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March 12, 2012

The Problem with Ninjas

There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while (and if you’ve read the title, I’m sure you can guess what that is).  I like to fancy myself a writer -- if not a real one yet, then at least someone with the understanding of a few literary nuances.  I know how to intuit the meaning and subtext behind things, and I’d argue that I can point out an issue or two with a work as needed…or justify my hatred of something, at least if my continued posts on why I “rather dislike” Final Fantasy XIII are any indication.

You see, I don’t like ninjas.  I think they’re overplayed and over-rated.  I’m probably the only person on the planet who doesn’t go all glossy-eyed at the sight of one.  Maybe it’s because I prefer a nice samurai or two.  But in my opinion, they’re kind of boring.

Ho-hum.  How pedestrian.

Let’s (as usual) take a look at this through the lens of video games.  Ninjas are a common sight over there, as you know.  Let’s pretend you had to write a summary of their character in one or two sentences -- everything you need to know about them, wrapped up in a cute little bow.  Think you’d be up to the challenge?  Let’s give it a shot.

From Final Fight/Street Fighter
Guy is a warrior trained in the art of Bushinryu, and dishes out justice whenever needed.  Stoic yet skillful, he’ll accomplish his mission no matter what.

Okay, now how about another?

From Strider/Marvel vs. Capcom
Strider Hiryu is a warrior trained in the ninja arts, and fights for justice when called upon.  Stoic yet skillful, he’ll accomplish his mission no matter what.

And another?  And another?  Well?

From Tekken
Raven is an agent trained in the ninja arts, and works for a mysterious government agency.  Stoic yet skillful, he’ll accomplish his mission no matter what.

From Sengoku Basara
Kotaro Fuma is a shinobi trained in the ninja arts, and works under the flag of Ujimasa Hojo.  Stoic yet skillful, he’ll accomplish his mission no matter what.

From SoulCalibur
Taki is a demon hunter trained in the ninja arts, campaigning to destroy Soul Edge and its remnants.  Stoic yet skillful, she’ll accomplish her mission no matter what.

Seeing a trend here?  Outside of a few variations, ninjas can be incredibly easy characters to write.  It’s a simple process, really.  Step one: give a character some cool (?) clothes.  Step two: have that character never say anything except how undisciplined their opponent is/not to get in their way/gobbledy-gook about their supra-awesome fighting style.  (Or nothing at all.)  Step three: define a character based on their clothes and/or how badass they are because oh wow wee he can stand on a jet and summon robots and teleport!  And look how high she can jump!  Step four: kick back as fans lap up your creation, and light up a cigarette made out of hundred-dollar bills. 

You could argue that this is a poor showing.  You could raise a hand in objection and shout “Now hold on there!  You’re just tilting the argument in your favor by picking the obvious choices!  Sure, there’s not much evidence for Strider, but how often has he gotten a chance to show off his personality?  He’s from the 16-bit era -- and outside of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, he hasn’t had a game in more than a decade!”  Very true.  And also, BS.  Strider’s earlier games had plenty of opportunities to give us something about his character -- and the same applies ten times over for MvC3.  If Final Fantasy IV can give us developed characters on a small-time scale, so too can games with Strider.  Scratch that; if Sonic the Hedgehog can give us glimpses to a pixilated rodent’s personality -- cocky, impatient, impulsive, got an attitude -- then so too can games with Strider.

You mean you can have quiet AND deep characters?  Breathless gasp!

Next point: a character can start out one way, but evolve into something several times deeper.  Final Fight example: Cody Travers, Guy’s street-sweeping partner in crime, arguably started out as an incredibly generic character.  Imagine the surprise of fans everywhere when Street Fighter Alpha 3 rolls around, and Cody’s gone from good guy to prisoner in chains

In his own words, “I saved the city, saved a girl, but couldn’t save myself…”  It’s an evolution of his character that’s surprisingly deep.  And Capcom kept up the momentum when Super Street Fighter 4 came around…

Cody changes and becomes more dynamic, more distinct; Guy is still Guy.  And that’s the issue I have with ninjas -- they never change.  It’s not a matter of “they’re video game characters, so no need for change” or “lol they’re from old platformers and beat-em-ups, no need for depth.”  It’s just that ninja is used as a substitute for personality or character; it’s the assumption that a few flip-de-loops are enough to win over a crowd.  Pro tip: it’s not.

Just look at Raven’s profile on the Tekken Wiki.  We don’t know anything about him except he’s Canadian and a secret agent.  Or Taki’s Wiki page -- her battle quotes are typical aggressive one-liners, and most of her story (in a fighting game with a strong emphasis on its story) revolves around “smash evil sword smash evil sword smash evil sword.”  Kotaro doesn’t react to anything.  I know that sometimes characters exist for the sake of vicarious living or wish fulfillment, but it bugs the crap out of me.  Ninjas are about awe through spectacle; you’re supposed to like them because they can stop a giant robot’s arm with their bare hands.  I get that.  But if I can see a ninja do some amazing feat and still end up completely bored, then what are you left with?

To be fair, not every ninja is problematic.  Street Fighter’s Ibuki is a fair example; ignoring the fact that she gets fifteen thousand bonus points just for talking about things besides a mission, she’s actually got a personality.  She’s a teenage girl with priorities besides being an ultra-skilled ninja, and bounds between cracking jokes and pointing out how silly the SF universe can be.  There’s also BlazBlue’s Bang Shishigami, a ninja who could out-ham William Shatner and has enough hot-blooded passion to power North America.  And (if you’ll allow me to branch out) any given character from Naruto shows that ninjas can be so much more.  Especially if your name is Shikamaru.

And I’m sure there are dozens of other good ninjas out there.  Cool.  I mean, those Tenchu games have a big following, right?  I may not have played them, but there’s gotta be some color in there.  And I’m sure that there are a lot of other examples I’m missing.  But regardless, you’ll forgive me for having my complaints.  Ninjas can be done right, but it’s way too easy to set their personality to “Badass” and leave it at that.

We can all do so much better.  I’d advocate a paradigm shift en masse to samurai, but I suppose this’ll have to do for now.


  1. This is so true! Ninjas have been overused and abused by the entertainment industry so much so that people have forgotten what ninjas truly were. I'd love to see a ninja portrayed in the same light as Ubisoft's assassins from the Assassin's Creed franchise: more objective-oriented and less combat-oriented.


    1. I've heard that in some cases, ninjas weren't actually warriors trained in secret arts; they were just farmers sneaking around in black clothes at night. And the tools they used? Farmer's tools re-purposed. There's evidence to argue that ninjas are nothing more than aggrandized myth.

      The same can't be said for a samurai. Apparently -- and this is 100% true -- there was a man who could cut through a coin flipped through the air in half with one swing of his sword. As I recall, said man was an aging politician in the 1900s.

      Hooray for misplaced idolization!