The hype surrounding Nioh leading up to release was without a doubt substantial. And, like excitement for any game (be it on my personal watch-list or otherwise), it’s not something I took issue with. But for one reason or another, it became clear to me very quickly that, for whatever reason, I was immune. Maybe it was the still-lingering bad taste of recent Ninja Gaiden output, or the faint remembrance of release-territory scandal that dominated the news cycle regarding the latest Dead or Alive Xtreme in 2015, drudging up old Gamergate battle cries I’d thought I was lucky enough to be permanently finished hearing about.
And yet, Nioh defied the deep-rooted associations gripping myself and those like me on a subconscious level and proved itself totally worthwhile. The game currently sports a Metacritic average that rivals the Souls series and, to me, has repositioned the no-doubt talented but admittedly sometimes beleaguered Team Ninja as something of a premier purveyor of deep, substantial, and exceedingly difficult action RPG experiences. If there’s anything Western players are endlessly hungry for, it’s that.
What remains to be seen, though, is how or if Team Ninja will capitalize on this opportunity to level-up its reputation. Gamers paying attention have long understood the value of the studio’s craft as one that often lies just below the surface. Dead or Alive isn’t just about glitz, glam, and breast physics, but actually harbors a profoundly technical fighting experience that has narrowed the gap between it and genre mainstays with every major release. But therein lies the problem – you have to be paying attention. The unfortunate reality is that to a certain sect of the population, much of the studio’s work is, consciously or subconsciously, dismissed as trash or camp without fair trial.
Interestingly, my suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of the confusion can be attributed to cultural misunderstandings. 2010’s Metroid: Other M was seen by many in the West as an assassination of Samus Aran’s strong and fearless character, but the intent was no such thing – the goal, as made clear in interviews and discussions with both Nintendo and Team Ninja alike, was to humanize her, make her real, and give her emotions, like you’d find with any well-explored figure of fiction. Though perhaps more commonly accepted in Japan, these traits did not jive well with Western fans.
Worse yet, Other M’s gameplay was actually very good, some might say exceptional for what it is. That’s the part Team Ninja was responsible for, while Metroid’s own creator Yoshio Sakamoto was the guy bearing the heavy-handed, controversial story and character attributes. And yet, the game was ultimately seen as a flopped Nintendo and Team Ninja collaboration. Common wisdom dictates that Nintendo rarely releases high-profile subpar games, so who do you think shouldered the blame? In this business, life can be pretty unfair.
The perception of Team Ninja in Japan is, as far as I can tell, an unproblematic one; different cultures thrive on different things, and for that there’s nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. But much like the text of any territory-hopping game must be localized for its target audience, so must the way in which a company presents itself to a particular territory’s general public. For the past several weeks or so until today, I hadn’t thought about anything Team Ninja-related in this article except for Nioh. Wanting to play Nioh. Talking about Nioh. Comparing Nioh to Dark Souls. And now it’s been released and, for the most part, universally revered. This is where Western gamer’s heads are right now, and the smart move, if possible, is for Sony and Team Ninja to take that and RUN, RUN, RUN with it.
Of course, this doesn’t have to involve the selling of a developer’s personality or soul, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’d be disappointed if Tina Armstrong were suddenly flat-chested in the next Dead or Alive. That said, I think this particular moment in time, of Nioh’s release and success and enthusiastic support from player-types often focused on demeaning other games in comparison to Dark Souls rather than accepting them, is clearly an important one to seize while the iron is hot. Now if only Amazon would restock the game, I could get my hands on a personal copy.
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