Introducing a whole arsenal of weaponry, including various swords with different powers, and a simple yet flexible control system that harked back to the golden arcade era with its "three buttons and a joystick" mantra, Itagaki had good reason to be confident. Of course, as the 21st century Ninja Gaiden geared up for launch, he also had much to prove. His previous Xbox effort had been the widely-derided Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, a lightweight soufflé of digitised tit-wank that was routinely slaughtered by the critics and his reputation as a master of gameplay was in danger of being overshadowed by his reputation as a masturbator. "Anybody who tries to argue the merits of DOAX as a sort of virtual feminist retreat either has a loose grip on reality, or a firm grip on his penis," scoffed Tom at the time. Clearly, Team Ninja had to do something to reassure the hardcore fans that their mad genius leader hadn't been completely distracted by the lure of gently bouncing pillowy bosoms.
While he'd been quick to strip away almost every element from the previous games, Itagaki therefore shrewdly retained at least one established theme from the NES Ninja Gaiden - the fearsome difficulty. It was a decision that would provoke as much criticism as praise, with Edge even declaring the savage difficulty a design flaw. "It was done intentionally of course," Itagaki would later tell Kikizo. "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."
This difficulty certainly didn't phase Tom, because he's dead hard and better than you. "While Ninja Gaiden is hard," he hissed from the shadows in his epic import review, "it generally manages to avoid slaughtering you unless it's expressly your own fault... those in search of a challenge will appreciate the need to practice and learn how to play it in lieu of easy success." Indeed, the 9/10 score barely seemed adequate, given the amount of passionate gushing going on. "You've never played a game that's simultaneously as gorgeous, entertaining, inviting and downright hardcore as Ninja Gaiden...one of the finest action games ever made," he finally gasped before signing off, all spent and sweaty. So, job well done, Itagaki-san.
Ninja Gaiden Black followed in 2005 and was designed as a definitive version of the game. "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," Itagaki explained to the official Xbox website. As well as tweaking the original game, Black also included the two downloadable Hurricane packs. Originally offered for free, these packs not only introduced new enemies and attacks, but also completely new game modes, stages and boss fights.
Two additional difficulty levels were also added for Black. Ninja Master was designed for those who had completed the game, and desired a truly punishing experience to put them to the test. Conversely, Ninja Dog demonstrated just how Itagaki felt about gamers who struggled with the game. While playing Ninja Dog made the game much easier, it left players in no doubt as to how much shame they should feel at opting for the path of least resistance. Between unlockable pink ribbons and the very girly Ayane cruelly mocking Ryu throughout, it's the closest games have ever come to actually flushing the player's head down the school toilet and forcing them to say "I like big hairy bums".
Amazingly, it wasn't until 2007 and Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PS3 that the series appeared on a Sony platform, having completely skipped both the original PlayStation and PS2. Another remake of the 2004 version, Itagaki had no direct input on Sigma, instead handing the creative reins over to Team Ninja member Yosuke Hayashi. "The only thing I can commit to saying right now about Sigma," he told 1UP, "is that Hayashi is someone I hand-picked to lead the project, and I have faith in him."Of course, Itagaki had never sounded particularly enthused about the PS3, claiming that none of the launch titles had inspired him to track them down, sparing particular scorn for potential Gaiden rival, Heavenly Sword, which he memorably described as "half-assed". Fast-forward to now, and it doesn't sound like he's changed his mind about Sony hardware, writing off any future PS3 instalments of Ninja Gaiden and expressing his disappointment with Sigma. "It was a weird chimera of a game," he told TotalVideoGames this month, "From a game design standpoint, I don't think it was done well at all." So much for having faith in Hayashi.
Itagaki seemed more inspired by Nintendo's recent hardware innovations, producing the solid, polished and innovative Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword specifically for the DS - at his daughter's request - and ruminating on the possibility of developing something for the Wii. Whatever that may - or may not - turn out to be, it definitely won't be another adventure for Ryu Hayabusa. Itagaki has declared that the imminent Ninja Gaiden II will be his last, having taken the series as far as it can go. In fact, he claims, in typically humble style, that it's "the world's premier action game". Is the boob-fixated maniac right? With Ninja Gaiden II due out on Xbox 360 on 6th June, we'll find out soon enough.
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