Tomonobu Itagaki was born in 1967 and he was into video games at a very young age. During his high school years, he made a Gundam and Zaku game with the help of his younger brother. He created the pixels and his brother wrote the assembly code. He said that "pixel coloring" was his first job. After graduating from Waseda University Senior High School on March 1985, Itagaki attended the Waseda University and began to drift himself from gaming to gambling. He became an avid gambler and spent most of his college years gambling. He graduated from its School of Law on March 1992 and after meeting a founder of a game developing company, Itagaki decided to pursue a career in gaming. He began working at Tecmo as a graphics programmer on Tecmo Bowl that same year.
At the time, Tecmo had a lot of deficits and was suffering financially. They were on a brink of bankruptcy. Itagaki then made a bold move by promising Tecmo's then President Mr. Nakamura that he will make a game that would sell to help revitalize the troubled Tecmo. Leaving no other choice, his boss decided to give it a shot and that was how Dead or Alive came about because it "literally means dead or alive," referring to the fate of Tecmo. It was Tecmo's response to Sega's Virtua Fighter. There he was mentored by Akihiko Shimoji and Yoshiaki Inose, who was involved in the development of Solomon's Key, Bomb Jack, Rygar and the original Ninja Gaiden. Ironically, Dead or Alive used the same fighting engine used in Virtua Fighter but despite the generous licensing, Itagaki received no programming resources from Sega.
The Dead or Alive series sold well and Itagaki climbed the corporate ladder at Tecmo in the following years. He was appointed as head of Tecmo's third creative department in April 2001, then as the head of Team Ninja in July 2001. In June 2004, he was promoted to Executive Officer, and became the General Manager of their high-end production department that same year. He was stripped of his Executive Office position in August 2006 due to a sexual harassment claim filed by a female Tecmo employee.
Itagaki Leaves Tecmo
On July 1, 2008, Itagaki resigned from Tecmo, claiming he had been denied appropriate bonuses for his work on past games; a lawsuit against his former employer is currently pending. This is what he wrote:
"I, Tomonobu Itagaki, hereby announce that on the 14th of May 2008 I filed a complaint in the Tokyo District Court against Tecmo Co., Ltd. for unpaid completion bonuses, and against the President of Tecmo, Yoshimi Yasuda, for such unlawful acts as unreasonable and disingenuous statements made towards me, claiming damages in total of 148 million yen. I also announce that this complaint was delivered to the defendants on May 22nd of the same year. In addition, I hereby announce that I have today submitted a letter of resignation to Tecmo Co., Ltd. stating that I will resign as of the 1st of July, 2008.
"Before the start of development on Dead or Alive 4, Tecmo Co., Ltd. had agreed to pay a completion bonus to me for this Xbox 360 title, which I produced. However, when the time came for the actual payment, Tecmo Co., Ltd. went against its previous agreement and refused payment. President Yoshimi Yasuda chose not only to violate this agreement, but also turned defiant, telling me 'if you are dissatisfied with the decision not to pay the bonuses, either quit the company or sue it.' In addition, he made demeaning remarks about me to my subordinates and colleagues, causing me significant emotional distress and worsening my personal relationships and work environment. Thus, I have no choice but to resign from Tecmo Co., Ltd.
"The conduct of Tecmo Co., Ltd. and its president Yoshimi Yasuda towards me has been unbefitting of a publicly-listed company. I have filed this lawsuit with a strong intent to question the social responsibility of Tecmo Co., Ltd. and its President Yoshimi Yasuda, as well as condemning them for their unjust acts. Today, in addition to announcing the reasons for this lawsuit, I make clear my reasons for resigning.
" To All Game Fans
"I truly feel sorry to all the fans of the games I have made. Ninja Gaiden 2, which will launch on the 3rd of June will be the last Ninja Gaiden I will create. I will also never be able to make Dead or Alive 5. I regret the circumstances that have forced me to leave Tecmo, where I had worked for so many years, and I regret the disappointment this will cause my fans. However, I can no longer continue to work with President Yoshimi Yasuda, a man who chooses not to honor promises even when he is able to do so. I truly hope that nothing like this happens again in the future."
Tecmo responded to his resignation a few days later:
"On June 3, 2008, Tomonobu Itagaki, executive producer of Tecmo-owned development studio Team Ninja, submitted his resignation. Due to the fact that he had recently filed a legal complaint against Tecmo, there was no choice but to accept his resignation. His resignation is effective July 1, 2008.
"The legal complaint is in regard to a claim to an incentive bonus linked to a past project. The parties could not reach an amicable resolution to this matter, and Itagaki chose to seek a legal remedy. Tecmo will let the court decide the outcome of this case and will seek a true, fair, and quick resolution.
"Most importantly, Tecmo would like to assure its loyal fans that Team Ninja, known for its top-selling and critically acclaimed Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive franchises, is intact and, as a matter of fact, has several new projects already underway. Team Ninja is, more than ever, committed to producing compelling and cutting-edge games in order to maintain its reputation as a high-quality developer and to continue to receive the support of its loyal fans."
About a month later after his resignation, the price of stock in Tecmo dropped from (According to GamesIndustry.biz) 1, 102 yen per share ($10.40 USD) at close on Tuesday to 985 yen ($9.29 USD) when the market reopened that Wednesday morning. The drop of almost 11% continued a slow decline, currently standing at 982 yen ($9.26 USD), but the bust has then stopped.
Following Itagaki's departure, Team Ninja employee Yosuke Hayashi was promoted to the position of studio head.
Tecmo and Itagaki Settle Lawsuit
The dispute between Itagaki and Tecmo has finally settled out of court on late February 2010. Itagaki responds:
To Whom It May Concern
Regarding Settlement With Tecmo, Ltd:
I, Tomonobu Itagaki, announce that a settlement was amicably reached on February 26th, 2010 upon a mutual agreement with respect to the lawsuit for remuneration, etc. that I filed against Tecmo, Ltd. claiming the payment of unpaid remuneration, and unpaid wages, and payment of compensation for dismissal, etc.
To All of My Fans:
I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your great help and words of encouragement which have been extended to me so far. I can't hardly wait for the day of announcing my newest work in progress to you all, but I promise you now that I will deliver to you an enjoyable game with depth that surpasses all the games I created before, and is worthy of being world-class entertainment.
Please continue your unwavering support for me.-Tomonobu Itagaki
Post-Team Ninja Career
Following his departure from Tecmo, Itagaki laid low until shortly before E3 2009 to announce that he is heading a start-up development house comprised of fellow former Team Ninja staff members that departed with him. The start-up was unofficially referred to as Tokyo Viking when first organized, but was officially established as Valhalla Game Studios in February of 2010. The studio made its website debut on March 15, 2010. The website gave background on the studio's formation and also announced that it was hiring development talent.
Itagaki's new studio worked on a third-person shooter called Devil's Third for over eight years total. THQ had signed on as the game's publisher, but the company was forced to drop the game from its slate due to serious financial debt that sank the company. Devil's Third was supposedly still under active development at Valhalla Game Studios, but finding a publisher was uncertain. The game was originally intended for release on the PS3 and Xbox 360. At E3 2014 it was revealed that Devil's Third is now a Wii U exclusive published by Nintendo. The game was a commercial and critical failure on the Wii U. It was later ported to PC where the multiplayer component was better received. Shortly after this Itagaki announced retirement on Facebook, but some years after that he started yet another development studio in Italy. In 2020, he was credited as Supreme Advisor on Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time.
Itagaki has cultivated a reputation for his brash public persona. In particular, he is not one to mince words when sharing his opinion and has chided the works of other studios as well as internal Team Ninja projects he had no direct involvement in. Among other games, he has a notable dislike of Namco's Tekken series. Itagaki also has a preference for designing games for the most powerful hardware on the market, leading to the development of many of his projects as exclusives for Microsoft's Xbox and Xbox 360.
Itagaki is known for having an excruciating hatred towards the Tekken series for reasons unknown. In particular, a quote popularly attributed to him is that "Tekken 4 is shit," or "Tekken is shit," depending on the source. It is not made clear as to why he hates Tekken so much but according to a 2006 interview with GameTrailers, he said it's because he had disputes with some Tekken developers.
Favorite and Least Favorite Games
In 2005, Itagaki listed five of his favorite and least favorite video games for 1UP.com.
Top 5 Favorite Games
- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
- Image Fight
- Dragon Quest II
Top 5 Least Favorite Games
- Tekken 2
- Tekken 3
- Tekken 4
- Tekken 5