The walk to the restaurant was under the cover of trees, a rare sight in the sprawling concrete jungle of Tokyo. Upon arriving, we were asked to take off our shoes and an old lady in a kimono lead us up a narrow flight of stairs to a room on the third floor. Here, two low tables ran along either side of the room, with a third, perpendicular table at the far end reserved for five special guests. We were seated, plastered with copious amounts of sake and told to tuck into a traditional Japanese starter. With our rumbling stomachs silenced, Team Ninja made their entrance, taking their seats at the end of the room. "Tonight," we were told, "you are part of the Team Ninja family." A heart warming sentiment. We chinked glasses, shouting the Japanese equivalent of cheers - 'Kampai'.
"Team Ninja has been through a storm these last several years", continued Yousuke Hayashi, the Head of the studio "We've come through that storm now though, and grown with those experiences into the studio that we are today. I've been with Team Ninja for ten years, and I can say with all conviction, that this is the strongest Team Ninja that it has ever been". Bold words from the man stepping into the shoes of Tomonobu Itagaki, but knowing the announcements that would come over the course of the evening, he beamed with confidence. Before bringing out the main course (or courses, I should say - there were about eight of them), Hayashi took the time to introduce several of the studio's new projects.
First up was a game called Ni-oh; a project that's been desperately trying to get off the ground since TGS 2006. Described as a Samurai action game, Ni-Oh is a collaboration between Team Ninja and Tecmo Koei's Kou Shibusawa. Other than announcing that Team Ninja are now in charge of the project, however, little else was revealed about the game. Hayashi quickly moved on, turning the ante up with revelations about a more familiar franchise; Dead or Alive. Dead or Alive on the 3DS - which was known about prior to this particular evening - will be known as Dead or Alive: Dimensions, and will be amongst the first fighting titles to grace to the hardware.
A break in Hayashi's speech allowed a quartet of kimino-wearing waitresses to bring round the first of our exotic main courses. Whilst I chowed down eel, raw tuna and tempura, I got chatting to program lead Yasunori Sakuda, who had joined our table for dinner. Rather than calling him by his real name, I used the rather affectionate alternative by which he's known around the studio: The Snowman. He explains that this is because he was responsible for creating the snow stage in Dead or Alive 3, and the name has stuck ever since. DOA3 was in fact The Snowman's first project with Team Ninja, after he joined exactly ten years ago.
Unsurprisingly, dinner conversation revolved around Dead or Alive, specifically the 3D offering that will be arriving on Nintendo's new handheld in the near future. Hayashi had described the project as being a 'reboot' for the franchise, a comment I decided to probe further. "The DOA series is renowned for its lovely ladies and their big breasts," I said, nervously awaiting a reaction. "Will the reboot tone that down at all? A lot of players are put off by it all..."
"Reboot has a broad definition," came the reply. "In terms of DOA: Dimensions, for me personally, I think there are some core factors that we would like to include. Really, we're going back to the original DOA, and walking players through the experiences of DOA1, 2, 3 and 4. If the users that are looking forward to DOA:D are looking for a toned down sex factor, then perhaps it's something we should take a closer look at. For me personally, I don't think it's about toning it down and then calling that a reboot. There are other elements that keep DOA DOA, and for this particular project - Dimensions, it doesn't seem that toning the sex factor is the thing that will kick off the reboot. So maybe a different project other than what Hayashi said will be committed to rebooting the Dead or Alive franchise."
This alluded to the fact that a second DOA project could well be in the works, but I chose not to follow the comment up at this particular time. "Obviously 3D technology works incredibly well with big bouncing breasts," I cheekily pursued, "Was this something you had in mind for the game from the start?"
He laughed. "I don't question why you've asked that, and I won't deny that there are many gamers out there are looking forward to that one factor, however, our hope is that this is only one of many factors packaged into DOA Dimensions that players will look forward to. But I get why you're asking, so don't worry."
Conversation moved away from breasts and Dead or Alive for a brief period. We discussed what we were looking forward to at TGS. I mentioned Shinji Mikami and Suda 51's new project for EA (which was revealed earlier that day to be Shadows of the Damned), and The Snowman expressed his interest in seeing more of The Last Guardian. Curious about the drink I'd been knocking back all evening, I asked whether 'shotting' sake was a common activity in Japan. I was told that it was not, and it was only foreigners and rowdy tourists who would drink their sake in such a way. I sipped on mine politely and waited to launch my next bout of questions.
"Let's assume for a moment that Street Fighter IV hadn't come along and blown the fighting genre wide open. Would we still be seeing a new DOA game on the 3DS? Could DOA enjoy the same success without Street Fighter to pave the way?"
"With full confidence I'll say yes to that," Sakuda replied. "Regardless of which franchises have brought this great movement back into fashion - it's not just us riding on that win. We've wanted to return to this franchise for a while, and it just so happens that it's now, and it's today. At the same time, we feel that there's an audience that's craving what we're going to put out. It works both ways, we want to do it, but there's an audience ready for it too."
"Obviously Super Street Fighter IV will be launching on the 3DS too," I proceeded. "I'm not sure when you guys are launching, or exactly when they're launching, but are you worried that Street Fighter could affect your sales?"
"The way I see it - the way we see it - knowing that we're working at roughly the same pace. We don't know when they'll release, they don't know when we'll release, but I don't think there's a rivalry or competition feeling - at least on our side. It is a new hardware, and with DOA:D we're bringing our own flavour and taste to 3DS, they'll bring their own. I think our goal - hopefully both companies' goal - is to continue to give a lot of love to the fighting genre, and deliver a great experience. I think it's fair to say we'd rather our audience embrace our titles as a fighting game, rather than having this direct rivalry."
I knew how much Team Ninja liked its collaborations, so I asked an obvious question. "We've had Marvel vs Capcom, Tatsunoko vs Capcom and soon we'll have Namco vs Capcom - could we ever see a Team Ninja vs Capcom, perhaps?"
"In terms of fresh ideas, I don't know if that would be considered enough of a surprise for Team Ninja. I think we really want to have a unique angle and a unique approach to any collaboration. In my opinion, it seems like because there are other rivals doing this and teaming up together, it doesn't seem like a fresh approach, and seems like there's a pattern. So that would be my gut answer to that."
One of the final questions thrown to The Snowman (not by myself, I must add) asked about the possibility of a new Dead or Alive game on the home consoles. Sakuda simply said that Dead or Alive: Dimensions was one of many mission statements Team Ninja were hoping to develop for the franchise. While this didn't exactly confirm the existence of Dead or Alive 5, it's looking very likely that it's in development, or at least on the cards for the very near future.
After we'd eaten, Hayashi addressed his audience once again, bringing out his A-game by lifting the lid on Ninja Gaiden 3, the third title in a series that ultimately defines Team Ninja as a studio. This isn't something I'll dwell on in this article; the image is out there to admire and scrutinise, so make of it what you will - there was no concrete information revealed over the course of the evening.
This was the megaton that concluded the night. After draining the last of our sake, we parted company, heading off into the bright lights of Tokyo to continue pleasuring our livers with strange foreign beverages. Team Ninja were fantastic hosts, and their low-key announcements (NG3 specifically) were amongst the most talked about revelations of TGS. The evening was intimate in a way that no other press event I've ever experienced has been, and offered not only a fantastic glimpse into what lies ahead for Team Ninja, but a great insight into Japanese culture too. As Hayashi said at the start of the evening, Team Ninja are out of the storm, and their future is looking very bright indeed.