On September 3, 2013, multiple articles emerged around the internet commemorating the fifteen-year anniversary of a certain “Tactical Espionage Action” game. Initially, I was going to join the fun, and began writing an article of my own as a contribution to the ongoing discourse. However, while revisiting those fond memories, I came to realize that we had not yet arrived at said stealth-based game’s anniversary. In fact, these articles were well over a month early, because the game in question was not released in North America until late October–I know this because it was a game I received as a birthday gift.
So stay tuned for that piece next month! As for now, I would like to dedicate this space to another franchise that has not received as much attention.
1998 was a magnificent year for fans of stealth games. That summer, I rented Vigilante 8, a respectable “imitation Twisted Metal” (think Saints Row vs GTA). Included on-disk was a video demonstration of a game that would change my life. What I witnessed in that video was no less than sublime in my teenage mind: two ninjas, male and female, actually sneaking around to kill! And they did so with style! The name of that game? Tenchu: Stealth Assassins.
Allow me back up for a
moment paragraph to explain my fascination with ninja. In the late 1980s, there was a movie theater in my hometown fondly known by the community as “the dollar movies” because tickets were $1 each (think Red Box, but instead of DVDs and Blu-ray, you get an actual big screen). This establishment hosted a “U” shaped arcade gallery, and among the options therein was a game called Shinobi. For the uninitiated, Shinobi is a side-scrolling action game created by my favorite video game company, Sega. The objective is simple: move from the left side of the screen to the right while shooting enemies with shuriken. It was clearly homage to a clone of Rolling Thunder, released earlier in the decade, as Joe could jump between the foreground, background, and floors.
Nevertheless, this experience was my first exposure to this pop culture reference, “ninja.”
My fascination with this “Shinobi” character, throwing bladed stars, fighting with a curved sword, and utilizing “ninja magic” developed into a devotion, an obsession, a form of worship. By pure serendipity, I discovered Revenge of the Ninja (1983–an excellent year) in my dad’s (bootleg) VHS tape collection (yeah, dude was serious. He had a movie catalog found in a 3-pronged folder in alphabetical order), complete with HBO’s greatest logo sequence of all time.
From a TBS (censored) showing of Five Element Ninjas (1982), I would acquire a better idea of the more mythical (*ahem* “magic realism”) properties of ninja. Despite this, I yearned for more ninja exposure. Ninja Gaiden was cool, but it was 8-bit and therefore, inferior to my reference, Shinobi. Shadow Dancer was so rare that it may as well not have existed at all, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series just would not do–although as an adult, I discovered the Mirage comics, and they would do. Still, as a youth growing up in the pre-Wikipedia 90’s after the martial-arts/action movie fads had died in the 80’s, I was only left with more sequels to the original Shinobi (and they were excellent, by the way; if you have not at least played Shinobi III, you are missing out on one of the best games of the 16-bit era), and Hanzo Hattori from the Samurai Showdown series, whose design has been significantly inspiring to my imagination should I ever become a shadow dancer myself…or write my own “ninja fiction”; whichever comes first.
So I now come back to 1998, before the outstanding Ninja Assassination FMVs from Shogun: Total War in 2000 and its friggin cool manual that provided historical context to the Sengoku era in Japan from whence ninja became famous, and long before reading Kacem Zoughari’s The Ninja: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan (2010), there was Tenchu.
So back to the demo at the beginning of this piece (ABOUT TIME, RIGHT?!?). Throat slits, broken bones, smoke bombs, (more) shuriken, caltrops, grappling hooks, tumbles, flips, and moonsaults! I was SOLD! The mere existence of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins had justified an entire childhood’s worth of dollar-store ninja sword purchases. I probably played the training mission three or four times, unsatisfied until I earned Grand Master Ninja the highest rating, earned “simply” but not being seen.
Playing with Rikimaru, the male ninja in the game dressed in traditional/stereotypical Shinobi Shozoku (stereotypical because it is what people in the west expect to see in terms of “ninja,” and traditional because grey or navy blue were what ninja actually wore, not black. Again, check out the book recommendations), every “approach from back” throat slit provided a jolt of contentment, despite the fact that (even in Tenchu 2), he would use the dull side of the blade for a kill (years later in the PS2 sequel, Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, From Software acknowledges this flaw in by adding an audible “click” to the sword as Rikimaru turns it over to the bladed side to perform his canonical throat-slit from a backward approach). Repeated runs through the training mission were ameliorated by way of an enchanting music track, and I was pleased to discover that when I finally decided to move on to the actual missions, the music remained consistently euphonic. In this game, the number of stealth kills is limited to three. In future versions of the game, the stealth kill list expands up to seven (!!!).
While Rikimaru is the most iconic character in Tenchu, because again, he sports the expected garb of a ninja, Ayame is my favorite between the two. I hate to validate the stereotype of the video game nerd playing with female characters, but Ayame, developed over three console generations, is a splendid character. Gentle as a spring pollen shower when it comes to princess Kiku, and ruthless as Violator while dispatching enemies who would endanger said princess–but not necessarily her damiyo, Lord Ghoda. While Rikimaru weilds the iconic Izayoi, a wakizashi (ok, you got me… it’s likely a ninjato, a completely fictional weapon), Ayame fancies dual kodachi. Certainly, a ninja fighting with two swords is cooler than a ninja fighting with one. The throat-slit a Of course the game takes the differentiation between the two further into a gender stereotype: Rikimaru is the stoic “power” character while Ayame is the fiery “finesse” character. Still, the contrast between Rimimaru’s calculated slashes in his standard three-hit combo and Ayame’s illusively haphazard multi-hit combo should the player botch a stealth kill opportunity or fight a boss reveals how much more stylish the latter is from the former. Last but not least, by her very existence, I had learned that there was an actual word for “female ninja”: kunoichi
As much as I had loved Shinobi, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was the real deal. As I mention earlier, Tenchu is a stealth game which teaches how to be a real ninja: clever, elusive, and of course, patient. Very, very patient. As in, “I have been sitting here in crouch position for two minutes and that enemy refuses to look the other way” kind of patient. I is possible to run through missions fighting every enemy, but combat in this game is so simplistic and unrewarding that it is as if Acquire intentionally gimped it to discourage the player from wanting to play samurai in a ninja game. Despite the underwhelming combat mechanics, never before had I felt more satisfaction in gaming than running across the outer walls of castles and somersaulting from rooftops, forward-leaning like a Manga character, pressing against walls, peeking around corners, crouching behind bushes–or in plain sight because of the AI’s poor field of view. To aid the player, there is an arsenal of weapons available which increases in number and variety based upon the player’s performance. The better the player, the more fantastic the weapons become, from throwing knives to breathing fire.
While Tenchu was far from perfect, with character models that were embarrassingly geometric compared to even the scrapped beta phase of Resident Evil 2–let alone the legendary finished product–poor dialogue that was symptomatic of an era that featured voice acting for the first time, and controls that were not always precise. But all things considered, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was a valiant first entry in a cult franchise that would be forever overshadowed by that *other* stealth-based console game released a little over a month later.
While Snakes might be more popular in the spotlight, the ninja of the Azuma clan are more comfortable in the shadows anyway.