Ninja Gaiden (Xbox)
There was a time when no one could tell if Tomonobu Itagaki, the then-brash and eccentric lead of Team Ninja, was full of his own shit. Itagaki was known for making a lot of wild claims throughout his career and was heading into Ninja Gaiden cocksure that he would create one of the hardest action games in the sixth generation of consoles … and to everyone’s surprise, he lived up to that. Any half-assed designer can toss together a difficult game, but it takes a skilled touch to craft something that’s difficult yet fair. The secret to Itagaki and Team Ninja nailing this came down to a fighting game-esque battle system that was complemented by ridiculously well-thought-out enemy encounters, who often shared a similar battle system and used different attack patterns from one another that required constant on-the-fly strategic decisions. Ninja Gaiden wasn’t hard because Itagaki and Team Ninja were being unfair … it was hard because the average gamer had to learn to stop mindlessly mashing through action games.
Where are they now? Itagaki left Team Ninja shortly before the release of Ninja Gaiden II for the 360, subsequently suing publisher Tecmo Koei over a conflict related to bonuses. He’s now head of Valhalla Game Studios, working on Devil’s Third. The Ninja Gaiden series itself has been through some shaky times, with Team Ninja and Tecmo Koei struggling to have the series stand on its own in a post-Itagaki world. The latest effort, Yaiba Ninja Gaiden Z, was a collaboration between top talent from Team Ninja, Spark Unlimited, and Comcept. Critics did not care for it.
Gradius V (PlayStation 2)
With Ikaruga gaining a lot of praise, Treasure was going into the PlayStation 2 as prom queen of the shoot-em’-up ball. That is until it flopped into the punch bowl in an incident known as Silpheed: The Lost Planet. The legendary developer needed redemption and, coincidentally, Konami wanted to revive the Gradius series (perhaps in response to R-Type Final?). Lead designer of Ikaruga and ex-Konami worker bee Hiroshi Iuchi took charge of the project. Treasure’s uncanny talent for laying out creative and challenging encounters that can make any game mechanic seem remarkably deep, is dripping all over Gradius V. Making it one of the best chapters in the series’ long history, if not one of the top shoot em’ ups on the PlayStation 2.
Where are they now?: In 2013, Treasure released a 3D action game in Japan called Gaist Crusher (based off of the manga and anime of the same name). A follow-up, Gaist Crusher God, is in development. As for the Gradius line, a homage to the older titles was released on WiiWare in 2008: Gradius ReBirth. Gradius ARC hit mobile phones in 2010 as a strategy game. In 2011 the series reached “IP platform hell”, aka slot machines, with the clever named Gradius: The Slot. A Gradius VI: Last Gaiden was teased to be in development in 2005, but that wound up canceled within a year. Until Konami contracts Treasure and Iuchi to revive Last Gaiden’s development, shoot-em’-up fans are going to have to stick to V when they are getting the shakes for some Gradius action. Not that having to play Gradius V is horrible in any way, shape, or form.
Silent Hill 4: The Room (PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC)
When people think back on the best of Silent Hill, they tend not to remember The Room. In an already weird collection of survival-horror games, Silent Hill 4: The Room was weirder, taking place in a locked apartment room and several dreary locations outside the eponymous foggy town. It’s not the most popular entry, but for me, The Room was as memorable and powerful as its predecessor, the much revered Silent Hill 2. This time, instead of the loneliness of extreme isolation, players confronted an overwhelming sense of doom and voyeurism — the perverseness of watching others through gaps in the walls and doors and the horrible creeping feeling of someone peering back. That oppressive atmosphere only grew thicker with each new haunting and killing courtesy of madman Walter Sullivan. Wherever the mysterious holes that appeared in Henry Townshend’s apartment took him, it wasn’t to freedom.
Where are they now?: Konami has been quiet about the series since Silent Hill: Book of Memories appeared on the PlayStation Vita in 2012. The original developer, Team Silent, ended its time on the games with The Room, leaving Konami to shuffle the series around to a handful of different creators.
WarioWare, Inc: Mega Party Games! (GameCube)
I imagine the original one line synopsis for WarioWare, Inc: Mega Party Games! is, “create a game for game designers.”
Nintendo really showed its design chops by tossing 138 minigames at us that all adhere to two rules: It must have no more than two inputs, and it can’t last long than 5 seconds. The player mastering each mini-game cleverly played into the larger design, where the challenge is all about speed and adaptation as the games fly by at a panic pace. For a time when mobile phone game development was in its infancy, where developers were working on platforms that were incredibly limited, Nintendo successfully executing the quick and simple concept of these minigames was highly relevant for 2004.
Where are they now? The excitement of the WarioWare series, unfortunately, fizzled out a bit somewhere in between the many sequels and platform adaptations. With that said, anyone in the game industry that does not own the GameCube version of this game is not to be trusted.
Katamari Damacy (PlayStation 2)
We have to thank the King of All Cosmos for the miracle of delivering this slice of Japanese weirdness to the West. Only he would have the vision to send his miniature son on a mission to recreate the galaxy by rolling up anything — living or not — he can find into a ball. The simple controls, bare graphics, and iconic soundtrack make the game a distant cousin to the mobile and indie games of today, but the beauty of Katamari Damacy lies in its sense of scale. The Prince starts off by picking up trash in a small house, but the ball only gets larger until it’s capable of rolling up entire countries.
Where Are They Now?: The game enjoyed several sequels and spinoffs through the years, most recently on the PlayStation Vita and iOS store. The Prince joined Pac-Man as a recurring mascot for Namco Bandai, and at one point the New York Museum of Modern Art featured Katamari Damacy in its halls.
Next: Battle in the ring, on the field, through the streets, and into the fog of war