The history of console gaming is littered with the corpses of has-beens, disappointments, and those who could not adapt. Games that started out pretty well but – either through corporate apathy, lack of development interest, sagging popularity or a combination of all three – faded away into obscurity.
One of these games is a personal favorite of mine: Tenchu. Released in 1998 on the first Playstation system, Developed by Acquire, Tenchu combines the well known elements of Hollywood ninja movies: stealth, sword-fighting, assassinations, bad script-writing, and – of course – ninjas. What made the game unique wasn’t really the stealth part, although that was part of it. The best thing about Tenchu was that it allowed players to fulfill their childhood dream of becoming ninjas. It’s all here, from the characters (a protoypical ninja and a sexy female co-lead), to the weapons (the trademark ninja-to, ninja armor, smoke grenades, caltrops), even the story was classic 80s ninja craze.
The game manages to skirt around the limitations of the PS1. The missions always takes place at night to reduce the high rate of redraw. It also has a ranking system, giving high ranks to players who manage to complete a level as stealthy and “ninja-like” as possible.
If you strip the game to its basic elements, you’ll find it present in a lot of the more recent video games. Assassin’s Creed owes its existence mainly from Prince of Persia, but you do see a lot of Tenchu’s elements: the stealth, the running on the roof-tops, and the assassinations. In later installments, Tenchu even allowed players to hang off edges, and carry the bodies of slain guards to avoid them being seen and trigger an alert. You can say that the game may have been an inspiration to later developers as to what a stealth assassination game should be, which is surprising given how Tenchu, as a franchise, ultimately turned out.
Tenchu changed development hands from Acquire to K2 LLC (a subsidiary of Capcom) for Wrath of Heaven and while that was a pretty good game, the series’s fortunes fell since. The core of the series was still there, and the story (at least in Wrath of Heaven), has somewhat improved. The gameplay is mostly the same with some improvements, but for some reason, it just did not click.
My personal theory regarding Tenchu’s decline is that the game no longer evoked the “ninja” feel, instead becoming heavily influenced by anime especially in Fatal Shadows. While that in itself isn’t bad (there are loads of anime inspired games that did very well), Tenchu risked being just “one of many”. Fatal Shadows was released in 2004 (in Japan. It was released a year later elsewhere). The first game was successful because it was one of its kind and, most importantly, it was accessible. Tenchu, in its defense, tried to innovate on its terms, but by the time development for Shadow Assassins (the last main entry) came back to Acquire – who made their own ninja game when they lost Tenchu – the writing was pretty much on the wall.
Tenchu’s legacy is that it was the first ninja game in the modern era to play with our ninja fantasies with its stealth and assassination mechanics and level lay-outs. It provided a non-linear approach to very linear objectives, and gave the players the freedom to proceed with the mission as they see fit. I also fondly remember it for having slightly different dialogue depending on which character you are using. A touch that I, as a gamer, greatly appreciate in games. Those things are seen as “standard” these days, but it always makes me smile whenever I look back on those old games and marvel at how, in many ways, old is better.
Perhaps the series might have continued on if Acquire was allowed to continue developing the game. But that is unfair to K2 LLC who made Wrath of Heaven – the best installment in terms of story and gameplay cohesion. Perhaps all we have left is the usual “what might have beens”. After losing the Tenchu license, Acquire went on to make their own ninja game: Shinobido: Way of the Ninja. A game that is similar and different to Tenchu in many ways. But that is another story. 🙂