Beat Your Game to Death

Ninjas Don’t Cry
Ninja Gaiden II, the latest installment in Tecmo’s classic action series, opens with a cut scene featuring a new character, Sonia, a woman with a shaggy mop of white-blonde hair, a prominent Greek nose, clear blue eyes and tight leather clothes. She’s at a little shop in Tokyo, asking after Ryu Hayabusa, hero of the Ninja Gaiden games, when somebody busts through the door: a ninja of the Black Spider Clan, ancient enemies of Ryu’s Dragon Lineage.

Sonia draws two .45 automatics and plugs the unfortunate Spider ninja in the belly. She steps outside and shoots another one right in the face mask. A third ninja knocks the guns out of her hands. The pistols fall to the wooden deck, and the camera zooms in on them. One lies in shadow, the other in light.

The Spider ninjas wrap Sonia up in chains and loom over her, waggling their big, menacing, claw-like weapons. Then shurikens whirl through the Tokyo night, neatly dispatching the bad guys. The last one standing doesn’t notice as Ryu himself approaches behind him. Ryu cleaves his foe in two at the shoulder, stands over the helpless Sonia and flicks the gore off his blade. She looks up at him plaintively.

Imposed over these images of Ryu and Sonia meeting for the first time are the following words: “Directed by Tomonobu Itagaki.”

What’s on display here is the bad blood between two game series, Ninja Gaiden and Capcom’s Devil May Cry. Sonia is a mockery of Dante, hero of Devil May Cry, a white-blonde, blue-eyed guy with a prominent Greek nose and a propensity for leather. He wields a pair of .45 autos called Ebony and Ivory. The placement of Itagaki’s name on the shot of Ryu standing over a helpless parody of Dante sends a message: Ninja Gaiden, not Devil May Cry, stands at the crest of Hardcore Hill.

But who gets that joke? Who cares about such archaic, macho grandstanding? Who is Itagaki’s message really for?

The answer is: the worst possible videogame customer.

The Hardcore Suicide Pact
Developers of games like Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry cater to hardcore players, but who is this kind of player and why is he such a bad customer? What does the term “hardcore” really mean?

“Striving to be the best at the game,” says Robert “Sneh” Caron, one of the top posters at, a site devoted to high-level Ninja Gaiden play. I first visited it for its videos, which showcase the immense gaming possibilities of Ninja Gaiden. Sneh has put up some of the best vids for Mission Mode, an unlockable game that places Ryu in a series of increasingly difficult arena challenges.

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“Some of the missions that I the hold high score for took literally months of daily playing,” says Sneh. “You’re looking at devoting hundreds of hours of gameplay time to get a three-minute High Score run recorded on video.”

This kind of statement gives industry executives pause. Someone like Sneh finds satisfaction in playing a single game extensively, rather than many games casually. But Microsoft did not introduce the Xbox merely to revive the career of the modern super ninja. Consoles need many games to support them. If developers and hardcore players determined the market, studios would produce huge, deep, complicated games, and hardcore players would purchase just a few of these games each year. The whole industry would collapse.

What we have instead is a four-way compromise between money men, developers, hardcore players and casuals. Any game made today has to satisfy all of these parties. As one might expect, this often results in disaster.

The Leaderboards Fell Quiet for the Ninjas of Summer
On July 25th, Tecmo released Mission Mode for Ninja Gaiden II as a $10 download on Xbox Live. Ninja Gaiden fans had decried NGII for lacking this feature at launch. The 2004 Ninja Gaiden featured Mission Mode on-disc (that’s where Sneh got his scores), and the NGII Prima guide listed the mode as an unlockable. When it appeared as downloadable content on Live, fans suspected Tecmo had held it back to soak up more cash.

Then things got worse. Installing Mission Mode causes NGII‘s story mode to crash in the later chapters. To remove the glitch, you have to clear your Xbox 360’s cache of every update you’ve ever installed. Further, you must remain offline while playing NGII or XboxLive will force you to re-install the update, nixing your ability to upload scores from the end of story mode. If you’ve just aced Master Ninja difficulty (the hardest), your score will never see the light of the official leaderboards.

Tecmo has well and truly screwed its hardcore fans. But what else are they to do? Ninja Gaiden II rewards players for finishing the game multiple times, as does Devil May Cry 4. You get goodies for multiple wins: costumes, gamer pics, art galleries and, best of all, harder difficulty levels. You even get a New Game Plus, allowing you to play through the campaign again on the same difficulty level with all your accumulated experience, gear and stats. These features provide replay value, but they also evince a sort of economic madness.

Replayability is a selling point, but it also dissuades us from playing other games. When you play one game, you’re not playing – and likely not buying – another. With NGII, Tecmo tried both to foster obsession and maintain a high purchase rate. They bollixed it up on both counts. However, they would not have done better by delivering bugless DLC. What Tecmo needs to learn is the lesson of schwag.

The Meaning of Schwag
The first run of Devil May Cry 4 included a small hardcover art book. A couple of months ago, Tecmo released a documentary on the making of Ninja Gaiden II. You cannot produce promotional items like this for Bejeweled. This schwag is meant to show us that these games have real depth.

The NGII documentary is largely embarrassing. It shows scenes of Itagaki and the boys of Team Ninja, Tecmo’s crack commandos of programming, swilling beer in a bar lined with Iron Maiden posters and arguing over which enemies to include in the game. Alert readers of this publication know that many members of Team Ninja, including Itagaki, recently resigned from Tecmo over bonus and overtime pay disputes. In the film, we see Itagaki earning his money: Slouched in a chair, looking through sunglasses at an alpha build of NGII, he says, “It would be cool to have bats up there.”

The Art of Devil May Cry 4 consists mainly of screenshots from the game, some taken from early in its development. But it also offers watercolor concept illustrations of the game’s two protagonists, Nero and Dante, along with mechanical breakdown drawings of Nero’s weapons. Nero’s sword, the Red Queen, has a motorcycle-like throttle on its hilt and a hand guard shaped like a brake lever. You can actually rev up the sword in the game, a feature that elicited many a cry of “bitchin’!” from Devil May Cry fans. In this book, we learn that revving the sword actually jets some terrible inflammable liquid all over Nero’s opponents. Totally bitchin’!

But is it really informative?

Maybe. The description of Nero’s sword as a sort of flamethrower in its revved attacks may give us a glimpse into the collision detection of certain moves in the game. After reading the book, I can go back to DMC4 and see if the Red Queen sends out a wave of damage when throttled, extending my reach.

Similarly, Itagaki’s thoughts on enemy placement can also inform my play. Memorizing enemy positioning becomes increasingly important as you progress through Ninja Gaiden II‘s difficulty levels. It may help me to beat Master Ninja mode if I understand Itagaki’s notion of game design coolness.

This schwag helps us play, which is not what it ought to do. Schwag ought to seduce us into buying the game. The stuff above, like Mission Mode, actually caters to people already obsessed with these games. The industry needs to learn how to leverage these people, not merely give them junk or squeeze their billfolds. Here’s the lesson: Hardcore players make the greatest schwag of all.

The Seduction of Obsession
No marketing effort by Capcom turned me on to Devil May Cry. That distinction belongs to The Hand Vs Eye, a game video site maintained by the immensely talented and somewhat mysterious “Gemasis Sydawn.”

A Brit currently working as a software developer in Dubai, Gemasis records most of the site’s videos himself. He often starts playing at 6 in the evening only to finish at 4 in the morning. The dude barely stops to rest, but his loss of sleep is our gain. The Hand Vs Eye first appeared in 2005 and focused mainly on Devil May Cry 3. It had good core content, but updates were scattershot and the site eventually folded after a year and a half. “It was, dare I say, casual,” admits Gemasis.

He revived the site earlier this year, showcasing Devil May Cry 4, but incorporating high-level vids from other games too: Metal Gear Solid 4, Dark Sector, Haze, even Ninja Gaiden II. A single ethic unites these video projects: “Whatever game we do, we’ll do it at its hardest difficulty,” he says.

The work of hardcore players like Gemasis’ on display at The Hand Vs Eye and is the ultimate schwag. These players don’t just beat a game; they kill its dogs and salt its fields. They make me want to do the same.

Playing hard games on hard difficulties is exhilarating. Pushing through NGII on “Mentor” – its “very hard” setting – I find my eyes bugging out and sweat pouring down my sides. I chew my lips like a speedfreak. And when I’m not dying from some cheap-ass rocket fired from off-screen, I look awesome. One of the paradoxes of high-level play is that you can sometimes pull off cool-looking combo attacks more easily on harder difficulties. On low settings, enemies die too quickly for the player to kill them with panache.

Crazy nuts like Sneh and Gemasis attracted me to this brand of play – and they showed me how to achieve it myself. Even better, their instruction comes free both for me and for game makers. Or, rather, it’s free for those developers and publishers who invest in content that draws the hardcore crowd. Yes, hardcore players may consume fewer games than casuals, but they more than make up for their rarefied tastes by publicizing the games that satisfy them. We could call this arrangement the Hardcore Survival Pact.

This pact also holds for the kind of people who would get a joke like the one Itagaki made in NGII‘s opening sequence. They’re hardcore, too. Obsession is the definitive aspect of hardcore gaming, and it comes in many forms. There are as many ways to beat a game to death as there are to skin a cat. It’s just as compelling to discover a detailed, earnest analysis of why all the protagonists of Devil May Cry look exactly the same, as it is to check out the heights of the leaderboards. They both indicate that there’s a huge, complex, vibrant world that you can tap into by picking up the game.

I know I’ll never put up a top score in Ninja Gaiden, nor write a FAQ for it, nor post a video of myself playing it. But as long as guys like Itagaki season their games with egomaniacal grandstanding, I’ll be there to point and laugh. That’s my hardcore contribution to the continued health of gaming, my come-hither wink to those shy and giggling casuals.

Ray Huling’s a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. He can’t wait to escape from New York back to Lovecraft Country.

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