GameSpite Quarterly 8 | Tenchu: Stealth Assassins

As its subtitle suggested, Tenchu was all about stealth. In fact, it was so sneaky that it managed to squeeze onto retail shelves a little over a month before the highly anticipated Metal Gear Solid. While both titles boasted revolutionary stealth gameplay, many sneered and wrote the former off as a mere appetizer for those awaiting Kojima’s impending blockbuster. And while it isn’t impossible to discuss the first game in the Tenchu series without bringing up MGS, comparing these contemporaries illustrates how far PlayStation games had come by 1998.

MGS is fondly remembered for its innovative gameplay sequences, beloved characters, and its unrestrained plot. Tenchu, on the other hand, has none of these qualities. That’s fine. The main difference between the two titles is that Tenchu is content to be a video game, whereas Metal Gear proudly flaunts its cinematic aspirations. Though Tenchu does feature a variety of cutscenes, they merely exist as introductions for objectives or as bookends for uninspired boss battles. What most remember the game for are its bloody stealth kill sequences, administered by mutilating unsuspecting opponents from behind.

In true ninja fashion, the two protagonists, Rikimaru and Ayame, covertly accomplish their objectives (i.e. killing a bunch of corrupt feudal lords) under night’s cover. Visually, this works to the game’s advantage, graciously concealing the environments’ flickering polygons and limited draw distances in atmospheric darkness. The downside to this is that guards wait around every corner and can be incredibly difficult to spot. This is a nuisance, because playing the game properly requires memorization of enemy patterns while listening for the protagonists’ heart rates to quicken in the presence of danger. Fortunately, for those who lack patience, both ninjas come equipped with an almost game-breaking grappling hook, as swinging onto the nearest rooftop and promptly running directly to the boss is all it takes to complete most levels.

And not to bring up MGS again, but an important difference in the two games’ approaches to player empowerment ought to be mentioned. Snake starts out with a dinky life bar and only his bare hands to protect it with, but quickly finds himself in possession of a small arsenal. Conversely, Rikimaru and Ayame command limited skills and items, forcing players to master the stealth mechanics through repetitive gameplay. This, combined with the forgettable story, leaves little incentive to tackle its steep difficulty curve. Tenchu was developed before “RPG elements” became the popular dangling carrot that they are today. The only hope for advancement comes through mastery of rigidly defined skills instead of gradually raising stats and discovering powerful abilities or weapons.

Still, Tenchu is neither completely bland nor impossible to complete. On the contrary, those who take their time and play properly will find much to appreciate. The real challenge is earning each level’s Grand Master rank. While clunky combat is your main incentive for staying out of trouble, taking the scenic route also allows you to find expendable items and plan your next move from undetectable vantage points. Each level is accompanied by some atmospheric tracks that one might find on a Pure Moods compilation -- a counterpoint to the heinous voice acting and reason enough to keep playing. To this day, I haven’t discerned whether the game is taking itself too seriously or unabashedly embracing its campiness. Perhaps if the series had evolved into the self-referential metanarrative of MGS, we might see it as a refreshing mix of both.

By Jacob Smiley? | Sept. 3, 2011 | Last: Kartia: The Word of Fate | Next: Mega Man Legends