I have been a huge fan of Tomonobu Itagaki and his work for many years and I always wanted to meet the creative mind behind “Ninja Gaiden” and “Dead Or Alive”. A while back, I added Mr. Itagaki on Facebook and in return he added me as well. But, I always had doubts whether that account was actually real, or whether it was really him writing, or whether it was someone else who was hired to do the writing for him. As some of you may know, I had already set plans to go to Japan in November to attend the Tokyo Game Night “Playse” DOA5U tournament. So I thought to myself, “Let’s find out”. I sent him a private message saying that I was a huge fan from Saudi Arabia and would like to meet him and maybe have some sort of interview after the DOA tournament. I sent the message with very little expectations but I thought to myself, “What the hell have I got to lose, right?”. To my surprise, in less than 10 minutes I get a response saying, “Sure, I’m free next week. Just drop by my office in the evening”. Of course, I got excited. But then I thought to myself, “well…. Shit! I guess I have to come up with some questions to ask the guy now”. And so the random yet unforgettable experience began.
I arrived at Valhalla Game Studios as planned and I waited in front of a couple of closed doors and a phone right next to it. I picked up the phone and said who I was to the guy at the other end of the phone and then I was greeted by officer producer Mr. Yoshifuru Okamoto. I was asked to take my shoes off and place them in a small locker and was given a pair of slippers.
Emperor Cow: Does everyone here wear slippers?
Yoshifuru Okamoto: Yeah, this is common among many Japanese companies in order to have a more relaxed and an “at home” feel. Mr. Itagaki’s office is on another floor so please come this way.
He takes me to this big room with 3 huge black sofas facing a TV screen. In front of the TV were a bunch of games and all the current gen consoles. Behind one of the sofas were 2 giant flags with the “Valhalla Game Studios” logo on them and a guitar on the side. And I was wearing slippers. The only thing on my mind at that point was the fact that I was so glad I was wearing a new pair of socks without any holes in them or a funky smell that might stink up the place.
Okamoto: Please wait here. Mr. Itagaki will arrive shortly.
Meeting Tomonobu Itagaki
Tomonobu Itagaki: Hi, I am Tomonobu Itagaki.
Cow: はじめまして、よろしくおねがいします。(Nice to meet you! It is my honor)
Itagaki: I believe you met Okamoto. He has been with me for a very long time since DOA2U.
Okamoto: Nice to meet you.
Cow: Really? Nice to meet you too!
(They both handed me their business cards)
Itagaki: Oh Japanese is OK?
Cow: Yeah it’s fine.
(The rest of the interview was carried out in Japanese for the most part)
Itagaki: So you came from Saudi Arabia? Tell me, how’s the war between the Palestinians and the Israelis? The situation in Ghaza seems very unstable. You live close to that region so you might have a better insight.
(In my head I was thinking, well that’s one way of quickly breaking the ice. LOL)
Cow: Well it’s a massacre. There are innocent people getting killed left and right, children being either orphaned or separated from their parents, schools and places of worship being bombed, and the media either hides or twists everything to suit their own agendas.
Itagaki: The media can never be trusted. The media is corrupted, governments are corrupted. You don’t happen to have family there do you?
Cow: Actually I do, and in Syria as well. There’s no decent place to live in around the world really.
Itagaki: It is true. This whole world has turned into hell. If it’s not war, it’s corruption.
You seem a little tense. Let’s take a picture! Okamoto! Get us a couple of beers will you?
(Okamoto comes back with a couple of beers for us)
Itagaki: Do you drink?
Cow: No, I don’t.
Itagaki: Ahh.. Its ok. Anyway, just hold this for the picture.
(Itagaki opens up a beer and hands it to me)
Itagaki: now sit back and relax and stick your hand out and say: “YEAAAAAAAAAAAH”
(We both do that and Okamoto snaps the shot)
Itagaki: but really your Japanese is superb! Where did you learn it?
Cow: back in Saudi Arabia.
Itagaki: was your teacher Japanese?
Cow: No, he was Egyptian.
(He bursts laughing)
Cow: His wife was Japanese though. Actually they were both my teachers for 8 years.
Itagaki: and was this part of your college studies?
Cow: No, I studied it in private. I’m actually a dentist.
Itagaki: I bet you can tell if someone has real teeth or false ones.
(We all start laughing)
Itagaki: So how long did the trip from Saudi Arabia to Japan take? It must have been very long.
Cow: well there are no direct flights to Tokyo so I had to stop by Hong Kong for a few hours. In total I would say about 18-19 hours.
Itagaki: That must have been a really tiring trip. So what have you done since you arrived?
Cow: well I was training at the game center for 2 days and attended the tournament yesterday.
Itagaki: Right, you mentioned the tournament. It was on DOA5 Ultimate, right?
Itagaki: So how did you do?
Cow: Well My team got knocked out at top 8, so not too bad but not as good as I was aiming. Nerves got the best of me near the end. But it was a great event. There were around 150 players. It was great fun to meet and play with so many players.
Itagaki: What was the event called?
Cow: “TGN Playse”. That’s short for Tokyo Game Night.
Itagaki: And was this an official tournament?
Cow: Well it was mainly organized by the players themselves, but Shimbori and Hayashi were there.
Itagaki: So semi-official then. Okamoto, make sure you catch all the details. So which Character do you use?
Itagaki: Oh, that girl is very technical! Do you know why I call her that girl? It’s because she is my daughter. I love her. I love all the characters I made. They’re all my children. When I create a character, I don’t just concentrate on their moves, I care about everything from the way they look, to their personality, to their back story to the way they grow. Just like raising my own children.
Cow: She has been my main since DOA 1
Itagaki: I could tell from your Facebook profile pic which you based on the DOA 1 cover. I designed that cover.
Itagaki: Do you remember which characters were on that cover?
Cow: Well, yeah. Leifang, Kasumi and Tina
Itagaki: Well of course you’d know. (Laughs)
(In my head I thought well this is my chance to ask a few questions of my own)
Cow: You know, there was always something unique about DOA that drew me to it from the start. It wasn’t just the fighting and the mind game, the game was always pretty and always polished. I always wanted to know, what were your main goals when designing the game? What was the thought process behind it?
Itagaki: There are four main pillars that I concentrated on when designing DOA. On two ends of the spectrum you have Casual and Pro, and on the other ends you have Sex and Violence. The main goal was to find the perfect balance between all these four pillars. The game should not be too difficult in order for casuals and new comers to enjoy it and it should not be too easy in order not to lose the pro players. It also should not be too violent in order not to scare off any of the sensitive players and it should not be too sexy in order not to turn it into an “Ero-game” (an erotic game). This is why I put a firewall on all 4 pillars, so that no one pillar overshadows the others and a perfect balance could be achieved.
Cow: You know, you just said something that has hit the spot to hard its actually painful. I love the DOA Fighting game series. I have always been a fan and to me it was always the game that played better and also looked sexier than all its competition. But that’s just it! It was always a fighting game first, and the sexiness came naturally thanks to how visually pleasing the game was “as a fighting game”. The problem that I, as well as many players out there, have been having with DOA5 is that it lost its identity as a fighter. It started off so well at first with the “I’m a Fighter” slogan and the trailers showing really entertaining fighting. Then it is like they took a huge 180 degree turn and started to exploit the sexy side of the game to the point that it became erotic. The game lost its identity as a fighter and became an online erotic clothes shop. Even when they released some of the classical nostalgia outfits as DLC they went and exposed more under boob or side boob just in order to make them sell more. What they don’t realize is that this is hurting us as a “fighting game community” and we are being looked down upon by all the players of other fighters out there as perverts who just play an erotic game. No matter how hard we as pro players try to showcase the games depth by releasing video content or attending tournaments, they go and flood the market with more bikinis and more cleavage. They have them practically topless in the DOA5 Last Round pre-order for crying out loud. We are being taken as fools.
Itagaki: Everybody is a little perverted; even I’m a little perverted. But, it was for that very reason I created DOAX; in order to target the people who wanted something a little bit more casual and sexy but at the same time keeping that tone separate from the “fighting game” that is DOA. DOA is now a total mess.
Cow: Speaking of DOAX, I loved the casino in that game. (Laughs)
Itagaki: We put a lot of work into that casino. What game did you like the most?
Cow: Blackjack! (Laughs)
Itagaki: Blackjack is fun isn’t it? (Laughs)
Cow: It’s really addictive! But what I liked the most was that there was no time limit in the casino. I would play blackjack for hours without realizing how much time had passed.
Itagaki: Going back to DOA5, another major problem with it is that the balance now is a disaster.
Cow: You really think so? To be honest, I really think the team did a great job with the balance of the game. I feel that is one of the best areas that evolved.
Itagaki: YOU say that because you are a pro hardcore player! But I look at it from a game designer standpoint. It is almost impossible to attract new players with the way the game plays now. Look back at the older DOAs. When a new comer tries out the game for the first time, his first instinct is to just press the buttons randomly. But, those button presses usually lead to some very visually pleasing moves and even at some points lead to that beginner’s first victory. When a new player experiences this, in his mind he would think, “Hey, I think I can play this game” and would start to play it more and maybe even attract more players to play it. When you compare this to the state DOA5 is in, a new comer has virtually no chance at all. The technical gap is so huge to the point that the game will feel too awkward and this new comer will never be able to play effectively or ever get a win. A game like that would never sell. This is why they thought they can overcome this by making the game more erotic and milk you loyal players all out of your money with erotic DLC. It’s disgusting.
Cow: Hmm, I never really looked at it that way.
Itagaki: Hey, Do you know why the 2D shooting game genre kept shrinking until it eventually disappeared? A player like you would know why. It’s basically the same situation.
Cow: I suppose it’s because it was getting more and more aimed towards hardcore players.
Itagaki: Exactly. The fighting game genre is at risk of facing the same dilemma. Of course, there is a market for hardcore players. It was for that reason I created Ninja Gaiden.
Cow: Ninja Gaiden is one of my favorite games of all time. I loved that game so much! What made it stand out so much for me is that it felt like an “adventure fighting game”. I also liked Ninja Gaiden 2. I still remember that water dragon boss where you had to fight over the pool of piranhas. I swear that boss made me want to cry. (Laughs)
Itagaki: It’s like this. Think of DOA as the Pacific fleet, Ninja Gaiden as the Atlantic fleet, and DOAX as the Mediterranean fleet. Each fleet is stationed in a specific location and is placed there to protect that location with its own unique rules and regulations. Team Ninja went and took all those fleets and sent them together to the North Pole!
But turning it into an “ero-game”? Just what the hell kind of market are they targeting exactly?
Cow: Putting all that aside, I think the most thing that bothers me about the game right now is the netcode. It’s awful. It’s almost impossible to have a playable connection. It’s as if online and offline are totally different games. 90% of the time I’m raging and cursing saying “I SWEAR I READ THAT!”
Itagaki: The coding is very poor. Have you seen the coding in Ninja Gaiden 3?
Cow: don’t get me started on that game. That game was a disaster from every aspect. But to be fair, the game did improve greatly with Razor’s Edge.
Itagaki: Do you know why it improved?
Cow: Because it went back to its original roots.
Itagaki: Exactly! But even that is not a good thing. You cannot just build a game based on the same formula over and over. People will get bored. You have to expand on it and evolve it. Introduce something new to the table.
Cow: The sad thing is they actually tried to do this when they collaborated with Mr. Inafune in making Yaiba. It had a very fresh and new feel to it. It was also pretty challenging. I really enjoyed that game. It is just too bad that the fans were too hard on it because they were expecting another Ninja Gaiden, even though the game was clearly being advertised as something else.
Anyway, just make sure that the netcode is good in Devil’s Third. That is a deal breaker for me and many players out there. (Laughs)
Itagaki: Don’t worry. My team and I are working really hard on making sure that the game plays as smooth as possible. You better start recruiting clan members from now! (Laughs)
Anyway, do you have any questions you would like to ask me?
Cow: actually I had a few but there was always one that crossed my mind. Why the name Valhalla?
Itagaki: I am sure by now you heard of the story of my departure from my old job, right?
Itagaki: And you know the mythology behind Valkyries?
Cow: I do.
Itagaki: To everyone that helped build this company, it was as if we were chosen by the Valkyries after having fallen in battle. And this company became our Valhalla where we could start anew.
Cow: You have all this experience with DOA. And to my knowledge, you have a good number of staff that worked on Sega’s Virtua Fighter series as well. So why don’t you make a new fighting game? Show the world how it’s done!
Itagaki: Aah, no way! If somebody told you to go back to college and study dentistry all over again would you?
Cow: Hell no. (Laughs)
Itagaki: Its the same thing. I want to move forward, try out different genres and create new games. It’s far more interesting that way.
Cow: You know? I am going to say this about myself, but I am sure many people would agree with me. You have not only set a standard for game quality to look up to, but to me your games were also console sellers. After playing DOA on the Sega Saturn to death and DOA2 after that on the Dreamcast, I purchased an Xbox for the soul purpose of playing DOA3, then when I heard that the Japanese version was updated I went and bought a Japanese Xbox with DOA3.1, then I Bought a 360 for DOA4. To be honest I had no interest in buying a Wii U at all. But When I heard Devil’s Third was going to be a Wii U exclusive, I went straight to the store and bought one. (Laughs)
Itagaki: Thank you. I am really honored to hear this.
Cow: The funny thing is, even though I have an Xbox One, a PS4 and now a Wii U, I am having the most fun with the Wii U. The Xbox One and the PS4 are too obsessed with their graphical presentation to the point that the game content becomes either too short or too weak at the expense of the graphics.
Itagaki: That is because Nintendo still understands what it means to make a game. So what are your favorite games on the Wii U right now?
Cow: You’re going to laugh. Pikmin 3! (Laughs) and Bayonetta 2.
Itagaki: Just wait for Devil’s Third! It’s really shaping up to be a fun game.
Cow: I can’t wait. You know I feel very fortunate for being able to come and meet you in person.
Itagaki: Actually, you are lucky. Okamoto and I were just talking a while back about getting an interview with a player for our website. Your timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Isn’t that right Okamoto?
(Actually Okamoto was taking down notes of the interview the whole time)
Itagaki: So how many days do you have left in Japan?
Cow: 5 days more.
Itagaki: What do you plan on doing?
Cow: Probably camp at the game center. It is not very often I get the chance to play a game I love offline and at a high level without worrying about lag.
Itagaki: You addict! Go and do some tourism! At least for one day! Now is a great time for sightseeing. Don’t waste your whole time at the game center.
Cow: I’ll try not to. (Laughs)
Itagaki: Anyway, We better get back to work. It was a pleasure to meet you. Please drop by and visit us if you ever come and visit Japan again.
Cow: Of course! Thanks for great time! And I hope to see you again!
And there you have it.
In the end I didn’t really know who was interviewing who exactly. And there were some sensitive issues which I could not share with you guys. But, this has got to be one of the most bizarre and unforgettable gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I hope you guys had a fun read.