Long before Assassin’s Creed came along and stomped its big clumsy feet all over the genre, Tenchu was just about the only name in classic stealth-action. That was of course until the dismal Tenchu Z, released in 2006, derailed the once sterling series. And when you consider the pop culture love affair we have with all things ninja related, which stands second only to zombies, it’s somewhat shocking that it’s been almost a decade since we’ve seen a game of its like. And while Assassin’s Creed doggedly refuses to venture into the feudal Japanese setting, it’s likely we’ll not see any major stealth-action game involving ninjas anytime soon.
It’s a really disappointing prospect in all honesty, the Tenchu games were some of my favourites during the PlayStation 1 and 2 eras. It was series that captured the cold, brutal efficiency of the ninja, along with more mystical and supernatural elements that often feature in materials on the sub-genre. As it grew it built a fascinating story around its two protagonists, adding lore and intrigue with each instalment, as well as new characters and enemies without ever letting the major storyline spiral out of control. Whether you played the original game, or first experienced the series with Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven - the third and last outstanding instalment - each game was just as accessible to new audiences as it was to long-time fans.
The first game in the series, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, was something of a revelation at the time. Arriving in 1998, before either Thief or Metal Gear Solid, it was one of the very first 3D stealth games, and despite being rather limited technically, the concept it championed was strong enough to allow the series to develop into one of the best stealth-action games of its generation. This was in-part down to one of the series’ core mechanics, the grappling hook. Its inclusion allowed players to latch onto rooftops and traverse each stage in any way they preferred, and with each one functioning as a standalone sandbox that could be replayed as many times as the player desired, it helped deliver an outstanding sense of freedom and choice. Players had the ability to stalk targets from on high before silently eliminating them, they could to drop down and engage a pair of enemies with a brief flurry of combat and quickly escape before reinforcements appeared, or of course abandon combat when overwhelmed and take refuge on a distant rooftop.
This simple yet brilliant mechanic was complimented by the introduction of many smaller features, most of which have become staples of the genre. It was Tenchu that first introduced the cinematic ‘mini cut-scene’ when players performed stealth kills, and its ranking system that rewarded players for stealth and patience with an array of unique inventory items, were just some of the principles we take as standard for any half-decent stealth-action game these days.
But aside from the games mechanics Tenchu was also a game capable of weaving an interestingly diverse storyline. The seemingly unconnected missions would unravel to reveal a sinister conspiracy that began with feuding merchants and ended in Japanese mythology and eastern magic, all of which was achieved from two very different perspectives. As the male lead Rikimaru, players experienced aspects of Japanese bushido, where even the most fearsome of enemies could be respectful and courteous. So much so that in one instance players assist an enemy in committing seppuku, rather than engaging in an end of level boss fight. And conversely - perhaps in an attempt to indicate the different attitudes towards gender at that time - the same encounter when played with Ayame, the lead female protagonist, resulted in the same individual becoming so offended by the notion of a female assassin taking his life that he falls into a crazed rage, forcing the player into an unexpected boss encounter. Very few games at the time, and probably even less since, have taken the time to add such a well-executed theme to something that was initially conceived as a mechanic to increase a game’s longevity. Rather than clumsily attaching content without meaning to the game as a completion reward, Tenchu strove to add depth to its mechanics, its characters and the world it set itself within.
With its concept firmly proven it was necessary for the rough edges such as the poor draw distances, and voice acting that could rival the original Resident Evil, to be improved upon. Unfortunately, with the exception of vastly improved voice work, Tenchu 2 failed to improve its technical shortcomings in any significant way. The game was much the same as the original and, barring one outstanding feature, had only managed to equal - rather than surpass - the standards of its predecessor.
It wasn’t a bad game by any means, but had it not been for the much praised map creator, then it’s likely Tenchu 2 would have been swiftly forgotten. It was this map creation tool that gave Tenchu 2 its replayability and what almost certainly redeemed the game in the eyes of many critics. Players had the freedom to use virtually every asset present within the singleplayer story, from terrain, enemies and even bosses. This, coupled with its relatively fast and simple interface, meant that Tenchu 2 was something of a success, so much so that its map creator tool encouraged the creation of a nationwide competition in the US for the best user created map.
Players had to wait three years for the next iteration of Tenchu to arrive, however with the upgrade to the PlayStation 2 the series was finally able to raise its graphical and technical standard up to the same degree as the already stellar mechanics and storyline. In short Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven was to be the pinnacle of the series. Where Tenchu 2 had been a prequel, Wrath of Heaven followed directly on from the events of the original game, and in doing so was able to resurrect popular villains, as well as introduce a new playable character and the thoroughly excellent local multiplayer.
Much like the first game Wrath of Heaven was spread across ten distinct and self-contained missions, all of which could once again be played through as Rikimaru, Ayame, or series newcomer Tesshu. Similarly to the first game these missions had the capacity to function as stand-alone, enemy elimination challenges and interesting story driven stages at the same time. Not only that, thanks to the improved visuals and fluid character controls, Wrath of Heaven was quite possibly the best stealth-action, ninja game there has probably ever been. It’s just unfortunate that developer K2 and current publisher From Software have been unable, or unwilling, to reproduce the same standard of game and give players - myself included - the purist stealth game that’s so clearly missing from today’s line-up of triple-A games.