Before I was old enough to watch most ninja movies, I was lucky enough to have ninja computer games. The best of these was, of course, Saboteur! (1985) and I’ve already written extensively about how ace it is. I think it’s fair to say that without this game, I may never have devoted my life to the study of ninjology and now, all these years later, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the man behind it, Clive Townsend. There’s a lot of interviews out there that discuss the history of Saboteur! as a game so I tried to keep things a little different and focus on the important matters. Ninjas.
So, as you know, Saboteur! was really my first “proper” ninja experience. Do you remember yours?
I think the very first ninja I saw was in a film called Ninja Wars. Even though it was a ‘magical’ Ninja film with people flying around on wires, I was intrigued by these superhuman characters. That inspired me to watch loads more films, some good and some terrible. In the 80s there were plenty of martial arts films which just had the word ninja stuck on the title for no reason, but still many gems could be found. It also introduced me to the likes of Jackie Chan and Sho Kosugi who then became a staple part of my film watching. And a few years later, when my girlfriend bought two cats, I named my all-black one Jotaro after the hero of Ninja Wars.
I’ve read that part of what inspired the game was the fact you were studying Ninjutsu yourself. What drew you to this particular martial art (besides, obviously, that it’s the best one)?
I started off studying Judo, but even though it seemed useful, it also seemed incomplete. So I moved on to Shotokan karate but found that it relied on strength and seemed rather slow. So I then took up Kempo karate, which was faster but was still lacking something. With hindsight I realise that I’d only seen the tip of the iceberg with each of these disciplines, but at the time I was disappointed that none of them were all-encompassing. It was several years later that I had an opportunity to train in Ninjutsu – but this finally included everything – both grappling and striking techniques, traditional and modern weapons, fieldcraft, psychology, anatomy, gymnastics and many other fields. It’s more than just a martial art – it’s a philosophical way of life.
You chose to portray your Ninja character as kind of a modern urban spy, focusing on stealth and weapons training over mysticism. What was behind the choice to portray Ninja as more realistic than magical?
Probably the biggest influence was Eric Van Lustbader’s book, The Ninja. That portrayed a very realistic protagonist, who dealt with real-world issues. Even though the sequels do go a bit mystical, they are still done in a believable way. It was only a few years ago that I realised how much The Ninja had influenced Saboteur! After re-reading the books, I noticed that the end of the first one has a fight scene on the top floors of an unfinished building. I’m sure that subconsciously influenced my map design, and probably my desire for realism…
As the 80s went on, there were a fair few ninja games around, from The Last Ninja to, uh, Ninja Scooter Simulator… Did any stick out for you as being the best?
I was very impressed with the graphical quality of the Last Ninja series, but didn’t actually play it very much… but I did get hooked on Bruce Lee on both the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. Not sure if it counts as an official Ninja game – but it does have one in it!
Do you have a favourite ninja film?
As luck would have it, I can repeat my last answer a bit… The Last Ninja, a 1983 TV movie is my favourite, as it seemed modern (at the time) and realistic. The protagonist even takes into account the weather before climbing up the outside of a building.
I can’t believe I’ve not seen this.
Well, the first of the three Cannon films, Enter The Ninja, was also a favourite, the second one was good, and I even enjoyed the third one, although that was probably just due to Lucinda Dickey… I also loved Drive with Marc Dacascos. Not officially a Ninja film, but close.
Alright. The big one. Who do you think is the Ultimate Ninja?
A real person? Well I’m obliged to say Masaaki Hatsumi as he’s the head of the Bujinkan. But otherwise I’d say Batman! An ordinary human with no super-powers, but mental and physical training and a focused dedication to getting the job done. Having a ton of money helps too.
That was not the answer I was expecting. But yeah. That makes total sense! So, do you have any specific memories from the 80s ninja boom? Any ninja-related stories that have stuck with you all this time?
A friend, Mick, and I watched American Ninja 3 (I think) and there’s a scene where one of the bad-guy ninjas spends ages sneaking up on the hero. When he’s in a perfect position to attack, he shouts “Yahzoooey!” then leaps out. After all that careful sneaking up! Needless to say, the hero is alerted and promptly decks him. I don’t often see Mick, but when we meet, even after several decades, we still occasionally shout “Yahzoooey!” at each other.
Hahaha. Classic. So in the same way that “Yahzooey!” has lasting endurance, why is it that you think the appeal of ninjas never gets old?
Again like Batman, the Ninja is the epitome of a normal human being who, with training, dedication, and some handy gadgets, can appear more than human. It’s a good example of how, in any field, determination and strategy can get the best results. That’s a timeless lesson.
Do you still practice Ninjutsu?
I did some trampolining a few years ago, so I had a chance to refresh my somersaulting skills! But other than that I’m fairly inactive these days! I’ve been focusing on the remakes of Saboteur! so most of my Ninjutsu takes place in a world of pixels.
Speaking of which… What’s the future of the Saboteur! universe?
Well the remake of Saboteur! has explained a lot more of the story, including some hints at who the Evil Criminal Mastermind is, and revealing the fate of the Ninja. The Saboteur II remake expands on the sci-fi and philosophical themes hinted at in the first one, and sets the stage for the ECM to put his ultimate plan into operation. The plot for Saboteur III sees the merging of the storylines in the first two games, and pits the hero against a wide variety of enemies, human, superhuman, and even more. It will be quite a task – but one which won’t be impossible for a master of the art of Ninjutsu…
Thanks, Clive! Happy ninjing!