Monday, April 15, 2013

The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly: Ninjas

at 1:41 PM
The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly takes a look at a character archetype and breaks down where it's gone right, wrong, or just plain weird. While the effort may seem perfunctory, we hope to examine the consonance (or dissonance) between high-level concepts and their practical execution. 

The ninja is a difficult concept to execute. While the Genji biopic 3 Ninjas made the profession a popular favorite world-round, it's since become famously misrepresented. Historically, ninjas (the correct plural is "ninja", but I don't fucking care) were the feudal Japanese version of assassins, their famous vestments and weaponry as much an exaggeration as peg-legged swashbuckling pirates and cowboy shootouts at high noon. It's not exactly clear why an assassin would need to wear a pitch-black shozoku (yes I just looked that up on Wikipedia) to duke it out in broad daylight against towering dinosaur demons, but at this point we've accepted that "ninja" is just another synonym for "action hero". The ninja is virtually the definitive "just because" protagonist; BGU doesn't take "just because" for an answer. If a ninja is supposed to be silent and lethal, let's see some silent lethality.

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The Bad: Ryu Hayabusa (Ninja Gaiden)

Ryu is impressive in that he's starred in such a wide variety of games, each equally successful in misappropriating the ninja archetype. His debut came in the arcade Ninja Gaiden (the first of three completely different games to use that title), a textbook Double Dragon-cloned beat-em-up. Why a ninja in full stealth garb would be strolling the streets in broad daylight, beating down goons with only his fists and feet, is anyone's guess. Perhaps that's why it's a "gaiden" (side-story): this is what Ryu does on his days off from stealth. His next appearance was in Ninja Gaiden (NES), assuming the demon-hunting role which would define him for the rest of his game career. Again, the clothing is baffling, but we also have to ask what the hell a ninja is doing battling the hordes of Hell (or whatever version of the netherworld is used in this mythology). Open combat isn't really their specialty. Did you ever see James Bond piloting a tank to defeat the Soviet army? I guess I finally understand why I so frequently hear that Ninja Gaiden is the Goldeneye of ninja games.

The Good: Mark (Mark of the Ninja)


Mark is one of the few properly stealthy ninjas we've seen outside of the Tenchu series, and provides accordingly precise violence to skilled players. One of the first rules introduced by Mark of the Ninja is that the ninja only draws his sword to deal the death blow, never sooner. As such, the level design entices the player to mold the environment in such a way that he can quickly and silently pounce on each oblivious (or terrified) foe. This won't be new to players of Arkham City or Splinter Cell, but Mark of the Ninja is particularly successful in making the player feel like a supernatural specter, capable at any point of vanishing into even the most insignificant shadow. Mark has his share of tools to blind and unhinge the enemy, but at the core of the game is the notion that he alone is a weapon, materializing only in the moment that life is extinguished. Also, I don't know his actual name, I just inferred from the title that it would be Mark.

The Ugly: Ebisumaru (Legend of the Mystical Ninja)

Yikes. Ebisumaru is one weird d00d. Most of the ~dozen Ganbare Goemon games never made it out of Japan, due to being so goddamn motherfucking Japanese as hell, but a few managed to pass the sanity filter and land in my SNES or N64. Dr. Yang, as Ebi is known in the NA version of Legend of the Mystical Ninja (aka Ganbare Goemon), makes a first impression as an updated, '90s version of ninja. Fat, bald, uncouth, and of ambiguous sexuality. Put Jason Alexander in a lavender shozoku and you've got a pretty solid casting for the live-action film adaptation. If the defining goal of a ninja is to make sure everyone is unaware of his existence, the defining goal of Ebisumaru is to make sure everyone wishes they were unaware of his existence. Let's recall the two adjectives I chose to describe ninjas in the introduction: "silent" and "lethal". Keep those in mind while watching this demonstration of Ebisumaru's weapon of choice:
Yes, party horn. I suppose it'd be the last thing a shogun's bodyguards would expect. I wonder if there's a reason Goemon always tries to leave Ebi behind?


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So what lessons can we take away about the serene and noble ninja in its natural habitat? Well, one common theme seems to be anachronism. No one knows where to place ninjas in time. More importantly, the feeling of a ninja is derived not through strength, speed, and body count, but lethality. A ninja is by definition a killer, and slapping around a bunch of falcons and mummies isn't his territory. Without slumped corpses and pooling blood, you may as well be playing as a plumber. 

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