I-Ninja is a fun and underrated action game that was developed by Argonaut Games and published in 2003 by Namco (in USA) and Sony (in Europe) for the GameCube, Xbox and Playstation 2. A Game Boy Advance version of the game was announced too, but later cancelled.
As it happened with Orchid (another Argonaut game that was later cancelled), originally I-Ninja had a much more colorful and stylized graphic, but the publisher was worried that it looked too childish, and wanted an edgier, grittier look. As we can see from the early mockup / target renders, the original style of I-Ninja looked a bit like Zelda: The Wind Waker (especially for the islands, the pigs and the scene in which Ninja is sailing a ship) but the 2 games were in development almost at the same time so it was just a coincidence.
The main character had a purple & pink costume instead of the dark-blue one used in the final version and even the 3D model was changed through the development, to add more details.
One of the early tech demos was set in a colorful island, with platforms, a Japanese tower and white clouds. This place was probably used to test the initial gameplay, character animations and interactions. A later version of the island was done in a much darker style, during a cloudy night illuminated only by the moonlight. This scenario looks a bit like the area in which the intro of the final game is set.
In the gallery below you can also check various concept art of environments that were not used in the final game, as some islands and castles hidden in canyons.
A series of NPC characters that were originally planned to be in the game were later abandoned when the team decided to focus more on the action and less on the story. U-robot was I-Ninja’s sidekick: it was a strong and big robot, but stupid, really funny and naive, in contrast with I-Ninja who was tiny but took himself really seriously. Various versions of U-Robot were designed (one looked like a robotic teddy-bear) before the character was completely removed. Halo (the girl with a kimono) was going to be I-Ninja’s love interest, but it was soon cut from the storyline (or maybe replaced by Ariel). Another unused character was an onion-alike pet that was probably Halo’s one. In the “Ninja Guardians” concept art we can see various early and unused design for the game’s bosses. The cat-girl one was later replaced by Arial.
Looking at the evolution of I-Ninja, there’s no doubt that Argonaut put a lot of work and love in their project and all their efforts can be felt in the charming game that we were finally able to play in 2003. Sadly in October 2004 Argonauts was closed for economic issues.
Thanks a lot to Tanguy for the contribution!