Hello again, welcome back to “D.G.M.’s Gaming Life Before Gaming Respawn”. Last time we finished going over the Crash Bandicoot series, the earliest series of video games that I got involved with. The next series I religiously started following was the Tenchu series. In Tenchu, you play as different ninja characters and basically spend your time stealth killing and fighting against a bunch of enemies in feudal era Japan. Like with the Crash games, I traded-in my Tenchu games a while back because they simply haven’t aged all that well; the gameplay just didn’t grab me like it did once upon a time. The Tenchu series was first released in the early years of the PS1, and back then the gameplay was rather revolutionary: the ninja characters were (relatively) swift and agile, able to jump long distances and drop from great heights.
The stealth was pretty balanced as well, having you rely on a “ki” meter that shows how close or far enemies are; the more the meter fills up, the closer enemies are to your position (no relying on “Detective Mode” type of abilities that let you see through walls like in the later Batman games). Also, this wasn’t the type of game where you would hack and slash your way through all your enemies since getting into a direct confrontation with more than two or three enemies would likely lead to an early grave, giving you even more of an incentive to stick to the shadows and remain unseen. Plus, you get a better score at the end of each level if you avoid getting spotted, which gives you access to better items and gear. The Tenchu series was also the first series of games I played that really got me interested in the story elements of video games, even though the first game’s story was rather straightforward. It actually wasn’t until I started playing Metal Gear Solid that I developed a true appreciation for stories in movies, shows, and games, but Tenchu was the game series that first got me interested in the concept of stories (I used to just look forward to the action scenes in everything I watched and played).
Before we begin going over each game, I must point out that I was unable to play two of the games in the series, Tenchu Z and Tenchu: Shadow Assassins. Tenchu Z was an Xbox 360 exclusive that basically had you build your own ninja character and go on missions given to you by the main ninja character that you play as in most of the other games. Fortunately, that game didn’t have much of an impact on the series’ story, so I wasn’t too bummed about not playing the game. Tenchu: Shadow Assassins was actually the very last game in the series and was exclusive to the Wii and, for some reason, the PSP. It brought some tweaks to the stealth formula (nothing big though) and would switch to a first-person perspective when fighting enemies in direct combat. The story also ended in a massive cliffhanger which never got a resolution since no sequel was ever released. So, as if it wasn’t bad enough that I never got to play Tenchu: Shadow Assassins, the game left the series unfinished. Unfortunately, this is something that would happen to several other game series of mine, but that’s another story for another time. Let us begin going over the Tenchu games that I actually played.
Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (PS1)
In the first game of the series, you choose to play as either the sword wielding male ninja Rikimaru or the twin dagger wielding female ninja Ayame, both of whom serve their master Lord Gohda by doing away with his enemies and defending his territory. The story is rather straightforward, but the way it develops is kind of unusual, in an interesting way. There were ten missions and most of them had their own self contained narratives. The first mission has you assassinating a corrupt merchant who cheats people out of their hard-earned money. The second mission has you delivering an important message to Lord Gohda, but you have to make your way past a number of enemy ninjas who are intent on making sure you never make it back to Gohda’s castle.
It’s not until the third mission that one of the main villains, the demon ninja named Onikage, is introduced and the main narrative gets some attention. The fourth and fifth missions have their own stories separate from the main one, then Onikage makes his appearance again in the sixth mission. I don’t know why, but I liked how most of the missions had their own self contained narratives; while they weren’t necessarily deep, having multiple assassination missions not connected to the main narrative made me really feel like a badass ninja. It should also be mentioned how none of the other Tenchu games take this particular approach to storytelling, making the first game rather unique. Unfortunately, choosing to play as either Rikimaru or Ayame doesn’t change the story in any notable way other than the dialogue in cutscenes, as well as Ayame fighting one additional boss that Rikimaru doesn’t. The ending remains the same no matter which ninja you play as, although Rikimaru’s version of the story is considered to be the true canon, which was fine with me since Rikimaru will forever remain one of the original badasses of gaming to me.
While Tenchu’s controls would be considered incredibly clunky nowadays, they were pretty good back when the game was first released. The way the ninjas were able to run and jump around was comparable to Lara Croft’s level of agility in the original Tomb Raider games. This combined with the engaging stealth elements made the game somewhat revolutionary, although it wouldn’t be long before Metal Gear Solid and other stealth based series would be released and overshadow the less well known Tenchu series in terms of popularity. Still, this game was once very special and my time with it remains part of my favorite childhood memories. Seriously, that first time I snuck up behind an enemy, pressed the square button, and watched as Rikimaru slit the guy’s throat with his sword was one for the history books: I wasn’t aware of the concept of stealth kill animations at the time and it came as a huge and memorable surprise. Tenchu: Stealth Assassins gets a score of 80%.
Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins (PS1)
Tenchu 2 was a prequel taking place during Rikimaru and Ayame’s teen years when they first became ninjas and first served their Lord Gohda, whose rule was being challenged by an army of rogue ninjas known as the Burning Dawn. As far as story goes, Tenchu 2 had the best one in the series by far, both in terms of dramatic quality and content. All three playable characters, Rikimaru, Ayame, and veteran ninja Tatsumaru, had their own unique perspectives on the main overarching story that were all connected and crossed over in several key moments, so playing as all three characters was the only way to fully experience the game’s narrative.
Here’s an example: Rikimaru’s second mission has him joining Ayame and Tatsumaru as they head to Lord Gohda’s castle to protect him from invading enemies. The three of them split up in the beginning of the mission to accomplish their own objectives; Rikimaru goes off to find Lord Gohda, Ayame heads off to find Gohda’s wife and daughter, and Tatsumaru pursues a mysterious figure he saw running around the castle. Playing as all three characters lets you experience this mission, and others, through each characters’ unique perspective. Furthermore, all three characters had their own unique missions to go through and even fought certain enemies and bosses specific to their own campaigns, and each campaign had between seven to ten missions, so the amount of content was certainly plentiful.
Tenchu 2 did piss me off though when I first played it. Enemies were a lot more aggressive and tougher to beat than the ones in the first game, both the regular enemies and bosses. I eventually compensated and learned how to deal with them, but there were still a select number of boss enemies that were just plain cheap since they could damage you even when you were blocking their attacks. The game was also a tough grader and would give me lower scores than I deserved at the end of each mission even if I only got spotted once or twice. Even getting high scores wasn’t enough to gain access to better equipment and items since I apparently had to find them first in each level, which I rarely took the time to do anyway. At least the missions themselves offered more variety than those in the first game, including missions where you had to go completely undetected at the risk of an immediate mission fail. The controls were a bit tighter too, but still relatively clunky. Overall, this was pretty much the best game in the series, even though it was only slightly better than the classic first game. Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins gets a score of 83%.
Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven (PS2)
The first Tenchu game to be released on the PS2 definitely improved things with regards to graphics and controls, but otherwise, Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven did little to differentiate itself from its predecessors, which isn’t really a bad thing. Taking place about a year after the first Tenchu, (possible spoiler) Rikimaru returns after his apparent death at the end of the first game and joins with Ayame to protect Lord Gohda from a new enemy threat (end of possible spoiler). The three playable characters, Rikimaru, Ayame, and new character Tesshu, fight against a group of warriors led by the evil wizard Tenrai.
Similarly to the first game, all three characters go through the same levels, however the circumstances are quite different for each character since they go through the same levels in different orders and from different starting points. All three characters also fight mostly the same bosses, but at very different points, which greatly changes the overall narrative and cutscenes for each characters’ campaign. Basically, the three main characters have very different versions of the same story, making the three campaigns alternate universe versions of each other (once again, Rikimaru’s version of the story is considered as true canon). Although all three campaigns had decent stories of their own, they simply weren’t as engaging as the story in Tenchu 2.
However, Wrath of Heaven definitely had more detailed and up to date graphics, which makes sense since it was made for the PS2. The controls were also much tighter and allowed for more streamlined combat. Stealth was largely the same as in the other games, with the only addition being that the ninjas gained access to newer abilities and combos after getting ten stealth kills in each mission. These abilities included the likes of zooming in on far away enemies and adding extra strikes into their combos that knocked enemies away. All in all, this game continued the series’ trend of satisfying stealth action but didn’t do anything different enough to make it stand out from the previous games. Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven gets a score of 78%.
Tenchu: Fatal Shadows (PS2)
Tenchu: Fatal Shadows was the last game of the series I played (Tenchu: Shadow Assassins was released afterwards) and it was almost an exact copy of Wrath of Heaven. Taking place after the first Tenchu and before Wrath of Heaven while Rikimaru was temporarily MIA, you play as Ayame and new ninja Rin as they deal with yet another group of rogue ninjas causing some trouble. Similarly to Tenchu 2, Ayame and Rin have their own unique perspectives on the same overarching campaign that occasionally crossover, meaning they each fight certain bosses exclusive to their playthroughs. These stories lacked Tenchu 2’s amount of content though since there were ten missions in total and they were split evenly between Ayame and Rin. There were also some branching paths that changed how they advance through their missions, which depended on how often or not they got spotted or how many enemies they killed.
There were even different enemy layouts that you could choose for each mission which changed each enemy’s guard patterns. This could have encouraged multiple playthroughs, but honestly the story for this game was the least interesting one in the series and I found little incentive to play each mission multiple times. At least the gameplay was fun enough since it basically aped Wrath of Heaven’s gameplay. Like in Wrath of Heaven, killing ten enemies in each mission using stealth gives the ninjas additional abilities. The ability to stealth kill two enemies at once was added into this game, but the opportunity to use this skill wasn’t very common since enemies rarely stood right next to each other. Still, the double stealth kills looked cool when you were able to pull them off. In the end, this game was fun enough but it didn’t break any new ground and was very similar to the previous game. Tenchu: Fatal Shadows gets a score of 73%.
And that’s the whole Tenchu series. Definitely one of my favorite series of games back in my younger days. Even my dad, who was more of a casual video game player and preferred military shooters, enjoyed playing the first two Tenchu games every now and then. Even though I no longer own the games, I will forever remember the impact Tenchu had on my gaming life. And Rikimaru will forever remain one of my original badasses of gaming; in fact I still have a very rare little action figure of him proudly displayed alongside my other video game action figures. Any hope I had of the Tenchu series being revived or rebooted has long since faded away, but I would still be interested if some developer out there would consider starting a new stealth-based series focusing on ninjas, but maybe a more free-roaming one. Join me next week on “D.G.M.’s Gaming Life Before Gaming Respawn” as I begin discussing what is probably my favorite video game series ever: Metal Gear Solid.