USA: November 2003
Europe: Q1 2004
Developer: Argonaut
Publisher: Namco

Interview by: Andreas Misund Berntsen

I-Ninja is an upcoming platform / arcade game from the well known publisher Namco, designed for next generation consoles. You'll be obviously be playing the role of a Ninja, fighting endless hordes of baddies and collecting powerups. Read on for more about I-Ninja and be sure to check out our recent preview of the PS2 version of the game.

Hi, please introduce yourself and your company to our readers.

Namco: Jon Kromrey (Producer)
Argonaut: Jamie Walker (Co-Producer), Seb Canniff (Co-Producer), Dax Ginn (Lead Designer)

I guess we should start with the main character, could you tell us about Ninja and his exploits?

Most ninja games that we have played feature very serious characters and storylines. The ninjas in those games are very honorable and self-righteous. We set out to make a ninja character who is cool, but not at all serious about what he does. This Ninja is angry....all the time. He shoots first and doesn’t bother asking questions at all. This gets him into trouble at the start of the game when he accidentally kills his master while in a Beserka Rage brought on by a Rage Stone. These stones are a source of awesome strength. Ninja, with his now-dead Sensei helping/haunting him, must take back these stones from the evil Ranx and use them to defeat their leader, Master O-Dor.

The official website mentions the super villain Master O-Dor and his army of Ranx – could you tell us some more?

Most of this is revealed in the story of the game and through the great animated sequences from Don Bluth Films, so we can’t reveal all of it... but here’s a sneak peek; The Ranx Army is Master-O-Dor’s mass produced elite fighting force. They are somewhere between robotic and genetically created creatures, and range from fighters to mechs, ninja-assassins, rocket-shooters, and more – there are even Ranx bosses which combat Ninja in Manga-Space. As Ninja pursues his enemies through the game, he eventually faces O-Dor on his secret Moon Base and they battle for the most powerful Rage Stone of all...

I’m sure most are aware that 3d platformers aren’t rare these days. To really make a good impression you do need something innovative in terms of gameplay. The official movie that was released a while ago shows some interesting mechanics. Could you elaborate a bit on what Ninja will actually be doing, except walking around slicing up goons?

We didn’t want to follow these standard platform game formulas and were committed to making a game that was interesting and unpredictable from start to finish. At several points in the production cycle we reviewed the variety of gameplay we had and kept adding more and more and more stuff. The result is a game chock-full of variety, additional combos, pickups, and unlockable minigames.

There are many different mechanics Ninja needs to use as he progresses through the game. In the beginning they are the basics – jumping, wall running, chain swinging, sword hovering, grinding... even rolling around on a giant laser-eyeball! Then comes running up and down half pipes, ‘power chaining’ around 180-degree bends, fighting underwater in a submarine, taking control of mechanized ‘enforcers’ that fire mini-guns and plasma cannons, shooting remote-controlled rockets, defending the shores by using a large fixed gun placement and riding on the back of rockets, and more... (whew!)

As the game continues, the player will have to use each of these gameplay mechanics in different combinations, and even in back-to-back combos in order to get to the end of tougher and tougher missions. In some cases there is a time limit where Ninja needs to complete the course, but, naturally, there are obstacles like enemies jumping out, water hazards, and pools of toxic waste. At the end of the game the player actually ends up on the moon, so we get to challenge the player with moon-physics as well.

A bit more about combat and such – what kind of weaponry can we look forward to using?

We’ve recently expanded Ninja’s fighting system so that he has even more sword combos (back-thrusts, circle-swings, and so on). Ninja even makes different moves depending on how the player presses the attack buttons and moves the analog-stick to the side, back, or in a rotation.

In addition to his sword, shurikens and hi-explosive darts, Ninja can actually climb onto missile launchers and shoot missiles (regular and guided) at his enemies and to break open objects to reveal coins. He fights in a giant 150-foot robot, uses several types of gun emplacement, crushes enemies by rolling over them with giant eyeballs, nuts and hearts. We’ve also added multiple sword upgrades based on the number of enemies Ninja kills.

What kind of missions and mini-quests should we expect?

The missions in I-Ninja vary in large ways. Sometimes they are direct (make it through the level to get the belt grade), whereas others are timed, or have requirements (kill all enemies, collect all red coinage). To keep the game interesting for players some levels even have dynamic difficulty system in place, others are timed and challenge-based. The most difficult are the unlockable mini-games where the player has a limited time to collect Red Coinage (coins) while spinning around on a giant ball. It’s tough and very addictive.

It’s likely to assume that the art direction in a ninja game borrows from manga and anime – could you elaborate a bit and maybe tell us your inspirations?

Japanese Anime has been a massive influence in our character design and this bled into the game design too. In true anime style, Ninja periodically meets serious rock-hard mini-bosses which he fights in the air just like in manga cartoons. It’s a total switch in terms of Gameplay as you are flying rather than running, so it’s just one more thing that keeps you guessing what’s coming next. We see lots of ninja-based games that take themselves far too seriously so we wanted to make something that was fun to play and funny to play at the same time. We are inspired by Dragon Ball Z, Dexter’s Lab, Invader Zim, Fist of the North Star, Anime films, Kung Foo movies, Ninja Scroll, Mario, Zelda and much, much more...

Has anything especially funny happened during the development?

The voice recording sessions with Billy West as the voice of Ninja went very well and we recorded some great one-liners from Billy that were totally off the cuff. Also having Billy do takes of his characters from Futurama and Ren and Stimpy had us rolling in the aisles.

How much is left of the development, and what are you currently working on?

At this point we’re almost finished with the US versions of the game, and we’re working on the European PS2 version that will ship early next year. We’re also in discussion on what cool features we can add to I-Ninja 2... ;-)

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Yes! We were very fortunate that we were able to work with Don Bluth Films on the I-Ninja cinematics. DBF did the storyboards and animation, and Argonaut did the music, VO, and SFX. Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and their team have been great to work with, and we learned a lot from them. We’re even looking into the possibility of an animated series based on the character!

Thanks a lot for your time, and big thanks to the folks at BHI that made this interview possible. Good luck with the game – we definitely can't wait to play it when it hits stores.