Natural ninjas

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Videogames are still short on many things, but nobody could ever claim ninjas was one of them. Whether your preference is for action games, platformers, run ‘n’ guns, RPGs, or anything else there’s virtually no genre in any era without a silent sword-wielding assassin hiding in there somewhere – not even cute kart racers dare miss out on this evergreen gaming favourite. Ninjas can fight bootleg Godzilla. Ninjas can fight Metal Gears. Ninjas can play beach volleyball. Ninjas can even be cartoon turtles (just not in eighties England – then they’re heroes). As far as gaming’s concerned the strangest thing a ninja can do is run across tiled rooftops on a moonless night before silently dispatching the foes of their sixteenth-century feudal lord.

By being so normal, by treating “ninja” as something more than code for “let’s make a cool action character”, Tenchu ends up looking like something of an outlier. This is more than a simple cosmetic refresh for a well-trodden path: Carefully crouch-walking through the shadows, cleanly killing enemies in secret, intelligently using a variety of tools from an unseen corner to turn a tricky situation to your advantage… these are all fundamental aspects of Tenchu’s design, a game willing you to not only look like a ninja but to behave like one as well.

And this all stems from a determined emphasis on observation. Tenchu eschews the game-y convenience of clearly defined line-of-sight cones in favour of a fuzzier “ninja senses” – you’ll always know if an enemy’s nearby and whether they’re walking towards or away from you, but where are they? Where are they looking? It’s not a straightforward case of “ahead” or “behind” either as Tenchu’s levels are more 3D than most of the era, asking you to notice above and below and inside and underneath. Is it better to noisily wade through the waist-deep stream below than risk catching the eye of the guard on the bridge above? Do you think you can drop down behind an enemy from the rooftops and deliver a fatal blow before they spot you? Is anyone going to notice if you dash across an open courtyard before grapple-roping to higher ground? Along the way there are some wonderful little setups designed to truly test your stealthy skill  – one of my early favourites is an extremely thin rock bridge over a bottomless pit, a potentially life-ending walk at the best of times made all the more difficulty by the guard waiting on the far side. Do you carefully take him out with shuriken (if you’ve bought any along), or do you goad him into attacking and then quickly knock him into the abyss? Can you keep out of sight until he’s turned around and started walking away? Do you race forwards and hope you can leap over his head to safety before he attacks? Paying attention to the sounds all around you also plays a crucial role in your ability to detect and prioritise incoming trouble: Guards will mumble a quiet “Huh?” if they’ve spotted something suspicious on the fringes of their vision and growl a threatening “You!” when they charge in for the kill, dogs will howl before they pursue you through dark forests and arrows loosed from goodness knows where can be heard leaving their bowstrings before you’ve found the archer – everything you can see or hear is information you can learn to use.

As the entire game revolves around evading patrolling forces Tenchu’s success as a stealth game hinges on these unwritten rules of engagement coming across as clear, consistent, and fair whether you’re dealing with naked fire breathing whatever-the-heck-they-ares, pirates, or pet cats. The game is an absolute marvel here, perfectly balancing the need for reasonable game-like tension with naturalistic AI that doesn’t always work in your favour. The common-sense system that allows you to knock guards off high ledges they can’t climb back up to, enabling you to continue your journey without further fighting, is the same one that refuses to magically lock the doors to a boss arena behind you or block off an inconvenient stairwell, meaning there’s nothing stopping any number of enemies you sloppily ignored in your race to the finish from piling in during an already tough end-of-level encounter – but it’s always a problem you caused, you saw coming, and you could have dealt with properly if you had chosen to do so. These rules even apply to bosses – it may be infinitely frustrating to see Onikage quaff a restorative potion and regain his entire health bar mid-battle but there’s nothing stopping you from knocking one out of his hands just as easily as he does yours, and there’s no reason why you should feel you have to fight anyone in their designated arena if you think there’s a chance of drawing them out onto more favourable terrain. The only exception to this “All rules apply to everyone” behaviour – and I feel it’s a reasonable one – is that bosses are always either in attack mode or actively seeking you out, they’re never found in an idle state.

Ideally standard guards should never know you were there at all – in Tenchu squaring up to armoured enemies in one-to-one (sometimes one-to-two or, if you’re really unlucky, one-to-more) combat is often health-sapping and awkward. In contrast a stealth kill is a nice clean safe kill – as it should be – and this is true whether you’re playing as stoic and strong Rikimaru or sassy and swift Ayame.

Crucially Tenchu never insists on perfection and the entire game can be cleared with nothing more than cautious item usage, the ever-present grappling hook, and some enthusiastic bashing of the attack button if anyone heads your way – it’ll be messy and dangerous but there’s no reason why it won’t get the job done. There is however an effective middle ground to be found between the extremes of perfect assassinations and clumsy combat, with Tenchu’s manual listing a wide range of optional battle techniques to cover every possible scenario with grace and skill. So using standard moves if you see an enemy closing in behind you may slowly rotate on the spot to face them only to find they’ve already started circling to the side, or you might try to not-so-cleverly backflip over their heads and then get caught by a powerful blow – you’ve taken damage, it’s all very noisy, and you’re not happy being this close to a wall/a pit/the edge of a high building/another curious guard. But after memorising the advanced moves (nothing more complex to execute than “up, down+attack”) you’ll realise you can roll away and rise up facing whoever was behind you, or even perform a rolling-turn-slash as one single smooth move. You can close the distance to an approaching enemy with a deadly thrust, deflect arrows with a well-timed sword swing, and dish out combos specifically designed to deal with opponents coming in from the sides, sword swipes that will hopefully buy you the time you need to drop a smoke bomb or some sole-puncturing caltrops before finding safety in the shadows once more.

But why try so hard when you never have to? Why make the effort when the worst thing that really happens if you play badly is the game giving you the rank of “Thug” once you’ve cleared a stage?

You try because you want to try. Because Tenchu makes you want to try. From the ranks to the rewards to the motion-captured animations, doing your very best to play the part of a true ninja in turn presents you with the most powerful and frankly coolest in-game version of yourself you can possibly be. It’s only by engaging with the game in good faith that you find yourself crouching on a rooftop overlooking a small garden filled with cherry blossom trees, their delicate pink petals carpeting the grass below, patiently waiting for the right moment to moonsault over an unsuspecting guard’s head and…

There couldn’t be a better way to open Tenchu than with that small speck of beauty in the night, perfectly complimented by the serene soundtrack: It sets the tone without saying a single word, a cold, crisp, and otherwise uneventful night that would have passed by undisturbed if it weren’t for your actions. The peace and serenity of your surroundings – a zen garden softly illuminated by a snow-capped stone lantern as snowflakes fall all around, narrow streets filled with twists and turns to lose yourself in, autumnal forests bathed in reds and golds, slender waterfalls tumbling down a mountainside into the infinite dark – expertly wring every last drop of artistry out of the obviously cube-based environments… and makes the violence of your grisly orders all the more shocking. You can splash freshly-fallen snow with bright red pools of blood, briefly taint decorative interiors with the arterial spray escaping the neck of a freshly dispatched guard, and find yourself involuntarily wincing as your own ninja’s body is peppered with long arrows from distant attackers. This contrast between the pristine opening state of each stage and the carnage and death you inevitably leave behind – corpses and terrified innocents in your wake – really underlines the idea that you’re a trespasser in these places, that every step takes you further and further into enemy territory, that danger is all around.

Not that you’ll see very far into these deadly enclaves as every stage takes place in the dead of an endless night – and it’s an old PlayStation kind of night too, where anyone can see that the colours are all wrong and light just doesn’t work that way. This very obvious technical aid to the game’s charmingly wobbly polygonal environments just shouldn’t work – but it absolutely does. Like Shadow Tower‘s inky depths Tenchu’s darkness is more than the absence of light, it’s an absence of existence. Nothing’s real here unless you can see it, everything silently melting away into the impenetrable gloom…

Just like a ninja.

[Ko-fi support allows me to seek out specific titles like Tenchu, create a string of articles centered around a particular subject or theme, and go off in search of the weird and the wonderful! Thank you for all your help!]

5 thoughts on “Natural ninjas

  1. I loved Tenchu! It was my favourite of the stealth games simply because of how it makes you feel like a deadly ninja. The ability to zip all over the place with the grappling hook meant I was always looking for advantages places to go, where I could get a clearer view or manoeuvre into position. I always felt it was criminally overlooked.

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  2. Tenchu is definitely one of my favorite cult classics, and I’m so glad you mentioned the soundtrack. The dichotomy between the jazz guitar and decapitations is *chef’s kiss*.

    One fact I always found interesting – the main theme is sung in Hausa instead of Japanese, and perfectly sets the stage for stealth action!

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  3. Tenchu is def a game that always looked cool when it came out. But way too compliacted and hard to me xD As a JRPG-raised kid, I can’t even fathom simple things like “you do not need to fight every enemy you see, you know”.

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