Team Ninja, an in-house development studio owned by Tecmo Koei, is best known for its work on the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden franchises. The last major entry in the Dead or Alive fighting game series, Dead or Alive 4, was released one month after the launch of the Xbox 360 in late 2005. Since then, Team Ninja has focused on ports, such as Dead or Alive Dimensions for the Nintendo 3DS, Ninja Gaiden sequels for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and even brought their unique style to Nintendo’s Metroid: Other M, to mixed results. Now, with notorious figurehead Tomonobu Itagaki having left the company amid sexual misconduct allegations and a well-publicized lawsuit, Yosuke Hayashi has taken over as studio head and is charging into 2012 at full-speed with Ninja Gaiden 3 and Dead or Alive 5.
As a longtime fighting genre fan, I was eager to see how the DOA series has progressed over the past several years, especially given the steep competition from recent titles such as Mortal Kombat. The visuals have been revamped, now including far more dynamic environments, as well as dirt and sweat that accumulates on the player characters over time. Dead or Alive’s signature “breast physics” seem to have been toned down slightly, as both Ayane and Hitomi were not only dressed surprisingly modest, but featured somewhat more realistic proportions. I’m also impressed that series mascot Kasumi (of whom previous games have included life-sized pillows featuring her likeness) has taken a backseat during these early previews.
Aside from that, it seems very little has changed thus far. Still in “alpha” phase, plenty of aspects and characters are yet to be unveiled, but we were shown a new “power blow” move. By holding the right trigger button, a unique attack can be charged up that will unleash a stunning, cinematic combo that ends by allowing the player to “aim” where they would like to launch their opponent. Interactive environments have become a staple of the Dead or Alive series, and this enhanced control will let players more easily send their rival into explosive containers, upturned vehicles (which also explode, of course), and even off the side of a construction building. It’s a good start, and hopefully we’ll see several more worthwhile advancements to the franchise’s already solid gameplay.
VentureBeat sat down with Hayashi-san for an exclusive interview to discuss his current projects. These answers were given through a translator.
VentureBeat: Based on this new demo, I noticed that the move sets for Hitomi and Ayane actually seem identical to Dead or Alive 4, and I was wondering in what substantial ways–besides the power blows–has the gameplay changed since the last iteration?
Yosuke Hayashi: Right now we’re still in a very early part of development. What we’re focusing on for this event are the power blows. You might be able to get a feel for… A little bit different hold on the action that’s going on. So in terms of the actual move sets, the final move sets that are going to be in the game, that’s something that we’re going to be brushing up until the very end.
VB: Will the story of Ninja Gaiden III tie into Dead or Alive 5?
YH: The worlds for DOA and Ninja Gaiden III are kind of different. I mean, it’s the same world, they’re all living in the same place, but we treat them differently. So you won’t get a strong link between the stories for Ninja Gaiden III and Dead or Alive 5. But there will be links that people will notice. For example, the sword that [Ryu] has on his back in Dead or Alive 5. If you played the Ninja Gaiden III stage that we have, the single-player stage out here, he actually gets that sword from Ayane. So there are links there between the two games, but it’s not like there’s a direct, like, sequel link or anything like that.
VB: Ninja Gaiden has always had a very serious story, even back in the 8-bit days, while Dead or Alive has had a mix of serious and mostly humorous endings. But they’re always very short, the endings are just little standalone snippets. Has the handling of the story in Dead or Alive evolved at all since the last one?
YH: Ninja Gaiden III really focuses around Ryu Hayabusa and his story. For Dead or Alive, though, every character is their own main character in their story. So the way that you put the stories together is different when every character has to be a main character. That changes the way that we approach stories in Dead or Alive versus Ninja Gaiden.
VB: Have you looked at what games like the new Mortal Kombat and BlazBlue have done with their story modes? Generally speaking, a lot of people say story doesn’t fit in fighting games, because nobody cares. But I think that these and a few other games have proven that you can do something meaningful with a story in a fighting game. Have you looked at those at all and if so, what did you think about them?
YH: We’ve definitely looked at what else is out there, and we understand that a lot of people feel that story is an afterthought for fighting games. But if you’re going to really link with the character, if you’re going to feel connected to the character that you’re using, story is vital to making that link with the character. So we’re definitely looking at ways to incorporate story into Dead or Alive 5 that fit within the fighting game genre, that work for a fighting game. Something that’s still compelling, that’s not just an afterthought, that works together with the gameplay to reinforce the characters. So we’re definitely taking a look at how we do story in fighting games for Dead or Alive 5.
VB: Itagaki was the face of Team Ninja for a long time. Now that he’s gone, how has that impacted the franchise?
YH: We understand that Itagaki was the father of these franchises. I personally was under him, a member of the team working on the franchises, and the rest of the staff members that are now coming to the forefront for Team Ninja were also raised in that environment under him. So it’s… We feel like it’s our duty to raise the IP and raise the franchises that he created, raise them up like our own children and see them grow and see them flourish. That’s what we’re focusing on as a team, to keep that going and make them grow.
VB: Is there anything, maybe, that you couldn’t do while Itagaki was team leader that you’re now free to experiment with or move towards now?
YH: Everybody was working on the games even when he was around, everybody was giving 110% to make those games. So it’s not like there was a rule that we couldn’t do one thing or another, it was just… The games were developed how they were developed. Times have changed, though, development has changed, games are made by a group of people, and the people that are making those games feel passionate about what they’re making, they’re going to put everything that they have into that game. If those people change, you’ll see some of that come out in the game, you’ll see the flavor change a little bit. There’s no real direct “well, now we’re free to do this.” But there are changes that people will feel, just because the people making the games have changed somewhat.
VB: Dead or Alive has always had a surplus of unlockable costumes. But since Dead or Alive 4, a lot of games have started taking stuff that used to be in games for free and doing it as downloadable content. Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 and Street Fighter IV are two notable examples. How do you feel about that?
YH: With developers taking stuff that they normally would have put on the disc and selling that for DLC later, we think that lowers the value of the actual disc, the players that are going to buy that disc. We don’t think that’s a good way to do things. But as for using DLC as a way to add more stuff and increase the longevity of the title, if we’re adding stuff later we think that will… Fans will enjoy that, we as developers will enjoy that, we’ll just have that much more time to spend with that game. That’s the approach that we would like to take.
VB: With so many fighting games out there and so many iterations–King of Fighters just hit their 15th anniversary, etc.–there’s hundreds of characters to choose from. Are you finding it hard to find new ways to innovate in the space, new fighting styles that people will find interesting, that haven’t been done before?
YH: Up until now, we think that other titles have sort of gone back and tried to reach a more casual audience. Trying to go back. We don’t feel like that’s pushing the genre forward, trying to create a future for the genre. For us, we’re shooting for this “fighting entertainment.” We’re trying to bring something new to the genre as a whole experience, move it forward. It’s not about just going back and trying to make it easy for casual players or stuff like that. There’s something more that we’re bringing with DOA5 that will appeal to a mass audience as well as the hardcore fighters that should be able to get in there with the system and enjoy DOA as a fighting game, in and of itself.
VB: Street Fighter X Tekken and Marvel vs. Capcom have proven that anything is possible in the game space. I understand that Itagaki had an outward hatred for Tekken, but now that he’s not there, what are the odds or your interest in a Dead or Alive vs. Tekken game?
YH: Itagaki might have left, but the hatred for Tekken is still around in the team [laughter]. So when we see Street Fighter X Tekken and those kinds of games… We’re coming out with Dead or Alive. We don’t need to rely on anything else to present Dead or Alive as a strong fighting game in the genre. We don’t need that kind of thing to prove ourselves. We understand that Tekken has… It opened the way for 3D fighting games, we understand that it has a long history, we respect that history, but we’re coming in as a challenger to those 3D fighting games. We’re there to represent and take them on.
Ninja Gaiden III is set for a March 2012 release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, while Dead or Alive 5 will be coming a few months later. Stay tuned for additional previews and coverage.