You take games too seriously.

Baby’s First Sword

ninja gaiden ds2

A few days ago, over coffee and Scrabble, my friend announced plans to buy his five-year old son a Nintendo DS and a couple games to jump-start his kid’s collection. He asked my opinion about children’s games, and I gave him my usual spiel: surely, there are great games exclusively for children, but rather than patronize the boy, give him something normal gamers play like Mario Kart DS, or Animal Planet, or Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. And he splashed his coffee in my face, and bid me good day!

Actually, he let me explain, and, as usual, I mumbled, chased my tail, and recanted my recommendation. And, as usual, I thought up the perfect reply a few hours later–coincidentally while building the perfect scrambled egg sandwich.

First, I believe for videogames to best educate children they need a context, usually best provided via an additional component: a family member, a teacher, or, possibly, a book. Though I respect edutainment games, without proper support, they often confuse children. For example, a New York children’s game firm recently had children play a first-person game where their avatar was as an illegal immigrant.

One particular level went as follows. The player steps into the first-person perspective of the illegal immigrant. He immediately witnesses a terrible accident, but when he stays to help the injured people, the ambulance driver reports him for deportation. Game Over. Insert credit. A young girl retries the level, but, thinking she learned from her classmate’s mistake, chooses to run away from the accident. Game Over. She’s punished for abandoning the people in need.

Children are used to games where you win. In this situation, they were forced to lose. Many children hated the game for putting them in this uncomfortable situation, and refused to read or listen to additional information provided by the game. Teachers were necessary to explain the situation, calm the children’s anxieties, and answer any questions.

So how, in any way, is Ninja Gaiden: DS (Dragon Sword and Dual Screen, well-played Tecmo) educational? It’s a virtual workbook, best supported by a strong teacher.

Teachers help explains workbooks and offer assignments, so, let me just don these sharp glasses and this over-worn tie—ink stains, no biggie. Great! Welcome to Prof. Plante in the Case of the Shaky Recommendation. Students, please grab your Ninja Gaiden workbooks.

Notice how the game requires the player to hold the DS not in the usual horizontal fashion, but vertical, like a small book. Many of NG: DS’s best qualities come from this brilliant design choice. Now, turn on your games, open a new file, and make sure to play on Normal—Hardcore Gaieden-ites, you’ll have your day.

The player’s placed immediately into a duel against Ryu, and allowed to explore her move-set with no rules or guides. The sequence, featuring Ryu and Momiji, isn’t hostile, but a spar between friends. It’s an important, explorative moment, that allows for creativity and discovery. Since the basic moves aren’t locked, an advanced player may learn a trick or two from the confrontation, while a younger player may surprise herself by unintentionally performing a multi-hit combo.

Afterwards, the player’s carefully informed of the basic touch screen moves: poke there and Ryu throws a shuriken, pull across here and he slashes, whip up and he jumps. Combined with the DS’s book-like format, the game mechanic resembles a pop-up book. Each screen, or page, requires the player to follow basic physical actions—pull, push, and poke—to get the page’s available reactions. When they complete the page, they progress to the next, receive a little more of Gaiden’s story, then re-perform the physical actions for a new set of reactions.

Video games further ruin the youth of today after the jump….

Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword
’s visual form resembles a children’s comic book. Not to say comic books are for children, rather, NG: DS’s style specifically reminds me of comics sold in my local shops bubblegum collection. The story consists of brief plot points and surprisingly sparse dialogue, and employs beautiful colors and simple imagery lace the game like a Saturday morning cartoon. Children NPCs are sprinkled across early stages, and even Ryu looks baby faced behind that mask. The game feels young.

But the game’s not educational because it’s accessible to children, though that’s an accomplishment alone. The controls, and as mentioned earlier, the sense of discovery, make NG: DS special.

I call it the scribble factor. On the normal setting, the player can wildly scribble across the screen, mostly back and forth between enemies, and fair pretty well. Eventually, they must learn to make distinct and correct pen strokes to progress, but by that appointment they have a move-set so exciting and large it allows for plenty of creativity. The complexity’s nice for advanced gamers. The scribble factor’s great for a young player, creating a sense of wonder as the game translates his simple movements into elaborate, elegant attacks.

Pause: I need to be cautious with my previous statement. The biggest problem with selling Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword to children is that it perceivably portrays violence in a positive, beautiful, and glamorous light. Violence, in reality, is none of these things. If a parent were to take my word literally, and give their child a copy of NG: DS, they would be expected to explain this hypocrisy to their child, preferably sharing play time with them to answer questions or help beat difficult tasks. Or, if the game negatively influences the child, the parent should know when to take it away. OK, back to my hullabaloo.

The scribble factor allows for a young player to experiment, and learn their own way to play the game at their own pace. If they don’t want to commit to intentional moves immediately, they can slash and swing that little stylus to their hearts content, at least, until the game requires the player to take the first big step in any educational setting, learning a language and how to write it.

Ninja Gaiden: DS uses a unique spell system language where the player selects a spell or special move, and must draw a particular character on the touch screen to perform it. The system’s fun, quick, and forgiving. I love it. In an educational setting, I think it teaches children to quickly create complex and foreign characters—they’re in Japanese (I think, apologies, sometimes I’m vastly uneducated). It also guides the player away from scribbling away at enemies, and greatly rewards precise pen strokes.

All together, Ninja Gaiden: DS offers an accessible story, encourages discovery, and teaches basics to language and penmanship. It rewards players for patience, creativity, and obeying and exploiting the game’s rules. The game physically appeals in the same way as a book, and uses a comic book style familiar and appealing to children.

And unlike most Ninja Gaiden games, it (mostly) avoids explicit, unnecessary sex and gratuitous gore.

Of course, I can’t wholly recommend you hand Ninja Gaiden: DS to the nearest child or even ‘tween. The game’s designed around swordplay, and the story involves many terrible and often personal atrocities. Instead, I think future designers should learn from NG: DS for the creation of less-violent games—an awesome, similar example is Elite Beat Agents.

I doubt my friend will pick up NG: DS for his kid (though possibly for himself), but I think he has a good idea what games, of any sort, can offer his little guy. Achievements.

NOTE: I recently went into game mechanics bettering the player in my new column, “Why We Play,” at GameSetWatch. Plus, I posted a killer Earthbound screen grab, so check it out!


Picture: Tecmo

Achievement: Technology-Ninja


Filed under: Commentary, Portable Media, Story Analysis, , , , ,

10 Responses

  1. […] crazy and interesting? It’s definitely  abit of both. I also mention my Hardcasual article, Baby’s First Sword, about Ninja Gaiden as an educational device, and dig a little deeper into games as […]

  2. I remember reading this on the day it was posted, April 1st, and writing it off as an April Fool’s joke. After all, Kotaku was posting exclusively about cakes that day and Destructoid was… well they were being Destructoid.

    Now Kotaku has linked here… Congrats on that, by the way, but umm…. this *was* a April Fool’s joke, right?

  3. ctplante says:

    Not at all. It would be a boring joke. I’m curious why you think it is.

  4. Sam Ryan says:

    uh, da boobz?

    i agree with chris that it’s a deep game and a great way to introduce someone to the mechanics of gaming – and to the importance of learning to be patient, intelligent, and thoughtful in your actions.

    but i also agree with the shocked people out there – and i think chris does too, because he wasn’t advocating for every kid to get a copy of ninja gaiden DS when they walk into their first day of preschool. if you’re dealing with someone else’s kid, or kids you can’t trust to talk to you about the things that confuse them, don’t give them any kind of media with violent or sexual content. but if you’re looking for a place to start, then it certainly beats something that talks down to them.

  5. Bee says:

    This teacher role is spot on; gaming now has (sort of) left the social vacuum of the 80’s geek-in-a-bedroom. Games are now taught, handed down from siblings, friends or – if you’re (un)lucky – parents.

    Which is why my kids are still unaware that PG games stands for anything other than Parental Gaming.

    Top recommendations for 5 yr olds:
    *Ratchet and Clank ToD – problem solving
    *Lego Star Wars – coop play
    *Flow – waving controllers around and working out internal universe

  6. ctplante says:

    @ Bee:

    You’re spot on.

    But in Flow … you’re a cannibal!

    This list is also oddly similar to games I’ve gotten my Dad to play.

  7. […] I wrote a post on my personal blog, HardCasual, about the potential of Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword’s play mechanics as tools for […]

  8. […] Chris’s baby, Ninja Gaiden: DS, begins with only the normal difficulty available, with the harder (impossible?) difficulties only open after defeating the game one time around and mastering the basics of the game’s mechanics. The God of War series has its much-joked-about “maybe you’re a sissy” screens after you die enough times, allowing and suggesting that you kick it down a notch and play at your level. […]

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