Pirates vs Ninjas: The 2012 Check-In

Real heady stuff this week. Normally I'd be fine with retiring this old internet feud, but pirates and ninjas both have been oddly well-represented this year. Nary a day goes by when you don't hear about some new game involving one or the other. One might roll their eyes at yet another instance of pirates or ninjas, but at this point it's almost infinitely preferable to zombies and military shooters (both also highly visible in this year's release schedule of interactive entertainment, but that's nothing new). Everything in moderation, as my cardiologist keeps trying to tell me. I'll show that guy who's bos- *HURK!*

So with all that in mind I'm going to take a look at both sides in a historical video game context - in as much as one can apply "historical" to a scant 40 years or so - and for both, four games from this year that exemplify their particular side of this eternal (and eternally stupid) schism. Here's to another year of rum-soaked shuriken, peg-legged kunoichi and... Narrrrrrrrrruto? Anyone?


I like pirates. Not the actual dudes, because they were (and are) rowdy assholes that killed people, but the versatility of the concept as it pertains to video games. Pirates are just goofy enough to make for effective anti-hero protagonists and speciously genial drunken rogues, but they're also effective villains when more realistically portrayed as bandits with little to no remorse for their violent larceny. Essentially, you can have as much fun killing them as you can killing eviller pirates as them. Hmm. Sounded more profound in my head.

Historical Video Game Applications

First and foremost are old favorites Skies of Arcadia, The Secret of Monkey Island and Sid Meier's Pirates!. Indisputable classics, one and all. Then we have a much broader library of games that either follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned paragons (off the top of my head: Rogue Galaxy for Skies of Arcadia, Jolly Roger for Secret of Monkey Island and Age of Pirates for Sid Meier's Pirates) or simply use pirates in a tangential role as villains or a faction the player could potentially ally with against a greater foe. Most any game set in space will have space pirates, which may well outnumber regular pirates for the amount of appearances they make.

Risen 2: Dark Waters

I see a skull, but those bones are clearly not crossed. 5/10 try harder.
I see a skull, but those bones are clearly not crossed. 5/10 try harder.

Risen 2, as well as being the "one game I played this week and am building a blog around" for November 24-30, is a pirate-themed CRPG and the continuation of the decidedly less piratey Risen 1. It has an interesting setting that parallels the colonization (and subjugation of its native population) of "the New World", though in this case it's a forced expansion brought about by a particularly apocalyptic revival of ancient demons and the massive machines of war they're awakening all over the place. As grim as all that is (and as tangentially responsible for it as your actions in Risen 1 were) you only see a fraction of its effect: The game instead chooses to look forward and depict the game from the perspective of the exploratory Inquisition - a not-so-veiled ersatz of the Spanish Conquistadors - and the voodoo-enriched natives that they fie for land with. Indeed, the big dilemma in the game is to choose between siding with the Inquisition or the Arborean Natives, and I can't help but feel the decision between "side with the indigenous population and solve some sneaky and intelligent magic-based puzzles" or "side with the invaders and shoot everything with ridiculously overpowered firearms" isn't making some sort of satirical statement about a certain sub-genre of absurdly popular yet morally dubious shooters. But that's just crazy thinking. Probably.

In many respects, Risen 2 is a lot like the original or - for the benefit of those who didn't play it - something like Gothic (from the same developers as Risen, more or less) or Neverwinter Nights. It has its own character customization and skill system, it lets you explore on your own with the proviso that many late-game areas will have high level enemies you don't want to be wandering into, it lets you carry as much as you want in a realism-breaking but entirely appreciated concession for the sake of convenience. The various islands and bays are well-realized and have just enough character to distinguish them. The game is plagued with minor bugs and issues, unfortunately to be expected for a game as ambitious as this from such a small studio, but I found them entirely forgivable. Nothing that will break the game or force too many restarts, for instance. If I pop into the area and need to wait a few seconds for buildings and furniture to appear, that's really only small potatoes if still a mite discouraging.

What matters, at least as far as this blog is concerned, is how much it adheres to classic pirate lore as told by Robert Louis Stevenson and fifty years of that one theme park ride. It's as brazen as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies in that respect and borrows no small amount from those movies too; whether it's as prominent as the voodoo mysticism and its various waterlogged zombie enemies or just down the main character's Sparrow-esque sarcastic mannerisms and quips. You drink rum and grog instead of health potions, you steal a ship at least twice, you find buried treasure all over the place (where X marks the spot, naturally), you're required to build a raft to escape being stranded at a certain point, you run afoul of a kraken and you can own both a monkey and a parrot. You can't really ask for more than that from a pirate RPG.

Far Cry 3

Mr Mohawk seems rather integral to this whole game. I guess he makes for a better character than
Mr Mohawk seems rather integral to this whole game. I guess he makes for a better character than "rich douche #3".

From the game I just played to the game I most want to play next, Far Cry 3 isn't quite as pirate-intensive. Yet the spectacularly-threatening chief antagonist - Vaas - and his ilk all appear to be pirates of the "oh shit, these guys are insane killers" real-life variety that the rum-drinking, peg-legged scoundrel variant have kind of overshadowed. To be honest, as interesting as the various tidbits we've been getting since Far Cry 3 was announced regarding Vaas and his outlook on insanity, they didn't grab me as much as the recent discovery of just what kind of game Far Cry 3 (and, apparently, its forebears) actually is: The sort of open-world free-for-all that I generally find myself enjoying quite a bit. If this game's anything like Just Cause 2 then sign me the fuck up.

Obviously I can't talk too much about this game and how strongly it relates to pirates, since I've yet to play it and I don't believe it's even out in most parts of the world, but its apparent semi-realistic portrayal of the type of brutal criminals that still prowl the coasts of eastern Africa and elsewhere is but another way a video game might effectively use these nautical nuisances.

Borderlands 2: Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty

Not pictured: The Mysterions
Not pictured: The Mysterions

It's painful every time I have to type out that title. The first DLC to the new Borderlands 2 is yet another video game that gently mocks the various tropes and clichés that revolve around a pirate's life. Scarlett's an interestingly amoral character that the game goes to "hilarious" lengths to foreshadow as an eventual antagonist, but she's a darn sight more tolerable than a lot of the other NPCs in that game. An entirely pragmatic and inveterate thief and villain, Scarlett's one of those post-modern entirely self-aware constructs that seem to populate the land of Pandora. It's like everyone watched the Mad Max series on loop on the spaceship ride over and arbitrarily assigned themselves roles from the movie when it landed. Or Cutthroat Island, as the case may be.

The rest of Borderlands 2 isn't quite as pirate-based as the DLC, since there's not a lot of water on Pandora. The revelation that there is water underneath the DLC's starting town - in which all but one of the inhabitants had dehydrated to death - is kind of an amusing juxtaposition to the desert seas that make up the rest of the map, but the pirate aspects do - at times - feel a little forced. Still, it's an expansive and entertaining DLC for what it is - give or take a few raid bosses that will stymie any single-player achievement-hound - and yet another instance of pirates and pirating being at the forefront this year.

Assassin's Creed III

Clearly a pirate game.
Clearly a pirate game.

Then we have Ubisoft's maligned third (or sixth, but who's counting) entry to their sweeping historical stab-em-up series. The pirate sections, by which I mean the parts where you're commandeering a vessel to give the current colonial governing forces all manner of maritime mischief, are among the game's few highlights. It also comes in two flavors too: There's the ship combat, in which you test your mettle (or ship, I guess) against various opponents in somewhat thrilling clashes that are almost entirely dependent on the player's ability to maneuver into beneficial positions effectively. Like the difficult but rewarding couch slouch. Then there's the treasure map missions, in which Connor has to piece together four sections of a map and then discover the location to some amazing treasure you're told of after, of course, finding a whole heap of trinkets lying around the world map. These missions are excellent, which is odd considering their incidental status: They're far more fun than much of the rest of the game and vary between infiltrating (and then breaking out the burning remains of) an intimidatingly secure cliff fortress, peeking through a dilapidated and eerie lagoon manor house, chasing a looter through a ship graveyard and finding one's way through a precarious frozen shipwreck. Then there's the grand puzzle of figuring out where the treasure's located. It's a side-mission arc I actually left until after I beat the game and discovered I had a spare few hours before it was to be returned to the rental store, and I'm so glad I found time for it.

Assassin's Creed III isn't about pirates really. You throw tea off a ship, sure, but there's nothing in the premise of "be an avenging native american in the time of the Revolutionary War" that would suggest pirate raids. It's a spark of genius, therefore, that someone thought to include it. I strongly suspect that once the ACIII spin-offs start showing up off, one's going to feature this potentially overlooked side of the core game to a much greater extent.


Historical Video Game Applications

Ninjas have been a mainstay since the NES era, where it seems every other action game had a decidedly non-stealthy ninja protagonist. Whether he was avenging his father, saving all the kids, or was simultaneously both a ninja and a cop/robot/pet-owner. And, like pirates, they could double as antagonists too. Where would poor President Ronnie be without the Dragon Ninja? Safely at the White House eating hamburgers is where. Though the ninja games haven't exactly disappeared, they've tapered off as the years go on and they've grown more stale both as a concept in general and in ways developers can build games around them. There's always perennial favorites like the Ninja Turtles and that one anime about the spiky-haired guy who did all the ninja magic to ensure that no kid is growing up today without some sort of vicious assassin as a role-model, which is all grand and good, but ninja games are what matter here. Matter so, so much.

Fortunately, we've been well-represented in ninjerly matters in 2012 as well. Can I think of some examples? Sure I can!

Mark of the Ninja

Sounds better than
Sounds better than "Steve of the Ninja" I guess.

This seems the most obvious port of call. The critically-lauded 2D stealth action game Mark of the Ninja has been raising all sorts of very quiet, very deadly waves across the internet as one of those Indie breakout hits that continue to legitimize the still relatively new, low-key downloadable-only market. It's really the point where crappy mobile phone games and fully-featured console gaming has met in the middle, and regardless of the reservations of the "hardcore" gamer buying excellent games at a fraction of a retail disc's asking price isn't going to be any less wildly successful any time soon. Speaking as a cheapskate anyway. But then, I know if I was a kid and could afford an excellent ten dollar game every week instead of a new NES game every two months (with the ever-present risk that the new game in question might be Friday the 13th or Jaws), I'd be friggin' set. All hail the new flesh world of video gaming!

But I haven't really talked about the game much. That's largely because I haven't played this either. This was a great idea for a blog, you guys. Well, at least I have a reminder here for next year. That's as good a reason as any for writing a blog. "Wanting to educate and entertain others" is probably a better reason, but I'll take what I can get in this economy. Thanks Obama?

Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge

The game is about his sword, I'd imagine. So like all the other ones then.
The game is about his sword, I'd imagine. So like all the other ones then.

This game has ninjas in it. Says so right in the title. Ryu Hayabusa is the world's most luckless ninja, accosted as he is by birds, monsters, giant spider robots and a demonically powered antagonist of the week that keeps stealing his sword and/or girlfriend (but usually the sword). As the game's inadvertently hilarious presentation tells us, besides how best to use one's ninjutsu magical third-eye to figure out where the closest door is, it's that ninjas are best applied - in a video game capacity at least - when everything is completely nuts and you're summoning giant fire dragons out of thin air simply because you don't feel that there haven't been enough giant fire dragons around in the last half hour.

I haven't played this one either. Unlike Mark of the Ninja, I have no intention to. But the fact that the Ninja Gaiden games are still going strong, if perhaps lacking most of its marbles, is important to note for video game ninja historians. Which are not to be confused with ninja video game ninja historians - those guys can be in and out of an archive like the wind.


You know who else cares about honor? Ninjas. Just saying.
You know who else cares about honor? Ninjas. Just saying.

OK, I'm sure some fouls are being called here in regards to Dishonored being an actual ninja game. Corvo's more a magical masked assassin, which is entirely different than how ninjas are usually portrayed. Which is to say as assassins that wear masks and use magic powers to enhance their stealth and combat prowess. But ninjas don't have flintlock pistols, so I guess I got preemptively told.

Dishonored, of course, is the recent first-person stealth game that puts players in the Blink-riding feet of an avenging (a lot of those this week) former Lord Protector as he takes down the conspirators that murdered his Empress and kidnapped her (and probably his) daughter. He does this either by A) Using his powers to carefully make his way across hostile territory, remaining undetected and minimizing casualties or B) The fun way. Play this game the fun way. As someone who took the alternative path first, for The Stranger's sake, people, take the fun way.

But whatever, magical masked assassins aren't ninjas. What am I even thinking including this in the ninja category, am I right?

Assassin's Creed III

Clearly a ninja game.
Clearly a ninja game.

The ninja elements of AC III aren't as well realized as its pirate elements, which is kind of odd considering that one has been with the series far longer than the other. Regular ol' stabbin' dudes is as fun as its ever been, I suppose, but the parts of the game where it requires you be stealthy are universally dreadful. Specifically the parts where you have to tail guys, or eavesdrop, or otherwise cannot be spotted lest you fail some bonus condition or simply the entire mission outright. These games have long since stopped being about gathering information on vital targets for a strategic assassination and more about looking for feathers, buying real estate or grabbing some poor guy's sword and sticking it through the side of his head in one fluid motion. Yet these sequences persist, with their stringent requirements, as if to maintain this facade of being a stealth game first and foremost. Nuh-uh, you guys. Nuh-uh. "Open-world kill-a-thon", preferably with ships from now on please.

But whatever, a stealthy agent of a heavily ritualistic order of grimly determined killers of wayward tyrants and corrupt officials isn't a ninja either. Not even close. I'm clearly just reaching for some of these.

Let's talk comics instead:


(To be added later. It's late. I'm tired. I'm also being oddly defensive today. I'm cold and there are wolves after me.)