Tecmo’s Perfection – A “Tribute” To Tomonobu Itagaki

If the name Tomonobu Itagaki doesn’t ring any bell, you’ll certainly know his work: Along with Team Ninja – the team he formed and lead for many years (though he left the team – and parent company Tecmo – in 2008) – he is responsible for the Dead or Alive series and the latter-day re-imagining of the Ninja Gaiden franchise (which began with the Xbox release in 2004). The popularity and success of the games on his resume aren’t the only components of his legacy, however. Itagaki is just as well-known (maybe more so) for his often controversial opinions about not only his own games, but the work of his peers as well. In case you are unfamiliar with his musings, though, I’ll sum them up for you: He is a god who manufactures orgasmic perfection in polygonal form. If you make games and you aren’t him, you’re a no-talent hack. Especially if you make Tekken.

I’ve always had a very low tolerance for extreme arrogance. I especially have a low tolerance for it when I feel it isn’t sufficiently backed up. And more often than not, it seems like the loudest mouthpieces are ones who haven’t actually earned their right for such excessive braggadocio (though outliers like Kanye West, who have sales figures and awards to “prove” their opinions about themselves, do occasionally exist). This phenomenon is especially prevalent in video games. The true legends are, for the most part, extremely humble and also respectful of their contemporaries. How much trash-talking or even outright bragging have you ever heard from Shigeru Miyamoto? It always seems that the most outspoken, meanly opinionated personalities in gaming are the ones who just aren’t on a high enough creative level to give them the “right” to be the braggarts that they are. Like Tomonobu Itagaki.

I’m not going to look up and link to all of the quotes floating around where he slams other companies. Or even his own, as he once called Ninja Gaiden Sigma for PS3 – which members of his own team made but he himself was not in charge of – “no good”. Way to support your people, pal! You can find all kinds of quotes and quips for yourself if you’d like. My intention here is to put his own work under a microscope, and detail why he simply is in no position to put himself on such a nauseatingly high pedestal.

The Dead or Alive games are fun, no doubt. They are fast-paced and easy to play, and don’t require the level of commitment that most other fighting games ask for in order to be competitive against anyone other than the AI set on Very Easy. But let’s be clear here: DOA is not a top-tier fighting game. DOA is far more visual flash than mechanical finesse, which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. As someone who gets his behind handed to him by highly technical fighting games with steep learning curves, I appreciate one that is easy to get into and lets me look like a pro with minimal effort. The problem is that Itagaki paints a different and inaccurate picture with all of his boasts. Instead of just being honest and saying “We make fun, fast fighting games that you can button mash your way through and still have moderate success at, and oh yeah, we also throw in some big bouncy boobs for good measure”, he always went on and on about the masterpiece that each one of those games were, and how the competition can only dream that they’ll ever be as good. This is especially ridiculous when you consider that the DOA series had long been just been resting on its laurels since DOA2, making basically the same game several more times with very little in the way of improvement beyond the obligatory extra characters and shinier graphics. Sure, picking on any one game franchise for simply inching forward with each installment is unfair given that so much of the industry works in this manner, but top-tier fighting game franchises should be different. Those get a pass. Look at the evolution of the Virtua Fighter series from its first through fourth core installment. Look at how Tekken had changed from parts 1 and 2 to part 3, and then from part 3 on (though arguably not always for the better). Look at Street Fighter II vs. Street Fighter III. And with those franchises, they’ve had “side games”  or incremental updates (Championship Editions, Tag  Tournaments, etc) to the main series when they just wanted to either try something different or add or tweak a few things.  Street Fighter did that for years, releasing version after version of SF2 before finally giving us the TRUE (and extremely different) sequel in SF3, which then went on to do multiple versions. Granted, they also charged full price for the home versions of each of these updates, but at least they came out quickly. DOA typically took several years between any new installment. When you are going to take that much time to give us a comparatively short-numbered franchise, each one better be damn different.

Of course, you can’t talk about DOA without going into its spin-off franchise, the DOA Xtreme [sic] series. First there was Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball for Xbox. I’ll admit I was initially really excited about this game. I love volleyball, and I love volleyball video games. It started with Kings of the Beach for NES, which my brother and I played the hell out of it, and it continued through the long-overdue resurgence of volleyball video games in the PS2/Xbox/GC generation. Beach Spikers for Gamecube, Summer Heat Beach Volleyball for PS2, Outlaw Volleyball for Xbox…I had to have them all. I enjoyed Beach Spikers and Outlaw Volleyball quite a bit and played them both for a significant amount of time (I just couldn’t get into the play mechanics of Summer Heat). Yet, I was still hungry for another in DOAX V-ball.

I’d be lying if I said that my 22 year old self was completely opposed to the promise of a game full of unlockable bikinis of gradually decreasing size on women jogging down the beach and lounging by the pool, but in total and absolute honesty, I just wanted another good volleyball game above all else. Plus this one also promised a whole beach resort with which to explore and frolic on, including minigames, a casino, and a whole “relationship system” with which you try to build alliances with the various other girls on the island. Well, most of those promises fell flat. For one thing, you couldn’t actually just walk from place to place; when you weren’t in an actual activity, it was just a series of static screens and menus. An example: First I’d select to go to the shop from a menu to buy some accessories, and I’d see just an image of a shop in the background of the next menu, where I made my selections. Then when I wanted to go to the casino after that, I’d select it from another menu, and poof, there’s the still shot of the casino. Then I’d choose poker, and…yep…there’s the static shot of the poker table. I could’ve swore I was playing this game on an Xbox, not an SNES. In a post-GTA3 gaming world, not being able to just freely and physically walk from place to place was pretty unacceptable. The gambling stuff was sort of fun I guess, but it’s hard to get into video game poker when you don’t see a single character on screen, just the table and the cards magically flying around. The supposed relationship system was a complete crapshoot, and it seemed totally random whether another girl accepted my gift or not. It’s always fun to save up and buy a really expensive bathing suit for another character to wear, only to have her hate you for some strange reason and not accept it. And then it was gone forever – that expensive item that I just spent X number of hours earning simply disappeared. You didn’t even get it back! But whatever, I did say I just wanted a solid v-ball game, and all this peripheral stuff shouldn’t have mattered anyway, right? Well the v-ball was average at best. It was way too simple (which I suppose was sort of the point, but it wasn’t to my liking), and there was no way to adjust any of the rules of the game (for example, the serving team wasn’t the only one who could score a point, either team could; and you couldn’t change this. Boo.). It was fun for a few games, but not enough to carry a whole game. None of the aspects of this game were strong enough to carry a game, and putting them all together almost made it work as a total package, except that as I said it just didn’t feel like a cohesive experience. Oh, and you could only play in “two week” intervals each time, and then it was over and you had to start again from scratch with zero dollars. Awesome! Okay, so it was a decent enough game for what it was, just a collection of lazy summer activities and digital girl watching. But again, from the guy who we are supposed to believe makes nothing but pure gold, it just wasn’t good enough, especially not for an Xbox game. Besides, the concept was nothing new: Japan has been making games like this for years. This is just the first one that was released here and had any degree of real polish, for whatever that’s worth.

Sales and reception of DOA Xtreme Beach Volleyball were good enough to warrant a sequel, which came to the X360 in 2004. It was basically more of the same, with a few new activities and the expected bump in graphical quality. I will admit outright that I never played this game, but after my overall disappointment with the first one and the subsequently poor reviews, I didn’t want to. Based on what I can gather, actual gameplay took a backseat (more so than usual) to eye candy this time around. A significant amount of time seemed to be placed on the “breast physics” in this game. DOA has always featured exaggeratedly large, exaggeratedly animated breasts, but now each boob actually swung and swayed independently of the other. Fine, so it was “next-gen” and everything in a next-gen game should have real-world physics placed on it, but give me a break. Maybe it was a necessary evil when you already designed these girls and their enormous racks that you have to make them move the way boobs that are that big would move, but then you have to make sure you at least do it “right”, not make the breasts jump and swing wildly when the girls so much as turn their heads. Also, at that point I was a few years older and more mature, and far less impressed with digital D-cups and had a much lower tolerance for gratuitous flesh in a video game.

Plus, you should then try that much harder to make sure the actual game that takes place around those impeccably designed curves is as equally well-crafted and next-gen. From what I could tell, and from what everyone said, it wasn’t. The DOAX series went from a fun, flirty summer party to a pervy Girls Gone Wild spring break weekend passing off as a game. I also didn’t even touch on the attention paid to the girls’ tan lines, and I’m not going to.

Of course, we can’t forget about Ninja Gaiden. I have to tread somewhat lightly when I talk about this game, because it is an extremely well-regarded and highly respected title. For me, it was just too damn difficult. Maybe I’m old-school, but I don’t want an intense duel with every single character in a game, starting with the very first one I face. I also take offense to Itagaki’s re-imagining of the Ninja Gaiden franchise: its far too serious and full of itself, its far too bloody, and its far too sexed up. Yep, surprise surprise – there are female characters in the game with large breasts spilling out of ill-fitting tops, bouncing at every turn. I’ll let him off the hook for the game that eventually allowed you to literally make the ladies’ boobs jiggle if you shook the controller since he wasn’t involved in the series by that point, but it’s still a foundation he laid.

If Hideo Kojima only ever made Metal Gear Solid – my all-time favorite non-Nintendo game – and the DOA series (and its softcore porn spin-offs), and was that much of an arrogant jerk, I still wouldn’t respect him either. To be honest, I think that even if Shigeru Miyamoto had his current resume but Itagaki’s attitude and personality, it wouldn’t sit well with me. And Miyamoto could probably get away with it. What also made things worse were journalists. Everyone seemed to find Itagaki’s ego so entertaining that they’d deliberately lob him questions that would get him going on one of his trademark rants. “So…there’s a new Tekken out. Have you checked it out?” they’d ask with a wink and a nudge, and sit back gleefully as he ripped Tekken apart for the umpteenth time. It got old really quickly, and I’ll never understand why they were all seemingly so amused by him. Hopefully, in this new era of snarky bloggers and cynical social media users, if he decides to be his same old smug, sunglasses-wearing, leather coat-clad self, extolling the virtues of both his own creative genius and in Devil’s Third, his long in development post-Team Ninja debut from his new team, Valhalla Game Studios (cue me rolling my eyes), he won’t be met with as much ego-stroking and is actually knocked down from the pedestal he doesn’t even deserve to be on to begin with. Maybe he’s changed. Maybe he’s matured as a game maker. Let’s take a look at a screenshot from Devil’s Third:

Yeah okay, probably not. Sigh.