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Shinobi - The Way of the Badass

A look at how a classic PS2 action game nailed the fundamentals of player empowerment and action game theming.

Glen Cooney

February 25, 2012

14 Min Read

[The following is a repost from Glen Cooney's personal game design blog Glenalysis. Originally posted February 4, 2012]

A Ninja Is You!
     Shinobi for the PS2 is one of those hidden gems that doesn't get the attention it deserves. This stylish, Hiro Nakamura-approved action game has you stepping into the shoes of Hotsuma, a ninja of the Oboro clan, tasked with defeating the evil sorcerror Hiruko and his army of Hellspawn and zombies. It's stylish presentation and fast-paced, well-designed combat system make it an excellent model of how action games should be done.

     Not many praise this game the way I do. At the time of its release, it got only mediocre reviews from critics and mixed reviews from players. Some people couldn't get past the steep difficulty curve (noobs), others couldn't handle its camera system (Pro Tip: Use R1 to lock on to enemies. Problem solved.) But even more seem to miss the genius of this game's combat system. Though simple, it does an excellent job of rewarding skilled players by allowing them to wield the power to take out a horde of enemies in seconds, or slay a boss in a couple well-timed hits.

     While this game certainly isn't friendly to the casual player, there is much to be learned from Shinobi. Not only does it have a great combat system, but it also successfully blends all the key ingredients that make a player feel badass.

Being Badass
     One of the most fundamental aspects of designing an action game is making the player feel empowered. Sure, it may be fun to watch a cutscene showing how awesome the protagonist is (or in Nero's case, how awesome he wishes he was), or being able to press a "kill every enemy in the room" button a la Knights of the Old Republic. But at the end of the day action games are most satisfying when the players feel they are the ones fighting the enemies themselves.

  • Putting the Power in the Player's Hands
         A cornerstone of Shinobi's combat system is what it calls the "Tate System." In the game, Hotsuma wields a powerful cursed sword known as Akujiki. It is a weapon of tremendous power, but it feeds on the yin energy of the souls of those it slays (or, if no one else is available, whoever happens to be wielding it - ie you). On the plus side, each time you slay an enemy, the sword becomes empowered and deals more damage with each subsequent kill. After a string of successful kills, a player can easily one-shot even the most powerful enemies, and even cut a boss's health bar in half in a single strike.

         Of course, making the most out of this system is easier said than done. It requires a careful mastery of your ability to scan nearby enemies, quickly decide the best order to kill them in, and then use your coordination and reflexes to close the distance between enemies while your sword is charged. This is made easier by the Stealth Dash ability, which allows you to dash forward quickly or move around behind enemies, leaving a ghostly copy of yourself as a diversion for your enemies. This all creates a system that keeps players on their toes, and makes combat quick yet tactical at the same time.

         Based on conventional wisdom, you would think that say that without a proper upgrade system or additional weapons a combat system like this would get boring after a few levels. But you would be wrong. Over the course of the game, as the player comes to grok the combat system, they will naturally be able to take on tougher and tougher opponents while feeling like they are steadily growing in power. Not because they hit level 50, or have +60 strength from their Stache of Manliness, or from picking up the Ultra Vorpal Dancing Sword of Universal Annihilation, but because they themselves have gotten better at the game. They can see themselves grow in power before their own eyes, and that is the ultimate feeling of empowerment.

  • Of course if strategy isn't your thing, perhaps power-leveling to level 999 is more up your alley.

  • The Allure of Power

         Power shouldn't merely be shown in a game, it should be felt by the player. If a character is calling down a meteor out of the sky, then it should deal a lot of damage and feel like it has impact behind it. It is much more exciting when your spells feel powerful than spells you see in a game like Guild Wars, for instance, which had to sacrifice the power of its spells in the name of having a balanced multiplayer experience. Calling down meteors didn't decimate a city, but instead made people trip and fall and take some damage. Woo hoo? That's not to say that kind of balance doesn't work for that game, and I loves me some Guild Wars (Guild Wars 2 could not come fast enough), but it just doesn't make the player feel particularly powerful.

         Dawn of War 2, on the other hand, did not shy away from having uber units and abilities, but embraced them. This is best illustrated in how they handled balance between vehicles and infantry units. In a game like Starcraft 2, you may see a group of marines take down a massive unit like a Mothership, since that is a game based around soft counters, where every unit theoretically has a shot against any other unit. DoW2 takes a different approach.

         In DoW2, vehicles and walkers are virtually impervious to small arms fire, walkers can fling infantry around like rag dolls, and tanks can wipe out entire squads in a couple shots. The only way to counter them it to build anti-vehicle weapons, which itself creates interesting metagame possibilities. Do you build anti-vehicle units to counter possible vehicles from your opponent, spend the requisition to tech up to better units, or build up your infantry more in the hopes of outmaneuvering your opponent? In other words, it makes a significant difference whether a player gets vehicles or not, as it can force an opponent to rethink their whole strategy to handle the massive threat they pose to their forces. Vehicles rightfully feel powerful and threatening.

  • Crafting a Believable Threat
         Power just isn't interesting without an element of vulnerability. A player can be godlike in power, but if all the player ever faces are weaklings then there just isn't as much pleasure in defeating them. To really make the player feel they are a powerful warrior facing a formidable foe, both the player's character and the enemies themselves must be appropriately threatening.

         In Shinobi, you have to contend with large groups of enemies, with health powerups being few and far between. The result is that you have to watch your health carefully and hope you down a miniboss before you die to a stray shot. Despite being dangerous, enemies can be easily killed. Contrast this to what God of War does when you play Spartan mode, which makes enemies both deal more damage and take less damage. The result is that battles that should be routine and quick become protracted slogs, with the player feeling like a weakling fighting superior foes, undermining their sense of power. It is far better to have enemies deal more damage yet remain as fragile in normal mode, to maintain pacing while being a little more punishing with mistakes.

         Just as important is to make major enemies as menacing in-game as they are made out to be in the story. In Knights of the Old Republic 2, the Sith Lord Darth Nihilus was able to kill the entire population of a planet with his mind, and keeps a derelict star destroyer together with his thoughts. Yeah yeah, the Miraluka were especially force-sensative and thus vulnerable to attack. Yes, the ship he controls isn't technically a Star Destroyer despite looking like one, and the protagonist is conveniently a "hole in the force" which makes him/her uniquely qualified to fight him thanks to being immune to Nihilus's mind murderings... while otherwise exactly the same as any other Jedi in every other respect.

         I suppose with all those caveats you could say it makes sense that the protagonist could kill Darth Nihilus, a god among the Sith, in a straight-up lightsaber duel. Sadly this poor, barely corporeal being of pure evil and hate couldn't be bothered to have a few captive jedi to suck the souls from to replenish his health, or even stun the rest of your party like Darth Malak did in the first game. But you know, it's cool, because he was really hungry for that tasty tasty force energy he was promised from the Jedi temple he thought he was orbiting over.

         But in all seriousness, after how much time was devoted to making Darth Nihulus out to be the biggest, baddest Sith in the universe, ready to take on the whole Jedi academy single-handedly, he proved to be pathetically easy to kill. Far from being an epic confrontation, you end up mindlessly wailing on him just like you would any other nameless Sith enemy in the game, albeit with a bigger life bar. It made defeating him feel less like a heroic triumph and more like a speed bump to the overarching story.

         Compare all that to the fight with the Kayran in The Witcher 2. In that game an entire chapter was devoted to investigating and gathering supplies and information on how to kill the beast, and you even teamed up with a sorceress to take him on (unless you didn't. Ah, branching storylines!) Then when you finally got to him, it was a hulking monster which could kill you in a single swing of his tentacles. Now that was a moment that made you really feel like a proper monster slayer.

Feeling Badass
     Another important component of the badass formula is crafting a compelling narrative that makes players both sympathize with the protagonist and feel the weight of the challenge they face before them. The player should feel comfortable stepping into the shoes of the intrepid hero and motivated to take on the challenge of achieving the character's goal. Shinobi and its sequel Nightshade do a great job of illustrating how this should and should not be done, respectively.

     Nightshade's protagonist, Hibana, is a mercenary tasked with dealing with a rouge ninja clan headed by her former master and lover, Jimushi. During the first cinematic of the game, she bemoans the fact that today would have been a great day for a picnic and that today isn't her day. This isn't the last time she repeats this "today isn't my day" line either.

     Now let's pause for a moment. Hibana is working for some sort of military organization, conveniently wields a diet-Akujiki with all the same powers but none of the soul-sucking side effects (because really, why bother with the original, ancient artifact that is the envy of all ninja kind when you can just use a knock-off?), and she is pretty hot. I'd say she's doing well for herself, all things considered. 

     Hotsuma, on the other hand, in the span of a few days had to kill his own brother in a duel, fight undead hordes composed of his former family and friends, and wield a sword that was constantly on the verge of devouring his soul. But does he bitch about it? No, he keeps his mouth shut through most of the game and takes on Hiruko and his minions like a boss

     The point being that if there are to be any flaws with a character, they should serve to make the character more interesting and intriguing to a player, not less. Hotsuma is one man taking on an army with no backup, shouldering tremendous feelings of guilt and loss, and playing with fire by carrying around a cursed sword. Hibana is a hired mercenary tasked with stopping an evil corporation from taking over Tokyo, who has a thing for guys twice her age and a fondness for picnics. There just isn't enough interesting conflict and motivation behind Hibana to really take her seriously as a heroine, much less a badass.

Looking and Sounding Badass

     Finally, all of the above is moot unless you have good audio and visual design to complement the game's tone. For the design of Hotsuma, they went out of their way to make a stylized, futuristic looking ninja,  with a sleek look and an awesome red scarf . They also added some interesting stylistic flourishes for when you successfully kill a series of enemies. This was all complimented with an awesome soundtrack that did a great job of creating a compelling atmosphere for the game.  

     There are plenty of other great examples of this, including the soundtrack of Devil May Cry 3, which complimented the dark, brooding atmosphere and worked to reinforce Dante's own aesthetic style of being a half-demon demon-slayer. God of War's orchestral soundtrack also does an excellent job of making the battle-hardened Spartan feel like a force to be reckoned with. This all goes a long way toward creating the right kind of atmosphere and tension that can increase the player's engagement.

March gloriously into battle in your... skintight suit made of magic hair?

     Or you could forget all that and do what Platinum Games did with Bayonetta. Rather than trying to characterize Bayonetta as a strong, powerful woman that can kick some ass, they pretty much decided to make an anti-badass. Aloof, sensual, and more than a bit bizarre, Bayonetta's lolipop powerups and butterflies that appear when she double jumps make for a highly stylized and unique action game. As fun as the game was, it fell short in the story and immersion department since it was hard to really put yourself (man or woman) into the gun-heeled shoes of the absurdly-proportioned Umbra witch. Rather than feeling like a badass, you just end up feeling detached from the character, and thus more of an observer of where her wacky adventure will take her.

Laying Down the Law

     Making a truly badass game transcends mere mechanics, audio/visual presentation or story, but encompasses all three of these things. Like any good game, each piece builds upon the others to create a cohesive whole. One doesn't need to be making hardcore games to see the merit in looking to the fundamentals of player empowerment and pushing the right emotional buttons to make players psyched to play your game. In my opinion making a player feel like they are doing great at your game is far more satisfying than a player gaining more stats and stuff to artificially boost their performance.

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