How Making 'Nioh' Gave Team Ninja Its Groove Back

After losing founder Tomonobu Itagaki in 2008 the 'Ninja Gaiden' studio lost its way. Its new 'Dark Souls'-inspired game gives it a new lease on life

Credit: Koei Tecmo
How Making 'Nioh' Gave Team Ninja Its Groove Back

In 2004, a Japanese development studio called Team Ninja released the appropriately-named Ninja Gaiden for the original Xbox. A long-awaited "reboot" of a beloved series that hearkens back to the Nintendo Entertainment System, this new Gaiden took the world by storm. Unapologetically grim, the game fit the aesthetics of both its era and console well. Though its punishing mechanics and exacting expectations for the player somewhat impeded its financial success, the critics welcomed the superninja Ryu Hayabusa's new adventure with open arms. A sequel for the Xbox 360 that followed in 2008 received similar acclaim, but according to Tom Lee, Team Ninja's creative director, that's when trouble began to brew.

"Hardcore action games were our claim to fame, especially in the early days of the console," says Lee. His pace is calm and measured; he considers every word carefully. "But when we came out with Ninja Gaiden 2, we felt like that was sort of the tail end of an era, or a chapter of gaming. Things were transitioning more toward a different way of looking at gaming, particularly for guys like us, who create these hardcore action experiences. We began to feel as though it was becoming more and more of a niche."

"From that point on, we felt kind of lost in trying to figure out what we're supposed to do in this new frontier. And along the way, we tried a few things that didn't work."

To say that these new undertakings merely "didn't work" might be an understatement. Though 2014's Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z – a clumsy, buggy pseudo-brawler starring a poor man's Deadpool – was undoubtedly the worst received of the developer's post-2008 output, one could at least dismiss it as a failed experiment. Not so for Gaiden 3. Released in 2012, the full-bore franchise entry stripped out much of the technical complexity of the earlier games, drawing a tepid response from both fans and potential newcomers alike. Sales cratered.

But this precipitous slide towards irrelevance can't be explained by changing tastes alone. Though Lee didn't mention it by name, his multiple references to 2008 as the beginning of Team Ninja's woes gesture towards a singular event in that year: the surprise resignation of Tomonobu Itagaki, director of the Gaiden reboots and the head of the studio, citing unpaid bonuses and a toxic corporate culture at the studio's publisher, Tecmo. As Lee says, only now is the studio emerging from this "fog" – and that's all thanks to their new game, the long-awaited Nioh, a deliberately paced action-brawler that stars the first real-life Western samurai in Japanese history.

"Nioh wasn't originally our idea – it came from the founder of Koei Tecmo," Lee says. "And to be quite honest, when it landed in our laps, we didn't know what to think of it. It wasn't something we created, and it had a white protagonist – it didn't feel like it was ours. But after carefully looking at it with fresh eyes, we saw so many possibilities."

While this reticence may seem surprising, it makes sense when you consider the studio's pedigree. After all, the studio's claims to fame is Ninja Gaiden – a series that, to reiterate, stars a so-called "superninja" that slices off the arms, legs, and faces of various demons – and Dead or Alive, a cheesecake-heavy fighting game series about (mostly) nubile young women. In other words, all of their games are uniquely Japanese. To Lee, this is a unique source of pride for the studio.

"Making this very Japanese period piece, it really shined a light on who we are as a studio," says Lee, more animated than before. "We've been trying to fit into this international scene of games by creating what we thought was globally-accessible, but there's nothing wrong with being a Japanese developer. And that gave us a newfound confidence. Everything just started to feel right once again."

"Based on the way the market is, a lot of Japanese developers could camouflage themselves in the world of fantasy, but I think this project allows us to put our culture front and center, just as if a Western developer put out a Western or a WWII genre piece... which they do. All the time," he says, laughing.

Nioh is the most Japanese game we've ever made, and I know that's saying something. 

It's hard not to interpret Lee's comments as a bit of a dig at From Software's Souls games, a fantasy series famous for its brutal difficulty, and perhaps the most surprising success story of the past decade. The deliberate pace, the stamina bar, the reliance on evasion – it's clear that Nioh was created by people with a deep awareness of Dark Souls, even down to the on-screen icons that communicate vital information to the player. But Lee downplays this comparison; after all, he's a fan himself.

"I'm not going to keep it a secret – a lot of us love the Souls series," he says. "We have a lot of respect for that franchise. We're flattered by the comparisons. But we want people out there, especially the Souls community, to realize that we also have a long history in games like this. We want people to realize we're not new to the block in terms of this category of games."

Though Lee's assertion that the team harbors no antipathy towards From Software or Dark Souls seems quite genuine, you could forgive them if they did. After all, back in 2004, Team Ninja were arguably the highest-profile developer working on these kinds of games; meanwhile, the little-known From Software was developing games like Metal Wolf Chaos, a Japan-only shooter that stars a thinly-veiled George W. Bush analogue as he raises hell in a mech suit. But Lee sees it differently. From didn't steal their thunder; they grew the pie for everyone.

"There's a growing niche of players that want something that's challenging," says Lee. "And I want to give the Souls series and their fans props for keeping the whole scene alive. But having said that, the words 'challenging' and 'difficult' are overused when describing games like ours. It's really easy to make a game that's very difficult. But there's no fun, no joy, no reward in playing a game like that."

"Nioh is very rich; if you're going to a spicy food contest, it's not like you're popping a chili pepper in your mouth and calling it a day. It's pretty complex; there's a bunch of different flavors that go into the experience, everything from the depth of the combat, to the level design, to the visuals and sound. It's a testament to who we are as Japanese developers. We don't create games that allow you to come out in the first chapter guns blazing; it doesn't work like that with us. There's a learning curve."

For most studios working on these kinds of games, a large part of balancing this precious learning curve is reaching out to eager players for feedback. But Nioh marks the first time that Team Ninja embraced it. It was a process that Lee describes as both overwhelming and extremely helpful. In an amusing development, the players were far more sophisticated in their critique than the team expected – to Lee and the rest of the team, they sounded like they could be developers themselves.

Now, as Nioh's February 7 release date looms ever-closer and fans hold their collective breath, Lee takes a more relaxed view. To him, Nioh is already a success.

"Nioh is the most Japanese game we've ever made, and I know that's saying something. I'm very proud of the fact that we were able to create a game that maintains the integrity of the type of action game that we've done in the past, but that also introduces elements that we've never explored before, such as pacing and story and the environment. It's a very personal experience for us, more than any other project we've created in the past. There's a sense of pride for us in this game, and I hope that'll come through to everyone who plays it."