25 september 2004 saw the one and only Ninja Gaiden tournament where the game’s top contenders would duke it out on the big stage at the Tokyo Gameshow. While we covered this historic moment before, today we sat down with one of its competitors. Darren Forman (40, Scotland) recounts with us how it all came to pass and what led to one of the most recognizable pictures of Itagaki.
Stinger Magazine: April 2004 saw the release of the Team Ninja’s take on Ninja Gaiden. Did you play the originals on the NES in the early ‘90s and was this new game one you were anticipating?
Darren Forman: I never had a NES as a kid, only a Master System and a Spectrum 48K / 128K, so I was dependent on what my friends bought for their systems when it came to Nintendo stuff. I did get to play Wrath of the Black Manta, but… eh, it wasn’t exactly up there with stuff like Shinobi or Ninja Gaiden.
As for the Xbox Ninja Gaiden, there were release date variables depending on region. I bought it immediately upon release of course. I was a pretty big fan of the Dead or Alive series back then and Tomunobu Itagaki’s involvement and the high critic scores meant I was practically salivating over finally getting my hands on it.
I was 24 at the time, by the way. So I’m basically old and done now. Hooray!
Stinger Magazine: It wasn’t too soon after its release in June 2004 that they announced the tournament. What made you want to take part in it?
Darren Forman: Honestly? I wanted to go to Japan and meet Itagaki. That was the long and short of it. Also, I played a demo version of the game which came in the March 2004 issue of the Official Xbox Magazine (issue 29 – red) and it turned out that I was pretty good at it. My flatmate at the time came in during the Murai fight and stuck his hands over my eyes and I still kicked the crap out of him.
Murai, that is, not my flatmate.
Stinger Magazine: Ah demo-discs, those were the days.
Darren Forman: Yeah! The demo had some more end-game weapons too like the Flails. It did a great job of selling the game to people from what I could see. Sadly some great games have crap demos, Binary Domain and Dragon’s Dogma spring to mind, but I played that demo until my eyes bled. Good times!
Stinger Magazine: So you loved the game and wanted to win a ticket to Japan. How did the application and qualification process go? Was it a challenge?
Darren Forman: Well, there were a few oddities about this tournament. Due to the fact that Europe got the game later than other regions, we only had the one round to qualify in – unlike America and Japan, which both had two qualifying rounds for participants.
The challenge was pretty solid. Several EU players were nipping at my heels the whole way, and I think if I hadn’t pulled off a belter of a final run in the closing few days I may not have gone through.
Another weird quibble was that these qualifiers had different dates between regions. The main leaderboard for the tournament locked out new high score submissions as soon as the second US leg was finished – but the EU competition was still underway and accepting new scores using the same leaderboard which was now no longer updating. This led to some confusion amongst players as nobody was sure if subsequent scores would count or not.
I felt bad for the EU runner up, honestly. As the highest score on the frozen leaderboard, he was sure he was going through. However, the terms and conditions clearly stated that we had a different entry date from the US, and when I submitted my own higher score I could only hope that it was the case. I recall that submitting a score to a static leaderboard felt weirdly pointless at the time, like the tournament was already over for us as well.
Editor’s note:The entrees for the tournament were Derek Ian Edwin Kisman (Snapdragon), Yasunori Otsuka (Panzerorta40148), Grant Goodwin (Grantisimo), Darren Forman (KayinAmoh) and a ninja known only as Muryo.
Stinger Magazine: Pointless or not, the score was legal and you were one of the five players to go to the Ninja Gaiden Tournament in Tokyo. What went through your head?
Darren Forman: Relief, mainly. I’d spent a lot of time replaying sections over and over, and the uncertainty of the tournament end-date was playing on me for a while. I’m not a naturally competitive gamer, I tend to play for fun, so trying to hone my final score submission was a little stressful.
Stinger Magazine: One of the controversies was that, allegedly, one of the top submission scores was ‘hacked’ and should’ve been dismissed. Did you hear anything about this at the time?
Darren Forman: Ha! Yeah, I heard about this. Saw it too. The top score on the initial leaderboard was unrealistically high. I don’t know for sure if it was hacked, it could have been some sort of glitch as well.
Stinger Magazine: Or were you the ‘hacker’ haha!?
Darren Forman: <Darren sits back and acts all coy>
No, I don’t think I even had the game when that score went up haha.
Stinger Magazine: How was the tournament arranged?
Darren Forman: I got a call from a PR company a little while after the tournament finished confirming that I was going to the finals. That was pretty great, and they took care of booking the trip for me. It’d last four days in total – arriving on day one, competing in the tournament on day two, a day to relax on day three and home again on day four.
Interestingly, I was the only entrant who got to bring a friend along for the trip, so that’s what I did. I guess it’s because there wasn’t enough time for two rounds for EU players, so they had a left-over seat, but that’s all speculation.
Stinger Magazine: I assume it was your first time going in Japan. How was it?
Darren Forman: Yeah, it was my first time in Japan and a great way to be introduced to the place since we had Microsoft employees there to make sure our trip was an effortless one. Our main contact was a guy called Andrew Jenkins, who met us at the airport and took us via taxi to the hotel ‘Hotel Centurion‘ which was situated right above Microsoft’s offices in Shinjuku.
It’s a nice place with some great views. Japan was great, I’ve been back five times or so since. I used to time my visits around the Tokyo Game Show, which is sadly becoming less and less relevant as the scourge of mobile gaming continues to tighten its rancid grip on Japan, but there’s still plenty to see and do.
Stinger Magazine: At the risk of going off-track, any tourist tips for our readers?
Darren Forman: Hitting up Akihabara is highly recommended and a great place to find decent arcades and nerd culture shops. Osaka’s got a kinda similar venue called DenDen Town which I also enjoyed going through, and Arashiyama in Kyoto is a good place to go and get a non-gaming slice of Japan. You can feed monkeys. Go feed the monkeys! Oh, and check out the Robot Restaurant while you’re in Shinjuku. That’s cool too.
Stinger Magazine: Awesome! Now, back to the tournament haha. Did you meet the staff of Team Ninja before the tournament took place?
Darren Forman: We met up with some of the Tecmo guys at the pre-event party as soon as we arrived, including John O’ Connell and Melody Ann Pfeiffer. They were awesome, even if we didn’t really speak all that much – it may have been a little media party, but everyone was still working.
Stinger Magazine: What about the other players? You mentioned you arrived with your fellow competitors, did you know them from Iberians (a popular Ninja Gaiden forum at the time – red) or something similar?
Darren Forman: Nope! I did briefly talk to one of the guys who didn’t make it, David Barlog I think his name was. I only knew him by his Tecmo forum name which was ‘Sneakee’, only it was rendered in l33t sp33k so I didn’t have a clue how to read it until he explicitly told me. Shame. He seemed like a nice dude as well.
Editor’s note: During the tournament the competitors were tasked to compete in a unique challenge based on the upcoming Hurricane Pack 2 DLC, featuring new enemies and a new boss.
Stinger Magazine: When the tournament began, what was it like? Were you allowed to practice the unique challenge beforehand?
Darren Forman: We did get a chance to play it at the party, sort of. We got a whole fifteen minutes or so to rip through the tournament build, which comprised a bunch of new enemies we’d never seen before so we weren’t going in totally blind – but at the same time, fifteen minutes is nowhere near enough time to formulate and test successful methods of taking on enemies like Ishtaros, the Berserkers and various other gameplay changes. Given a few hours of practice we’d have knocked together some viable strategies, but as it was we were all winging it and improvising on the fly.
Incidentally, I tried to Flying Swallow the Berserkers twice in a row, like a complete idiot, before figuring out that was impossible.
As an aside, while we could switch our weapons like normal, I’m pretty sure there were no healing items. Otherwise half the show would have been dipping in and out of the menu every time we got clocked in the face by a fireball.
Stinger Magazine: What were the rules of the tournament?
Darren Forman: Score based, not speed based. We were thrown on stage and given fifteen minutes to play through the tournament build of the game. Death wasn’t the end of an attempt here, thankfully – but it put a dent in your score and slowed down your progress. Fifty thousand points was the penalty for getting Hayabusa blasted out of existence, if I remember right.
Only Derek Kisman and Yasunori Otsuka managed to finish the run in the time allowed – the rest of us all got to Ishtaros where we were held up because she seemed to be nearly impossible to hit at the time. We all know how to beat her now, but we had to hit the ground running for this event and try to figure her out on the fly.
I recall my main approach was trying to 360 UT when she was landing from a swing animation.
Editor’s note: You can actually play the basic tournament structure as one of the challenges in Ninja Gaiden Black labeled Descent of the Fiends Phase 5. Though the Intercept technique and score reduction mechanic are absent in it, it does at least give an idea of what Darren and co. were up against.
Stinger Magazine: Karma Running [going for a highscore in Ninja Gaiden– red] has evolved much since release, with user Balbaid breaking 25 million points 5 years ago. Many methods like On Landing Ultimate Technique (OLUT) chains and certain setups like Azure Dragon into an Ultimate Technique are commonplace now, but how was that back then? What tactics did you use?
Darren Forman: See, here’s my weakness: I’m not a scientific player at all. I mentioned earlier that I generally play for fun, so my approach was essentially battering my head against situations head on until I had a good time and score between checkpoints, rather than trying to apply any real reasoning and studying each combat situation’s nuances for maximum score gain.
Stinger Magazine: That sounds the opposite of fun though haha!
Darren Forman: Ha! One of the things that swung in my favour was the fact that Europe had a smaller pool of overall applicants – if I’d been from either Japan or America I’d have failed to qualify as I came in 14th overall in the leaderboards.
On top of that, Xbox Live was a much smaller thing back then than it is now – if the same contest was held today there would be potentially millions more applicants all trying to outdo one another due to the install base and subscriber increase alone. Hell, all five of us may not have qualified under today’s Xbox Live reach and audience, and we were pretty damn good.
Stinger Magazine: One of the biggest additions of Hurricane Pack 1, which was released a few months before the Tournament, was the Intercept technique. Was it a big part of your playstyle?
Darren Forman: Huge. It was necessary to be competitive in the second leg of the tournament as it upped your score potential dramatically and allowed you to go balls out when it came to aggression.
I loved the Intercept. I don’t care if it was slightly busted, it was a lot of fun to play around with. It should have been available in at least one difficulty mode for Ninja Gaiden Black and Sigma, it was too enjoyable a mechanic to just toss out like they eventually did.
Stinger Magazine: Which leaves us with the biggest question, how did it go?
Darren Forman: It went fine. I didn’t embarrass myself or anything, so there’s that haha! I played fairly well, two of us finished and three of us didn’t, Ishtaros was the sole reason for this as I noted earlier. Actually landing hits on the whippy little bugger was hard as hell without any previous knowledge of how to smack her in the mouth. Derek Kisman was first to finish, but the deciding factor wasn’t speed – it was score, and Yasunori Otsuka beat him out in that regard.
That’s another element of uncertainty right there, incidentally. Since we were competing for score, how much time should we have spent slaying minions? Was it worth killing more of them against the time bonuses? Honestly, there’s no way anyone could have figured this out accurately in one fifteen minute run under that kind of pressure. It was a fun event, but it also had a ton of randomness from the brand new content and tournament only rules thrown in there.
We couldn’t see each other’s scores either to gauge how things were going, but the gaming stations we were playing on were close enough to sneak a glance at anyone on either side’s score. Not a great idea though – even blinking while playing Ninja Gaiden is generally not advisable.
Stinger Magazine: After Otsuka took home the prize, did you stay in touch with the other players afterwards? Or even Itagaki? I heard mention that Itagaki’s famous thumbs-up picture was taken at the afterparty.
Darren Forman: Close! The famous Itagaki ‘Thumbs Up’ photo came from us being led backstage during the event right before we set up to play. Itagaki was sitting there watching us come in, and me and my friend immediately hassled him for a photo. I used to think I was the one that took this photo, but it actually may have been my travel buddy instead. One of us took it, either way.
And yeah, me and some of the competitors stayed in touch for a bit. Played some games on Xbox Live, chatted online. Just us Westerners though, trying to talk to the Japanese entrants would have required learning a whole new language. Which would have been an awesome idea come to think of it. Damn it.
As for Itagaki, I asked to see him after the event if he was still around. I gave him a bottle of whisky and we got our photo taken with him. It was a brief encounter, but we said we were fans of his work, and he told us to check out Akihabara when we went sightseeing. Which we did. After I mangled its pronunciation right in front of him. Whoops.
Stinger Magazine: How was Itagaki? Seeing his game being played on the big stage must have been a unique experience for him.
Darren Forman: I’m not sure how Itagaki viewed the overall event – he seemed to enjoy himself fine while he was there, though. We didn’t get to see much of him aside from the brief moment walking past him backstage, or while he was on stage doing some commentary and talking to the presenters.
Oh, and I should probably mention that we had a pretty good audience there while we were on stage too. Ninja Gaiden didn’t exactly do gangbusters in Japan sales-wise. Not a huge surprise given Xbox’s traditionally dismal install base in the region, but we did still gather a fairly large audience who were happy to check the game out at the show while we were playing.
One neat thing happened afterwards though. While we were returning from the event, in the train station I fell back from our group to take a photo of something and heard someone call out ‘Master Ninja’ from behind me. One of the Japanese audience members had recognized me outside of the competition, and spotted me while returning from the Tokyo Game Show laden down with various goodies he’d collected there. That was cool, and I appreciated it – though since I’d have wound up missing in action if I lost track of the group, I could only really give him a quick grin, wave and a quick nod of my head before scampering away to rejoin the others.
Stinger Magazine: On the plane home, how was that? Were you happy with your end result?
Darren Forman: Honestly, once I’d gotten to Japan and on course to meet Itagaki I’d already earned the reward I was after. Everything else would just have been a bonus – and sure, it’d have been nice to win, but we all handled ourselves well against a very unusual and completely new set of challenges. No regrets at all.
I enjoyed the event thoroughly, but I’m easily pleased. Derek was a little less impressed by how the tournament was run, but he’s a far more serious competitor than I ever was – I only put in the effort because I loved the game and wanted to meet Itagaki.
Editor’s note: Derek Kisman went on to be a serious competitor in speedrunning. Setting records for games like Tetris Attack, Pokemon Puzzle League, Pikmin to being the first player in the world to discover the hidden master levels in Super Monkey Ball. He went on to work as a Software Engineer at Google and later as a Software Development Engineer at Apple, ranking high at Topcoder.
I will say though, the skills we’d learned would have been more thoroughly tested on the same enemies we’d learned them on. When trying to adapt to all new enemies on the fly, a certain amount of luck is also required to discover viable techniques that can be used against them – try the wrong moves and the clock ticks down regardless. It’s a hurdle that we all had to face equally, but it’s also technically a very different experience from what we’d practiced on previously to get there.
Stinger Magazine: Afterwards, that was it. There were no new Ninja Gaiden tournaments, even with its sequel. The only one to take place was with Vanquish when it was released in 2010. What do you think of singleplayer game tournaments as a whole, do you think they can thrive to a degree?
Darren Forman: Vanquish had a tournament? That’s news to me. Also, a totally different genre and studio behind it. I might have to look into that one.
Singleplayer tournaments… eh, that’s a tough one. If you look at the current state of esports, it’s mainly multiplayer games such as Apex Legends and the like. Doom Eternal is a freaking fantastic game, but the viewer count fell off rapidly on Twitch after just a few days.
As much as I enjoy watching skilled players take on AI opponents in challenging games, I’m not sure the appeal is there for enough other viewers for them to really take off – no matter how good the game. If someone wants to look up Devil May Cry combo exhibition heavy gameplay, they’ll usually head off to Youtube rather than watch it live. There are exceptions, but not enough players follow live streams of these types of games.
I do think adding new content in the tournament shook things up, showed fans something new while they watched us play, and tested out different skills from those we’d previously learned. At the same time it shifted the balance from ‘being great at Ninja Gaiden‘ to ‘being great at Ninja Gaiden while also being great at figuring out new stuff el pronto‘, but hell. For someone like me who doesn’t take tournaments too seriously, it was a lot of fun!
Stinger Magazine: It is more than 15 years ago now that Ninja Gaiden launched on the Xbox, looking back, many games have come and gone. Do you feel there has been a game like Ninja Gaiden since, or is it still the top dog in your eyes?
Darren Forman: Nothing’s come close as far as melee focused combat games go. I still enjoy new action games, but one of the main issues I have is that usually the polished ones like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry are more interested in having the player show off extreme combos against enemies that are designed to be little more than mobile punching bags.
Ninja Gaiden, on the other hand, made the enjoyment about the tense interactions between Ryu Hayabusa and his enemies. Learning enemy tells, staying alert and savagely crunching through their defences once they were off balance. Since it was all about the tension in each encounter, as well as the satisfying sense of impact when Ryu lopped off three of their heads at once with a single strike, you didn’t really need to mix up your own combos for the combat to be utterly exhilarating. I’ve had sessions where I’d just Izuna Drop everything I could and come away smiling each time.
Ninja Gaiden II was amazing as well – the combat in particular is best in class. However, the semi-metroidvania design of Ninja Gaiden Black as well as the fact that Ninja Gaiden II wasn’t quite finished by the time it was released (Link to NGII article) did mean that it was a little more unpolished. Still, the added Obliteration Techniques were a stroke of absolute genius.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s been a ton of great games since, but I think Ninja Gaiden is still at the top of the pile alongside its Xbox 360 sequel as far as character action games go. When it comes to shooters I’d choose stuff like Doom 2016 / Eternal, which I feel has clear parallels to the Ninja Gaiden series. Be sure to check out Yakuza Zero as well if you haven’t already. You’ll thank me for it later.
Stinger Magazine: Thank you so much for your time! If people want to talk to you, where could they reach you? Like a link to your twitter or whatnot.
Darren Forman: I’m available on Twitter, though since everyone’s inexplicably angry and screaming at each other all the time these days I usually only check in briefly for the sake of my sanity and the people on there that I know aren’t completely insufferable. I also occasionally do review work for www.gamecritics.com alongside some other fine gaming enthusiasts, and… well, that’s about it for my online presence. That’s about it. Take care, everyone!
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