Keiji Inafune talks zombies, ninjas, and possible Yaiba sequels

Keiji Inafune is a man who’s carved a very important place in video game history. Perhaps most widely known for his role in bringing Mega Man to life (though he would argue that he’s not the initial creator), he’s been one of the leading creative forces at Capcom since the 1980s.

So when he and Capcom parted ways back in 2010, we all wondered what he was going to do next.

This was a question he answered by starting his own company, Comcept, though we hadn’t really seen his name behind any triple-A blockbusters since he left Capcom.

But now he’s stepping back into the big time, as a producer on the upcoming Ninja Gaiden Z: Yaiba. This is a more cartoon-y take on the beloved Ninja Gaiden franchise, with a zombie-slaying ninja protagonist named Yaiba, a gorgeous cel-shaded visual style, and heaping amounts of over-the-top humor.

At E3, we had a chance to sit in a small conference room with Inafune and pick his brain about Yaiba. (It must be noted, though, that he was speaking through two translators.)

Yaiba Ninja Gaiden Z

As it turns out, Inafune is a longtime fan of the Ninja Gaiden series. He told us: “From way back, I’ve been a Ninja Gaiden fan, and I’ve always wanted to make a ninja game. I have a lot of respect for Ninja Gaiden, and I dreamed of making a ninja game that could sort of wear the crown, or be worthy of a Ninja Gaiden kind of game.”

He approached Tecmo Koei and convinced them to let him work with them on a new game in the franchise. But he didn’t want to make just another Ninja Gaiden game; he wanted to make his Ninja Gaiden game. “We want to bring Comcept’s own originality and [my] own originality to the game to make something that’s different — still Ninja Gaiden, but different, and its own thing.”

He continued: “So when we first started working on this, we had, of course, a lot of respect for Ninja Gaiden, but we also didn’t want to be held back by what Ninja Gaiden has been, what it’s become. Because if we only play by those rules, then there’s no way to make a better Ninja Gaiden.”

So what does a former Dead Rising producer do to put his own personal touch on such a long-running and well-respected series? He adds zombies, of course. Oddly enough, the combination of ninjas and zombies is an almost chocolate-and-peanut-butter-like mix.

Inafune told us, “It should work well together, and it should feel like this is natural. I guess the question arises: Why hasn’t it been done before? I think that ninjas are a very Japanese thing, and zombies are a very Western thing, so the people making ninja games wouldn’t really think of putting zombies in them, and people making zombie games wouldn’t think of putting in ninjas. So there’s sort of this wall in between them, this sort of mental barrier [so] that nobody thinks about doing that. But with this project, we’ve been able to have Comcept’s and [my own] zombie love with Team Ninja’s ninja love, with a Western developer that can have one take on what makes these things cool. And it’s been a really good collaboration between those. We think that that’s really what makes this work.”

Yaiba Ninja Gaiden Z

Another thing that’s changed is the art style. Instead of the realism of most modern-day Gaiden titles, Yaiba sports an almost Borderlands-esque cel-shaded style. Inafune explained, “This kind of art style would fit with something that’s different, but still cool. And one the things for us, we think that ‘cool’ doesn’t have to be ‘real;’ they’re not the same thing. So we can definitely look at this and see that it’s cool, but it doesn’t have to be the real style that Ninja Gaiden is known for.”

And we agree. The art style of Yaiba is quite beautiful.

So will we see a Yaiba sequel in the future? Maybe. “A sequel, of course, always depends on the users and the players and how they react. But of course we are thinking that that would be a fun thing to have. We’re looking for this, for Yaiba to be his own fun and interesting character and really make him shine with this game on his own. And we hope that we can make him, we can stand him up as a character well enough to be on his own and maybe even influence things in the Ninja Gaiden series, with Hayabusa as well, so that they can both sort of play off each other. But of course that all goes back to how the players react to the game.”

Well, we certainly hope this isn’t the last time we see a gloriously cartoon-y blend of ninjas and zombies. It’s just too great a concept.