25 Years Later, Tenchu Deserves to Escape the Shadows

It's been too long

Tenchu Stealth Assassins

Tenchu: Stealth Assassins gripped me from the moment I first saw it. I knew, standing in Babbage’s all those years ago watching the opening cinematic play, I had to have it. There was a power to it, an artistic flair in visuals and sound, as the woman wailed over black and white images under silhouettes. That video was an enchanting and mysterious look at Sengoku-era Japan with the right amount of Kurosawa influence, so I knew even before playing the game that it was heading in the right direction. Even now, 25 years later, there’s still something special about diving back into this original PlayStation classic.

The game allowed players to select between two highly skilled assassins, Rikimaru and Ayame, as they carry out the will of their benefactor, Lord Gohda. Significant NPCs in the game even react differently to the chosen killer, which is an excellent small touch. The world Tenchu presents is thick with corruption, those who would do evil at the expense of others, and a dark ninja that seeks to resurrect his master. The story and setting create an impressive foundation and give the player purpose, putting them into the role of shadowy hero and executioner.

It’s dangerous out there and these trained warriors must use everything at their disposal to take on outstanding odds. Rikimaru possesses additional health and strength, but his favoring of the single katana means that attacks will not come as quickly, while Ayame uses twin blades and strikes more rapidly, but does not hit as hard. This inclusion helps to change the playstyles, on top of the various items that can be used for long-distance, area of effect, and more strategic deceptive kills. Everyone loves the poisoned rice.

The true art is in the basic moves, keeping the stealth part of the equation in mind. It only takes one swipe of the weapon while striking from the shadows. Stay out of sight, high above on the rooftops, become part of the background, embrace darkened corners, cling to walls, and only strike when the victim is alone or unaware. Tenchu uses symbols (?!) to show how alert enemies are, allowing players a little time to correct their mistakes as guards react, and urges those playing to be careful in deciding when to fight or simply move forward.

It’s a game that elevated the stealth genre and predated Metal Gear Solid by six months, creating systems and mechanics that would inspire future projects. A lot of the gameplay may not seem like much by today’s standards, but Tenchu was figuring out how to make action like this work at a time when most had trouble putting all of the elements together cohesively.

The stages play an important part here as well. Most of them typically work like an onion, a sandbox where the outer layer is usually there for easier kills, and safer slaughtering grounds. Eventually, the assassin must venture toward the center to reach their target, go inside buildings, find alternate paths, and secret entrances, or simply observe the patterns of how guards move through the hallways as they peel back enemy layers. The choice of whether to leave them be or take the potential threats out now is important, but sometimes it’s about luck, as the layouts can vary depending on the playthrough.

Learning these stages helps, and there’s a freedom to dying and trying a different approach, altering strategies based on the level and how enemies inhabit them. Traversal is a part of that plan, and made even more exciting by the grappling hook. It allows access to various elevations, keeps the ninja above ground-level henchmen, and helps the player to reach their target without having to participate in most encounters. Using all of the abilities together and learning the areas help these elite assassins get into the enemy strongholds and strike surgically, or slowly take encampments apart piece by piece in a well-orchestrated bloodbath.

There’s no charging in head-on with Tenchu, the game isn’t easy and it punishes death by taking away any items the warrior had on them at the time, so carry them wisely. This is a game that rewards practice and teaches patience, but refuses to guide the path with anything other than a few objectives. Players are expected to search and destroy while reacting to every possible obstruction.

Tenchu changed the way players perceived the life of a ninja, how they fight and operate, while still giving these lethal weapons room to explore and make their own way to a victim. It helped evolve the genre by showing that brute force was the old way. This is why the legacy of the series still feels stable, even though a major entry hasn’t been released since 2008’s Tenchu: Shadow Assassins. The first entry was so good that they chose to make the follow-up a prequel, so as to not take anything away. 25 years is a long time, but it says something that we are still talking about it and what could be next. The original game may not still be pristine – it wasn’t necessarily elegant when it launched – but there is an undeniable potency in the experience.

Tenchu was a critical success at launch and even more loved by the fans over the years. Whether it’s the weighty action, gory PS1 violence, or the cheesy voice lines that have become iconic, there’s something so attractive about the whole package still.

The legacy isn’t hard to see, with several sequels and a lot of other games showing that they were inspired by this early masterpiece. FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was even almost considered a part of the franchise in early development. The desire is still there, and fans are prepared for a continuation or reboot more than ever now, but it has to be right. The genre has grown and evolved over the years, but it still seems like Tenchu still has more the grandmasters could teach us, but even if not, it could just be time for another trip to a glorious past.

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