Before the rise of Splinter Cell’s Sam Fisher, there was Rikimaru – though they never had to directly compete. Metal Gear Solid was an espionage-rich thriller, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins served a purpose more animal in nature, almost on the instinctual level. Both exploded onto the original Playstation in 1998 – The Year of the Stealth Game.
Set in feudal Japan, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins had the player controlling Azuma ninjas, Rikimaru and Ayame, in their never-ending quest for justice, under the watchful eye of their Lord Gohda. The thing that set Tenchu apart from the crowd of fast-paced ?ninja’ games such as Ninja Gaiden (both the NES original and the recent Xbox remake) and Eidos’ Ninja: Shadow of Darkness was that the player actually assumed a ninja-like role. Foregoing spurious acts of violence for cold, calculated strikes, the player leapt from rooftops, dove from behind buildings, and generally dispatched his enemies before they even knew they were dead.
The visceral premise was made all the more pleasing with the introduction of stealth kills. When the player approached an oblivious enemy and pressed the attack button, a cut-scene showing the guard being perforated in a gruesome manner played out; surrendering the player’s control in favor of a brief cinematic. In a clever way, playing the game became its own reward, as the player would scramble to get into position for the desired stealth kill move.
While this mechanic reinforced the notion that the player was watching a blood-filled ninja flick, the ridiculously awful voice acting and hokey mission objectives (such as ?Punish the Evil Merchant’) drove the point home. However, the joke was always funny – especially since the humor was unintentional – and subsequently the player would constantly find amusement in the hilarious dialogue transactions. Killing a foreign pirate would see Rikimaru overdramatically stating, “?It must be sad to die so far from home” during an over-the-top death animation. The off-kilter humor and varied locales across the 10 missions (two of them unique to the US release) distracted the player from the simplicity of the game – you sneakily killed foes over and over, but the settings varied enough to render it a non-issue.
The wide variety of useable items also helped contribute toward varied tactics, breaking up the game’s ?stalk enemy, kill enemy’ repetitive pattern; and available items ranged from the practical to the ridiculous. The player could choose from classic shurikens, metal throwing stars used to damage enemy pursuers and armor, to less conventional equipment including niceties such as poison rice balls that guards always ate, whether laid on the ground or strategically thrown from roofs. There was also a fire-breathing scroll, and a magic suit that instantly disguised you as a peasant (despite the enormous sword you were brandishing).
All this killing wasn’t done in a vacuum, though, or more specifically, in silence. Complimenting the deadly game of search and destroy was a beautiful soundtrack, performed with period instruments to boot. Each game level showcased a unique song that perfectly aligned the player with the mission at hand – as the moody task of ending lives often demands moody music to go with it. Most notable was the game’s main theme, Add’ua. This melody itself captured the tension, action and inherent sadness in the life of a ninja, fleshing out the game surprisingly well from the audio angle.
For all the blood-soaked reverie, there were significant trade-offs. Most noticeable was the awkward control set, which became even more of a problem when engaged in a proper fight (after poorly timed stealth kills or when facing unavoidable boss battles). The blocking mechanism was unrealistically powerful (holding down on the d-pad deflected almost all attacks), and the ability to turn around in one motion was a technique your ninjas were yet to learn. These control problems, coupled with the spasmodic camera, gave the player another incentive not to get caught – actual combat could be so awful that you needed to get that stealth kill in.
On the graphical side, Tenchu is no longer a pretty title, if it ever was to begin with. Early excursions with 3D graphics haven’t aged as well as their 2D counterparts, as the blocky, low-detail and low-poly models may cause involuntary cringing. Constant clipping issues abound, and you’ll see entire walls poof in and out of sight. The field of view may also seem severely restricted in this age of Far Cry’s and Halo’s rolling vistas, but is forgivable since the missions take place under the shadow of night anyhow. With that in mind, it’s possible to forgive the environmental pop-up that plagues the game, since it’s par for the course when attributed to the PS1’s technical limitations.
Tencho: Stealth Assassins was also inherently difficult, forcing players to complete levels in their entirety, which meant starting from the beginning if they should die in combat or fall to their doom in a shadowy pit. This could cause significant frustration for a player who’d braved an entire level only to get shut down by a cheap boss – this is still a serious problem for the series (only recently remedied in the third installment of Tenchu on the Xbox). This deficiency was softened somewhat by (yet) another flaw – the largely brainless AI of your enemies, who seemed yet to have evolved the mastery of looking up.
While most games have some sort of cheat system, Tenchu boasted a strange addition – a debug menu. This confusing ?cheat’ proved to be deceptively powerful as it allowed the player to repopulate a level with any enemy, turn the AI off, grant the player any item in the game, switch the voiceovers to Japanese(!) and even uncover a hidden two-player model! Apparently, a Japanese release of the game also contained a level editor, so this debug menu must have been a remnant from early versions of the mod tool. Nonetheless, for those players patient enough to experiment, you could squeeze plenty of extra mileage from the game just by messing around.
Realism in games has always been a hot issue, but Tenchu achieved the perfect mixture of realistic ninja action with accompanying elements of the fantastic. In the end, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was a ground-breaking but problematic stealth affair that would eventually identify itself as a gaming brand name for many years to come.