Ninjas in Gaming: A How-To
As a martial artist and a gamer, it shouldn’t be a surprise to you that I love me some ninjas, in fact, my whole “I’m a samurai who uses a wooden katana” persona is actually a cover up for actually BEING a ninja!
Wait…*erases your mind of the last few seconds*…It shouldn’t be a surprise to you that I love me some ninjas, not just the history and reality of them, but even the mythology and fantasy, and of course, I love them in video games too.
So, I’m wondering if there’s better and more interesting ways to portray them in games then they are already, to do that we’ll have to take a look at them.
In fantasy they are made out to be shadow-warriors with magic powers, which is the simplest way to portray them, not accurate, but it works for whatever genre the ninja character would be in. Otherwise they’re just the Japanese equivalent of assassins or they’re hit men who kill for money, I don’t particularly like this portrayal, but it’s a nice go-to if you need a ninja as a villain, or they are just regular warriors or martial artist, but more ninja-ish.
Historically, ninjas were like the secret agents or military commandos we see in fiction today. However, a ninja wasn’t just stealth, inflitration and combat, they also learned and practiced espionage, survival, setting traps, disguises, and most importantly, psychology. In fact it was psychology that was their greatest strength; by understanding his own personality, thoughts, desires, doubts, beliefs and so on, the ninja would learn to make himself aware of the world around him and his place in it on a higher level then average man, and by doing so, he would learn and develop how to subtly manipulate his foe by using his fears, anger, sympathy, pride and sense of security against him, it was this psychology that spawned the myth that ninjas could control the minds of men.
So what does all this have to do with ninjas in video games? Simple, how and what a ninja character would do in a game can based on wether we’re using the history, myhtology or both to protray the ninja.
For the most obvious example, let’s use stealth games. Now Tenchu has it down pretty good, using the history of ninjas to make them the secret agents of Lord Goda whenever another lord seeks to wage war with them, and used the fantasy of them to have them using fire spells and battling demons, and Metal Gear does a good job of using the fantasy of ninjas to portray how they would be in a modern/futuristic setting. However, I think a proper stealth game for a ninja should use only the historical elements of ninjas, no magic and combat, just sneaking, but also have the player use ninja tools; smoke bombs for escapes, noise makers and stink bombs to lure enemies away, set snares or bear traps in enemy patrol routes, sneak poison into enemies food, maybe if the game were in modern times or a sci-fi setting add a camo-device that only works when the player is standing still. But don’t just make it about sneaking and killing, have mission about info gathering; tailing people to see where they go and who they interact with, waiting until they are alone and off guard to capture them and then interrogating them. Maybe have the player steal keys from enemies to get past certain doors, or key cards if it’s in modern day. In addition to enemy detection, a modern day setting would also have the player avoiding cameras and motion detectors and maybe even body heat sensors, and perhaps eye and fingerprint scanners that the player has to kill a certain enemy and cut off his hand or eye to get past. Here’s an idea, make it so completing certain mission can effect other ones, for example a mission to steal enemy documents will give you info on enemy layouts or patrol route, or the location of key card to doors or which enemy is holding them, or give the player a complete map of the level right at start rather then having filled put as they explore the level.
Now let’s look at RPGs, most RPGs make ninjas into DPS or support roles much like rouges, such as the original Final Fantasy where thieves would evolve into ninjas. That makes sense, but if we’re using the historical ninja he would be a combination fighter-rouge; able to use combat skills for offense, and could use his various tools (shuriken, smoke bombs, binding techniques, etc) to cause status ailments to enemies for support. But if we combine the history and fantasy, we would have a ninja that could cast magic, thus making him into a jack-of-all-trades; combat for DPS or even tanking, tools and stealth for support, plus attack magic, healing magic, and status altering magic, allowing the ninja to fit whatever role needed in battle. In a single-player open-world RPG like Skyrim, a ninja would be the perfect class for players such as myself who like to have balance in their character rather then specialize in one type of play style.
Platformers? Ninja Gaiden comes to mind of course, so I say let’s take it’s approach; make it about the platforming first, and use the enemies as obstacles. For a good ninja platformer we should use the fantasy ninja so we can use ninja magic for special attacks, and use the ninjas agility to navigate all the usual obstacles of platforming; falling and moving platforms, balance beams, swinging from bars and ropes, hanging from ledges or monkey bars, etc. The ninja would throw ninja stars as his primary attack, and use a sword for a close range secondary attack, with the stars doing less damage then sword to balance out it’s usefulness as a ranged attack. Enemies would die in two or three hits, with bosses having patterns and weak spots and taking multiple hits to defeat. There could also be a stealth element in having enemies only attack if the player enters their line of sight, and allowing an instant kill if they sword attack while the enemy has not seen them. Maybe have samurai enemies that can only take damage from behind and you have to use a dodge action to get behind them when they attack, maybe have archer enemies that can see the player from further away. Give the player wall jumping or a grappling hook that they could use to swing from, further expanding on the platforming sequences. Throw in a meter that tells the player how much noise they’re making, and have guard dogs that can’t see as well as guard but can hear them better, also have enemies see the player easier if he’s standing in bright areas, give the player the ability to hide in bushes allowing them hide within an enemies line of sight as long as they don’t move, but when they move in the bushes they make noise, and if the enemy see them while moving they get caught. Maybe even reward a players stealth by having “Don’t kill enemies” and “Don’t get caught” as optional objectives in addition to getting to the end of the level. For magic the player could use scroll items each with a different effect and use, being lost once used, have a limit on how many scrolls a player can have at once, letting them arrange how many scrolls of what kind they have between levels. A fireball scroll for doing damage to all enemies around the player, an ice scroll for freezing the enemy, a scroll to turn invisible, a camouflage scroll to turn into a rock or log whenever an enemy is about to see the player, all good options. Fun, varied, simplistic, player gets to make decisions, this is all a good recipe for a good ninja platformer, I think a game like this should already exist, if it doesn’t, it needs to.
I’m going stop there because it’s getting long, but everything i’ve talked about has been used in video games before, ninja based or otherwise, or can be used in a video game now, and I’d like to hear how other people would think a ninja game of other genres would work.