I can’t believe I am considering a PlayStation 1 game “retro”, but here I am, 29 years of age and calling the PS1 an old school console. When I think of something retro I would picture a dust covered joystick, 8-bit graphics and arcade music, but here we are in the modern age where 12 year old kids have supposedly had intercourse with my mother and consider me a grumpy old bastard, always on a Call of Duty server too. The first game I decided to bring out is one of the first violent games I have ever played, one that introduced me to stealth gameplay, and one I considered difficult at my young age.
(“Stealth was so much easier before Specsavers.”)
Tenchu: Stealth Assassins is an action-adventure game that takes place in a historical Japan with a fantasy setting, using a mix of stealth and combat to complete each level, with the difficulty increasing the further you progress. Each level is set during the night, with some being indoors and other outdoors, and is filled with enemies that walk in patterns as they wait to be killed. You play as one of two possible characters; both are ninja serving their local lord, Gohda and his family. The first, and the cover character, is Rikimaru who acts as the current leader of his clan. Rikimaru wields a standard ninjato (straight sword sharpened on one side) and uses slow, but strong attacks whereas his counterpart, the kunoichi (female ninja) known as Ayame, uses two wakizashi (short swords). Ayame’s attacks are faster, with a longer combo, but are weaker. In order to survive each level and earn a good score at the end it is best to play with stealth, the foundation of ninjutsu. Enemies can be killed by stealth attacks that initiate an animation, which differs depending on the direction you are attacking and they tend to be very satisfying. The combat is simple, yet difficult, where being surrounded can end your career as a silent warrior, and makes use of one attack button to lower the health of your enemies.
(“Maybe you need to get the point!”)
To make things easier you can select some useful items and tools before beginning a level that can help during both stealth and combat. You can bring health flasks to help with recovery, or projectiles such as shuriken that can be aimed and thrown. You will also get access to more useful goods such as grenades and decoys, but the inventory is limited and you will lose what you use, so it is important to choose wisely. One item which stays with you is the classic grappling hook. The levels are in 3D, and allow you to explore on the ground or on a rooftop, meaning you will need to aim and throw your grappling hook against a ledge that you are able to grab onto, offering you the ability to travel unseen. Killing enemies will help clear the way, and allow escaping from tough situations to go a lot smoother so that you avoid being intercepted, but it’s optional. Each level can somewhat be cleared without having to fight or kill anyone, if memory serves me correctly, and at the end of the level you are given a title based on your accumulative score, the titles being Thug, Novice, Ninja, Master Ninja and Grand Master.
The levels can be replayed once they have already been completed, so even if you end up with a low score you can always improve it. Due to the technical limitations failure often comes from making mistakes that can’t always be avoided, such as having to stop running to turn on the spot if you want to reverse the direction you are running in which leaves you out in the open and makes it easy to be spotted. There were many moments where I was crouching on a rooftop and suddenly the alert status went live because an enemy has somehow seen me through a building, and everyone just knew where I was. The alert can go down, but it isn’t long before you are swarmed by angry men with topknots and spears that just seem to want to kill you rather than take you in. Just imagine GTA police with sharp sticks and swords and you will get the idea.
Your job is to complete the missions of each level so that you will ultimately face the enemy of your lord, a demon called Lord Mei-Oh and his evil and skilled servant, Onikage. Completing all of the levels and fighting the bosses brings you closer to facing your ultimate enemy after he abducts Lord Gohda’s daughter in order to hold her hostage. Your clan, which has served the Gohda family for generations, is dutifully obliged to rescue her. The story is straight forward and introduces some other characters, with some cinematics playing out before, during and after a mission. The game is fully replayable, so any items you find can be used in earlier missions and can be a good opportunity to increase the difficulty and reach the Grand Master level on hard, proving you are a master of the assassin arts.
Games of this generation always aimed quite high, trying to push the boundaries and achieve the best in this digital art form. Games these days have lost sight of that in most cases and because of how profitable gaming is there will always be some company trying to take advantage by giving us something that looks good on the outside but is devoid of any depth. Tenchu was both fun and difficult, enough so that it was followed by a series of other games that further expanded on its mechanics, and it birthed a fantastic genre of stealth-action games that brought some different takes that made each unique, such as Shinobido: Way of the Ninja on PS2 (the title and subtitle are the same, just in Japanese and English). I do miss the games of those days and what they always tried to do, motivated by the desire to create something new rather than something that generates more money, before “surprise mechanics” and the likes were introduced.
I loved this game, and would be willing to buy a potential Remaster, because there was much replayability and fun to be had. It’s also rather comical seeing pixelated splatters of red whenever blood of great volumes leaves the body of each kill made. I always begin with stealth but just end up killing everything my own way, like most stealth games, but the options are there and the player is offered more than some current games. It’s always worth remembering the classics that helped bring us to where we are today, the games that paved the way for developers to allow the industry to grow beyond even the movie world. The game still shows its age and the restrictions because of the limits of the technology, but a Remaster would be very welcome.