Originally published in The Brooklyn Rail, October 2007.
For all its seventh-generation beauty—and the game is gorgeous—Sigma plays like an arcade game, as if its life depends on killing our quarters.
On September 25th, Microsoft’s Halo 3 video game earned $170 million dollars, the highest single-day take of any form of entertainment, ever. But if you really want to know what’s going on with the phenomenon of modern games, you have to look at the way players tackle the hardest of hardcore games, Ninja Gaiden Sigma.
UPGRADING THE MODERN SUPER NINJA
Nothing completes a high-end entertainment system like a blanket over the window.
I had brought Ninja Gaiden Sigma, this summer’s hottest game on Sony’s PlayStation 3, to my good friend’s house to see its powerhouse graphics on his high-definition TV.
It was glorious. Erick is a connoisseur. He pipes games to his 57-inch screen through a video processor, not for signal upscaling (the PS3 doesn’t need it), but to fine-tune his settings, like tint and brightness. Dialing in a game’s visuals to perfection can have a ritual quality with Erick. He’s kept up with every generation of gaming technology, which makes sharing a game with him a treat. He knows the evolution of both games and the way we play them.
There’s been a seachange in playing style over the past five years or so, not only for Erick and I, but for players in general. Ninja Gaiden Sigma brings these changes to light because it contravenes the tendency of modern games toward accessibility, openness, and online and multiplayer gaming. Sigma’s a linear, single-player game that all but stabs gamers in the face with its level of difficulty. For all its seventh-generation beauty—and the game is gorgeous—Sigma plays like an arcade game, as if its life depends on killing our quarters.
When we tacked a blanket to Erick’s window frame, it wasn’t the first time we’d sealed a room from natural light in order to play Ninja Gaiden. The first Ninja Gaiden game appeared in the late 80s in arcades and on Nintendo. It has enjoyed many sequels, upgrades, and resurrections since, all of them starring the red-haired, green-eyed Ryu Hayabusa, the world’s greatest ninja.
Back in the 80s, we played games mostly for action, graphics, characters, violence and coolness. Our focus then had already changed from high score, as arcades became less important to us. Looking at how we—and I mean now the royal community of players—approach Ninja Gaiden Sigma today, how we actually play a game designed as if for the darkness of 1988, shows what contemporary gaming means. It doesn’t matter what game developers do, players make the game they want, and what they want today is social gaming.
DEATH TO THE NINJA
Sigma developer, Team Ninja takes, as you would imagine, a hardcore stance on the question of challenge. Director Yosuke Hayashi brought together all of the art direction and programming and computational power and millions of dollars behind a marquis title like Ninja Gaiden Sigma to deliver “excitement, desperation, and the desire for improvement.”
“I hate the desire for improvement,” growls Erick. He plays for detail, which some players call “hunting for Easter eggs.” They post encyclopedic collections of their observations online at sites like Gamefaqs.
Early on in Sigma, we come across a simple puzzle that requires us to replace the head of a stone statue. “Jizo the Bodhisattva,” Erick notes. Jizo helps aborted fetuses endure the torments of hell. At another point, full in the middle of a fight with a giant-bicepped ninja master, who has become infamous as the hardest first boss in all of video games, Erick notices the guy’s bonsai tree is dead. Some master ninja.
Half the point of Ninja Gaiden Sigma is details. The processing power of the new consoles permits incredible resolution. You can see the pebbling of the main character’s sleeveless leather ninja suit, while you leap through hundreds of swirling autumn leaves to crash your sword on some poor bastard’s head. You can also spot when leaves are missing from tiny shrubs.
The other half is seduction. Sigma, more than any other version of Ninja Gaiden, excels at this art. According to the plot, Ryu, the ninja of the leather muscle-shirt, must lose a duel early in the game. Previously, this loss took place in a little animated movie or cut-scene. You simply sat back and watched Ryu get his ass kicked. Sigma allows you to play out the duel as a brief, nearly impossible-to-win challenge.
Ryu still drops dead in the next scene, but the experience inclines you to want to power up and eventually bust your opponent’s face.
Keeping the player playing is all cut-scenes and Easter eggs are meant to do. They’re part of the payoff for Sigma’s brutal challenge. “Even when a player is defeated by the enemy and the game is over, I’m pretty sure the player won’t put his controller down easy,” says Hayashi-san. Getting killed in the right way, with the right promises, means a lot.
THE BOYS OF NINJA
“It was the hardest game I ever played, and I quit playin’ it,” says Alan “Bigalski” Smallwood, 40, of Houston Texas, about Ninja Gaiden.
Bigalski’s currently the number-one Sigma player in the world, across multiple categories of the game’s online leaderboards. He’s also well known for his technique videos—recordings of himself in the act of beating Ninja Gaiden to death.
I first came across Bigalski’s work when I wanted to figure out how to do a better job of beating a particularly difficult part of the game (double lightning worms). Recently, I watched his latest Sigma clip on YouTube, in which he lays waste to a hundred opponents with a wooden oar.
A brawny dude who’s studying for a management degree after years in retail, Bigalski has an odd history for a console player of his caliber. Despite belonging to the first generation of video game heads, he never owned a home console until the Xbox debuted in 2001. His friends urged him to pick up the system for its hit title Halo. He loved it, but the romance lasted only until 2004, when the first Ninja Gaiden came to the XBox. “Ninja Gaiden has ruined me for other games,” he says.
A high-score man, Bigalski grew up in the arcades. “I played Donkey Kong the other day,” he says. Ninja Gaiden hooked him with both its arcade-like challenges and its scoring system, called ‘Karma.’ You gain Karma by killing the greatest number of enemies in the shortest amount of time with the most economical use of your offense. It’s a complicated affair, and the Ninja Gaiden community has developed formulas and charts for maximizing their “Karma runs.”
Aside from the paradox of killing for Karma, this system simplifies achievement in the game to a single number posted to an online board. One of the great upgrades of Sigma is the option to view the details of any ranked player’s score. This prevents certain kinds of cheating. Though not happy with all of the innovations in Sigma, this particular one pleases Bigalski mightily. He began making videos in the first place to prove that he hadn’t arrived at his monster scores through untoward means.
While score remains Bigalski’s central preoccupation, he’s also dabbled in some of the more exotic approaches to playing Ninja Gaiden. The reason becomes clear in his assessment of “Survival Mode,” an add-on to Sigma that Sony made available for download last month. Survival Mode is a distillation of the game into 200-proof shots of action, but Bigalski shrugs: “It got boring just because you only go up to a thousand enemies.”
Ninja Gaiden players open up the game by making it harder. They impose formal restrictions on themselves, then have a sort of friendly, online competition to see who can come up with the nuttiest achievement. In a sense, they force Ninja Gaiden to become, like Halo, an online multiplayer game.
NINJA ON THE MONKEY BARS
Every year, Brien “Iberian Warrior” Bellous hosts a Free-Form contest through his website, IberiansNGrealm. “Ninja Gaiden offers an almost unlimited ability to play differently each time you do it,” he says. The complexity of the moveset available to Ryu and the depth of his opponents’ AI (artificial intelligence programming) combine to make a multilayered web of gameplay possibilities.
Free-Form is a game mode that’s all about playing differently; it looks something like a gymnastics routine, only with more swords and explosions. The restriction here is that the player must put together an unbroken chain of attacks. One weak link ends the flow—a tenth of a point deduction, at least. Or, really, a loss of a vote, and votes matter if you want to win that ten-dollar gift certificate to Best Buy, sponsored by Bellous.
Bellous, 44, a building inspector from Columbus, Ohio, a long-standing figure on the Ninja Gaiden leaderboards, plays mainly for score, like Bigalski. They both recognize that the variant play discovered by the younger players helps their own game (they also both charmingly pronounce “Ryu” as “roo”).
Initially dedicated to registering high scores, Bellous’s website has evoled into an archive of perverse contortions achieved in Ninja Gaiden. Players tear through the game while denying Ryu any advantage. They abstain from power-ups and weapon upgrades, scorn healing items, and sneer at the use of ninja magic. “It’s amazing the stuff that our community has done to this game,” says Bigalski.
“Every person in the community has a different idea about what’s good,” says Bellous. But no matter how far afield an individual strays, the whole community benefits when something new is discovered. “One person comes out with a revolutionary idea,” says Bellous, “and this improves everybody’s gameplay.” He and Bigalski both mention their colleague Platinum’s innovative use of smoke bombs and the speed run shortcuts discovered by Chinese player Kyoiori as examples of stellar creativity.
You can spend hours calling up these how-to videos. It’s like a whole cable channel: Ninja Flip-Out Network. A guy from Altenheim, France, Fatman, has put up a number of recordings he describes as “the strangest things I could think of.” His “Project Hayabusa” has extraordinary examples of “enemy juggling,” where the player launches an opponent into the air, then keeps him aloft with repeated strikes.
It’s a completely useless technique, score-wise, nor does it count as Free-Form play, but it looks hilarious. In one scene, Fatman juggles a cat demon with his nunchucks for over seven minutes. For real: seven minutes. “Even if I have to do something really boring like hitting a cat 999 times,” says Fatman, “if people can get a smile from it, it’s worth it.”
PASSING THE CONTROLLER
Back at Erick’s, we continue to bust through the game with normal human skill. The controller gets handed back and forth with increasing frequency as each of us gets Ryu killed repeatedly in the upper levels of Ninja Gaiden Sigma. We stop at one of the little weapon shops in the game, and Erick spots a wooden sword for sale. Wooden sword? I explain that it’s the weakest weapon in the game, but you can power it up to be the strongest, albeit with tons of extra work.
“Bah,” he says. “You know someone’s beaten this game on hard with it already.” In fact, there’s a whole “Wooden Sword School” section at Bellous’s site.
Erick can’t be seduced into giving up his time so easily. It takes a little something more to draw him into accepting a challenge.
We keep playing, until we come across the cut-scene that introduces Ninja Gaiden Sigma’s female lead. She has breasts the size of the human head, a blonde ponytail, porntastic lips, and an S&M outfit of black and red. She’s Rachel the Fiend Hunter (yes, that’s onomastics in Japanese games). In this scene, Rachel uses her huge warhammer to kill a black-horned, red-skinned dinosaur. Its corpse judders as it bleeds out next to her high-heeled boots. Erick sits up, alert, interested. He raises his chin a little bit and looks closer.
“Do you get to fight those things?”
Yes; Erick cares more about fighting dinosaurs than about gawking at Rachel. Contrary to popular opinion and even to developers’ concerns, players don’t care much for over-sexualized characters. In fact, many players don’t even care about ninjas. “They could have put Little Bo Peep in there,” says Bigalski.
He’s being facetious, but he makes a serious point. These days, players make the game.
More than anything else, more than breasts or big guns, a game developer has to produce a platform for player creativity. No ordinary software could withstand the intensity of a Bigalski or a Fatman or a Kyoiori. Players of their caliber want both a challenge for themselves and a means for challenging each other.
You can mark the evolution of video games in Ninja Gaiden Sigma: just cut it open and study its rings. The core hasn’t changed in almost twenty years, but the game as a whole has grown deep—deep enough to support the weight of the community that has developed around it. Whether Erick spots more Easter eggs than I do, or Bigalski scores more points, or Fatman juggles more cats, they’re all doing the same thing: inviting me to play. It’s an aggressive sort of socializing, but it remains irreducibly social.
Even better, Ninja Gaiden Sigma is the hardest case in all of video games. It looks shy next to its more gregarious peers. The fact that the reserved Ninja Gaiden has been pushed onto the dance floor tells us the hour of social gaming has truly arrived.