Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z has an Image Problem

This reboot and its early-'90s comic aesthetic trod a well-worn path.

Preview by Bob Mackey, .

When I sat down to play Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z for the first time, the calendar told me it was 2013 -- but for all I knew, I could have been warped back to 1993. With the protagonist's garish, tattered outfit and arbitrarily assigned mechanical parts -- Kano called and he wants his red robo-eye back -- this reboot of the quarter-century-old series has somehow transformed Ninja Gaiden into an unmistakable facsimile of early '90s Image comics: The heavy metal, teen-friendly brand that sought to reinvent the medium by giving young creators control of their characters, adding a bunch of superfluous lines to everything, and never getting a book out on time.

It's not just Yaiba's visuals that flooded my brain with memories of wasting valuable money just to see Spawn give a cybernetic gorilla what for; from start-to-finish, my entire demo session was dripping with the same pissy, upstart attitude that once stood as the mission statement of the House Todd MacFarlane Built. Along with the heaving bosoms, shredded torsos, and generally Juggalesque designs, Yaiba has a real fascination with profanity -- that of the "mom's just a few rooms away, so let's not get too rowdy" variety. Characters spout curses with the naive glee of kids just learning that, yes, they can say these big people words, too. That said, it didn't take very long for me to understand I'm not exactly the ideal audience for Ninja Gaiden Z -- but with the game's 17-and-up rating of "Mature," I'm not sure who is.

He's coming for you, Johnny Cage!

Before I paint myself as a pearl-clutching prude, it's important to note that immaturity can be done right. 2009's The House of the Dead: Overkill -- and the recent, typing-focused remake -- completely committed to its offensive, low-budget goal of recreating the gore-laden '70s horror exploitation movie, and did an amazingly offensive job by pushing shocking absurdity to its absolute limits. In contrast, Yaiba feels kind of joyless; it wants to throw around four-letter words and blood-spewing body parts, but the madness seems low-key and reined in -- though, thankfully, the combined forces of Spark Unlimited, Team Ninja, and Keiji Inafune's Comcept were not cynical enough to slap on a film grain filter in an attempt to brand Yaiba as a half-assed tribute to grindhouse cinema.

Though its up-front edginess may struggle to give a different impression, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z has an extremely safe, focus-tested feel. Thankfully, it doesn't make the mistake of taking itself seriously, but, regardless, Yaiba's central premise feels like it was chosen based on the most popular trends in gaming over the last decade: zombies, Russians, and revenge. As a result, Gaiden Z never has to try that hard, since it's drawing from a pool of broad and overused ideas we've seen done to death in recent years. In our modern times -- and thanks to a certain billion-selling series by PopCap -- the "zombie joke" is now just as corny as your balding uncle explaining that skeletons can't reproduce because of their Hollow Weenies. The result is a production with the same sweaty desperation of a Count Floyd bit, but without any of the important self-awareness.

Mark Silvestri's all like, "Expect a letter from my lawyer!"

Yaiba isn't all that interested in veering from design trends, either; its action remains true to the style pioneered by Devil May Cry and riffed on by the likes of God of War, Bayonetta, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but Gaiden Z's fighting system feels a bit sloppy when compared to similar games, and Yaiba tends to disappear within the throngs of zombies surrounding him, making combos difficult to pull off. Chaining together punches, sword slashes, and flail attacks can feel good when it works well, but Gaiden Z falters when it asks you to do anything more complicated -- during the demo, I had an unexpected amount of trouble tossing an explosive zombie into a helicopter without instead targeting the enemies in front of it, blowing all of us to hell in the process.

And, on this note, some of the zombies of Yaiba operate under an "elemental" system -- the elements in the case being bile, fire, and electricity -- mostly used to solve dirt-simple environmental puzzles, like throwing an electric zombie into a nearby generator. If the solutions to these obstacles escape you, a simple press of LB brings up an overlay that shows you exactly what to do in any situation -- not the most elegant approach, but perhaps a sign that Yaiba knows its audience.

Ah, bloom lighting. Just the thing to really nail that authentic NES style.

Tampering with such a long and storied (and at times troubled) series can bring its share of Internet outrage, so to bridge the gap between old and new Gaiden fans, Yaiba offers "Ninja Gaiden Z Mode," unlocked by either finishing the game, or, fittingly enough, by inputting a special code. This old-school variant focuses on retro gaming aesthetics and challenge, complete with a dialed-back story involving the search for a lost sake bottle -- one that also serves as a refreshing and brisk alternative to the game's typical wordiness. The level I played featured the same game play as the main campaign, but displayed in a perspective more like that of the NES games. I'm probably going to be a little harsher than most when it comes to judging whether or not something comes off as an honest tribute to classic gaming, but in this case, Yaiba's Ninja Gaiden Z mode doesn't really commit as much as it could.

And that's the sense I get from Yaiba in general: I'm sure people are working hard on it, but it doesn't attempt to be anything more an extremely safe reboot, build upon a foundation of bland, corporate "edginess." Granted, I've only seen a small slice of the game so far, but it's still disappointing to witness the forces of Team Ninja and Comcept -- two developers with a lot of history behind them -- pump out a game that would feel only a little less underwhelming in 2007 than 2014. If "embracing the West" entails resting on the same tired tropes seen endlessly throughout the last generation -- again with the zombies! -- I'm hoping these developers rethink their approach for future projects.

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 9

  • Avatar for alexb #1 alexb 4 years ago
    Reminds me of Final Fight: Streetwise in its wrongheaded Western pandering and low quality.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for kingaelfric #2 kingaelfric 4 years ago
    Oh Team Ninja, thank you for playing, and see you next
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for cscaskie #3 cscaskie 4 years ago
    Everyone's harshing on Team Ninja (understandably so, because Ninja Gaiden 3 was an abortion), but it's important to take as step back and note how minimal their involvement is in Yaiba. This game is being made by a US team, Spark Unlimited:

    The author does mention this. Team Ninja is playing more of an advisory role here - think of Retro doing Metroid under Nintendo's supervision. Yaiba's failings aren't so much Team Ninja's fault. The game is being developed by an American team, with distinctly American action game flavor. I'm not necessarily defending the game, or it's juvenile tone (even though I really do want to play it), I just want to make sure you guys understand who's making this game.Edited 3 times. Last edited December 2013 by cscaskie
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #4 Kuni-Nino 4 years ago
    Spark has to be mentioned a lot more. Team Ninja probably has little to do with this.

    That being the case, this is an excellent write-up and the kind of preview I want to see more of. I love me some character action games, but the tone of this game and the devs behind it have given me reason to stay cautious.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Guy-Guy #5 Guy-Guy 4 years ago
    Not to sound like a d**k, but this is the type of journalism that deflates the entire "point" of videogames, which is entertainment.
    Outside of that bit with trouble targeting a helicopter, I mean--- what does this preview actually say other than a bunch of middle-brow commentary on just about every quality of what was played, except for the actual PLAYING part, which is the only genuine thing that matters.
    Yaiba looks like silly, action-game fun, and that's what it has looked like when it was first shown through now. But all this off-beat chat about the core Ninja-Gaiden series, or whether or not the art-direction is meaningfully, and criticism about an in-game mini-game not living up to its roots--- I mean, did you actually even give this game a chance, or did you undertake the demo with a pissed-off look while cycling through all the things modern journalists are not supposed to like about videogames these days?
    Just reminds me of reviews and previews for Suda 51's modern stuff, and other gameplay-focused titles like the Splatterhouse reboot. The games are fun and while they don't do anything "new" in the gameplay department, they still play exceptionally well. But journalists neglect that for the sake of off-tracking about pseudo-grindhouse aesthetics and personal feelings about sensational items like gore and the zombie trend.
    I'll keep an eye out for the next preview that comes around: maybe that person will have actually played it.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Dogislander #6 Dogislander 4 years ago
    @Kuni-Nino You're right, Mackey should definitely attribute this more to the actual studio that is developing it. It's like blaming Capcom for the tone of DmC, which was completely Ninja Theory's baby.

    Yeah, depressing change overall, but that's what happens when you take a uniquely Japanese franchise and put it in the hands of Western sensibilities. The success stories are few and far between (HOTD Overkill definitely being one. Good call, Bob.)
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Timobkg #7 Timobkg 4 years ago
    Yaiba doesn't have an image problem, it has a writing / maturity / target audience problem.

    Such choice dialog as "Take a suck..." and "Can I see through your dress with this thing?", aside from being sexist, makes it seem like they pulled their writer straight from their teenage boy demographic. I happen to love the way the game looks, but I'll be passing on it unless they change the immature, juvenile writing.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Lync #8 Lync 4 years ago
    @FreeTheMechs It talks extensively about the gameplay and how it compares rather unfavourably to other games of the genre. A big part of this reboot however seems to be the new aesthetic and tone, and it's certainly what strikes you first when experiencing the game, and is very warranted in the write-up.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for rajqvr #9 rajqvr A year ago
    I never tried this game before but when I read this article I think that this game has very good Images and graphics, and I have to try it once. So, wait. When I will play this game once I will share my views with you.
    Sign in to Reply