "It's up to you," he reminds, praying that nobody realizes that you cannot change the actual flow of the game's world. Choices in modern games only mean one of three things. You will either become "evil," your will become "good," or you will be a obsessive-compulsive, and will grind your character to an overpowered status, at which point, the game is broken, your skill means nothing. Everything can be brute-forced.
The decisions never meant anything.
The heartbreaking part is that the people trying to make their own justifications for purchases are drawn to these decision points because they are parroting the industry's written word. There's a blend of the journalists over-obsessing about their moment-to-moment play (remember, they're asking if their lives are a total lie, too, just like us), meshing in with reporting on conversations that they had with the same PR director at an event at a hotel in Redmond, Washington where they served orange juice and muffins, reading from a marketing script written months ahead of time.
"So, am I even progressing?"
"You're ALWAYS progressing, see? We didn't want to put anything between you and the content."
Of course. The publisher paid for all that code to be written and content to be generated, no way in hell they're going to prevent even the most ham-fingered boy-creature from seeing EVERYTHING on the disc.
The person demoing Skyrim blinks hard at the tape-delay feeling between hitting a button and watching the sword-swinging animation, like they're merely Skyping with the guy working the marionette. "Am I even playing?"
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is NOT Skyping with the guy working the marionette. Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is playing a piano with one hand and giving a finger-puppet show to a well-rested toddler with the other.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge makes you KNOW that you're playing. You are either alive, or you are dead. That's the only decision you need to make in this game.
"Should I use the sword? Or the staff?"
I don't know. Which one leaves you alive after the battle? The sword? Okay, use the sword. There, decision made. This isn't hydrodynamics. This isn't picking a show to watch on Netflix. There is only one decision that leads to more player-feedback. More exploding-head muck.
Fight. Live. Win. Play.
There is no need to explore the levels or deviate from the path. Certain people may knock the game for this transgression, pointing out that the original Xbox Ninja Gaiden let you check down side hallways for treasure and healing items, thus revealing inarguably better level and overall game design.
That's only half-true. See, the thing is, you're remembering the first main hub area, the Vigoorian Capital City of Tairon. Furthermore, you're only remembering it because it was 2004 and you likely fooling around in it until you decided going back to playing Halo: Combat Evolved was less frustrating because Alma killed you hundreds of dozens of times in the cathedral at the end of the city. So you never saw the rest of the game. You never saw the aqueduct, or the train sequence, or the pyramid, or the return to the ninja village, or the bizarre upside-down demon church, and you never recall all the grinding for money to upgrade weapons and endlessly straight corridors later in the game. That city was an anomaly, perhaps a glint in the eye of the developers as to what they hoped the game might be.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge has no backtracking. There are a few embarrassingly-hidden golden beetles ferreted off into odd corners that seeking out are kind of like neurotically rooting through a backpack over and again to make sure you remembered to bring in your math homework. It has no mumbley, "should I check down that way, or this way, I don't want to miss anything," moments. Check your kleptomania and number-crunching at the door, there is no min-maxxing, and there are no Bioshock-style desks to root through for cigarettes and apples. Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge has no healing items. Instead, it heals you at the impossible-to-miss save points. A quick heads-up to all the people weeping into their hands about Ninja Gaiden's loss of wrought-iron purity, just giving health away like that—this is a deceptively smart system. I'll explain why, if you let me. It forces you to eat your mistakes off the kitchen floor.
Each hit you take will slice a little bit off of your maximum allowable health, kind of like when Keanu Reeves accidentally stabs the gas tank on the bus in the action-classic Speed. In short, your maniac blade-edged world-killer, Ryu, is a leaky ship. If you get hit, you'll never be able to get back to max health until you hit the next save point. You do indeed regenerate to "max" health after finishing a battle, but your maximum hit points have been damaged beyond repair. You had better perform well, or you'll have very little health to work with while trying to make it from here to there.
Aha! But you can regenerate some maximum health if you attack enemies with magic. Magic is only generated when you perform well. Now we come across the only "system" in the game. Without getting too fancy, here is how you work this system—be hot, strike hard, kill dudes dead as quickly and efficiently as possible, and you will fill your magic gage. How can one be hot, hard, deadly, and righteous? Well, you figure it out, dude. That's your freedom of choice. That's your decision tree. That's your morality system. Do you want to live to play more? Choose a weapon off the rack that best suits you to fight like a fiend and go out for a night on the town. Fighting hard will also be how you get karma points. Unlike older Ninja Gaiden games where you could farm for karma, forcing you to stock up on healing items, then go back into the fray to farm more to upgrade the weapons and magic spells, karma is only spent to buy weapon-strength upgrades, and on three occasions to buy overall health upgrades. There is no backtracking, so you live with your performance. The economy is smarter in this game than in past, set up to only be a small motivator to show why your movelist is so long for so many weapons. Yet the objective is nonetheless clear—slay fast, live long, and let God sort 'em out.
Every razor-second is the game's design. You don't dawdle down side-halls. There are many dozen games within each brawl. Ryu streaks around the arena like your brain has been set into a jar attached to the world's most advanced wrecking ball. The wrecking ball hates buildings, be they man, dismembered man, demonic freak-bird, or magical regenerating test-tube baby-lady. Wreck surgically and patiently. Wreck faster than you can type on the word "hahahhaha" your phone's virtual keyboard. Remember, though, you might be advanced, with various mixing speeds and extra accessories, but Ryu still has weight, leaving him microseconds of vulnerability that the game will capitalize on to humiliate you.
The playing field is nonetheless relatively level. I know this because I have been caught between save points before, respawning from checkpoints with only a minimal chunk of maximum health remaining, forcing me to learn how to kill and how to NOT DIE when I do not have the cushion of a lengthy health meter to fall back upon. You can beat certain bosses without getting hit if you have the patience to learn. There is always a way. They may be fast, but they are not unfair.
Some bosses are dumb. The two spider-tank boss, becometh the robot dinosaur, becometh the robot dinosaur fighter jet sequence in particular throws so many of your skills and equipment out the window and requires you to dodge and pick them apart systematically. It requires focus, but it also demonstrates the "get bored and you'll die" design, which is Not Good.
There are no keys to find or doors to unlock. That stuff was annoying in Resident Evil, it was annoying in Devil May Cry, and it was simply padding by the time it showed up in Ninja Gaiden II. Gone. Lose it. Great. We are better off.
The only thing truly missed was the abundant wall-running from the earlier games. Ryu still soars from wall to wall like a squirrel with his feet sticky with Elmer's, but it's only used on a quadrennial basis. The friction is beautiful, and sadly it's under-utilized, since level-traversal is almost entirely-absent. Nevertheless, the attacks on Ryu are so furious in battle that you must Always Be Moving. That means slide-dodging, leaping off enemies heads, and wall-running across a room to slice off a sniper's head. The battle arenas are packed with foes, and when you need to get from here to there two seconds ago, you need to hustle, and the wall-run does that. God of War doesn't do that. Devil May Cry doesn't do that. Only Ninja Gaiden.
part iv | the tragedy of Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is a cautionary tale
We're in a transitional era in games. Middle-tier action-pieces are becoming less popular as people become more enthralled by set-pieces collapsing around them than collapsing an enemy's spine in a snap, survival-decision. It's so hard to craft a vibrant action-system. It's hard to craft ferocious AI. It's hard to craft a level design that lets a player and an enemy both act and react to their world.
It is much easier to time it that when a player crosses an invisible line, enemy NPCs pour from an opening, taking cover, and start firing upon you. After you kill them, a building falls down, and you can proceed through the hole it made. What I've just described is a AAA game. Killzone: Shadow Fall.
It is much easier to create an incentive-economy of rewards dripped to the player. Maybe if players team up in an open-world race, and take down 10 police cars, the points earned will multiply exponentially, unlocking upgrades for your car over the course of 6 to 8 hours. The tracks aren't too creative, but, hey, it's fun to drive around them with non-humans acting silly, right? What I've just described is a AAA game. Need For Speed: Rivals.
It is much easier to give a million dollars to a four-person indie studio for development and marketing than to spend 10 million on an odd B-level game like Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge with no describable identity at first glance. It's not a first-person shooter, it's not an RPG, it's not on PC, it's not small, and its series has a lasting legacy of simply being difficult. And people think they don't need difficult—they've got Dark Souls. They don't need hard action games, they've got God of War, which is breezy, and gigantic, and badASS!
That's why DmC: Devil May Cry didn't sell so hot. It's why the middle-ground is going to have to go away for a while until the people raised on Streets of Rage, and Ninja Gaiden, and God Hand, and Nier sit themselves down and think hard, "okay, what is it that really makes these games tickle my reflex nexus?"
Break the cycle. Play more games. Play old ones. Play new ones. Play ones supposedly bad. Play ones supposedly good. Deposit that experience in your brain-bank. Learn why you love things, removed from nostalgia and from the world, and craft a stronger taste for entertainment.