Why did I play this?Why did I play this?

Posted on Nov 29th 2020 at 08:00:00 AM by (SirPsycho)
Posted under ninja, playstation, action, stealth

Tenchu: Stealth Assassins is an action stealth game developed by Acquire and published by Sony Music Entertainment Japan in Japan, and Activision internationally. It released in 1998 and was Acquire's first developed game. 1998 was an insane year for the burgeoning stealth genre, it saw the release of both Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation and Thief: The Dark Project on PC. Tenchu would actually release before either of these other two classics, and as a result, may be a bit more forgotten.

Tenchu follows the tale of two ninjas, Rikimaru and Ayame. Both characters have distinct personalities. Rikimaru is an honorable warrior, respecting his adversaries if they show honor and skill with their weapon and combat style. Ayame is much less tactful than Rikimaru, often berating her enemies, which leads to some encounters throughout the game playing out differently. Both characters progress through the exact same levels, but their motivations and goals differ slightly. The game starts off grounded in reality, with both ninjas hunting down corrupt merchants, doing illegal border crossings, and going on rescue missions. In usual video game fashion this leads down the rabbit hole until the supernatural masterminds are revealed.

Tenchu features free roaming levels with enemies that wander along a patrol path. Each level will have encounters and feature in engine cutscenes, which was a rather novel feature at this time. Most level bosses will spawn after these cutscenes, but later levels will often feature multiple cutscenes. Players have a selection of items and tools to choose from at the beginning of each level. A score is given at the end of the level, and the game encourages replaying levels for higher scores, with Grand Master being the highest. Achieving this Grand Master score on a level unlocks another item to choose from, and these items are quite powerful.

The original Playstation's 3D graphics have not aged well. Tenchu looks fine for its time but its rough by today's standards. The art direction's style still stands out, and its still easy to make out what the developers were trying to build and show the player. The game's short draw distance is just a result of the Playstation's level of technology, mixed with Acquire's smaller budget to work with compared to larger and established studios. Because of these technical shortcomings the developers set every level at night, but the amount of pop in makes it to where enemies often see the player as soon as the player can see the enemy. Elevation can be used to the player's advantage, giving a bird's eye view. The level design does not always give that out as an option.

The audio design in the game is nearly perfect, items all sound tangible with some extra power behind the combat sounds. Slicing enemies open causes their blood to flow out and splash all over the ground, its a satisfying effect. The voice acting is mostly hilarious, but Paul Lucas, the actor of Rikimaru, is easily the best performance in the English release. The real standout in Tenchu is its soundtrack, composed by Noriyuki Asakura. Asakura's video game composition credits have been mostly attached to Acquire's releases, with Tenchu and Way of the Samurai being the major players on this list. The rest of his career has mostly been in the television and anime industry.

Tenchu is still a great game, sadly the technical shortcomings make it feel like its a bit ahead of its time in many aspects. Stealth works better with a higher draw distance, or at least with limitations to enemy detection like in the more remembered stealth classics of the same year Metal Gear Solid and Thief: The Dark Project. Acquire really made their presence known with their first game. They would develop the prequel Tenchu 2: Birth of the Shadow Assassins before moving onto the Way of the Samurai series. They would revisit Tenchu and develop Tenchu: Shadow Assassins in 2008, the last released game in the entire series. Despite the game's shortcomings, its still one of the best ninja games ever made.

Thankfully, Tenchu did sell very well on the Playstation, enough to get a Greatest Hits printing. Copies are quite abundant, but it seems like Tenchu is becoming the stealth assassin of video game collectors, and the price is hovering around $20 at the moment. This is likely the result of a total lack of rereleases. Activision bought the rights to the entire series from Sony Music Entertainment, and then later sold the rights to FromSoftware. However, Activision retained the rights to the games that they personally published. These games are Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins, and Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven.

Sadly, the quality of games went sharply downhill after these first three games, and the series has been dormant since the release of Tenchu: Shadow Assassins in 2008/2009. FromSoftware's 2019 release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, was originally going to be a Tenchu revival, but the company decided to spin it off into its own intellectual property, perhaps to avoid the legal entanglement surrounding the Tenchu series. Sekiro was, interestingly enough, published internationally by Activision once again, perhaps because of the project's original goal.

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Good stuff! This is a game that I remember hearing about, around the time it was released, but for some reason, I never rented it, or checked it out. I occasionally see it at game stores, but I never see it at any of my usual game hunting haunts. The draw distance issue would definitely make for some frustrating game play, or at the very least, prompt you to be super slow with how you move, to try and reveal just a little of what's in the distance at any given time, so you can try to get a drop on enemies.
I love Tenchu and still play it every once in a while. The music is fantastic, and I even got used to the draw distance limitations. The second in the series is a great technical improvement, but I still have very fond memories of many of the original's stages and cut scenes.

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