Growing up in the mid-80s suburbia of central Illinois, the most amazing thing I'd ever seen was a handful of shuriken my friend had thieved from his father. Of course, back then we called them "Chinese throwing stars" and mainly ran around new suburban developments hucking them as hard as we could at freshly nailed-up drywall. We pretended to be ninjas, and my friend (the expert because he stole the shuriken) tried to teach us the way of the ninja, nevermind that he was a blue-eyed, blond-haired white kid who wouldn't have known a dojo from a dog butt. We paid our ten cents to play with the deadly weapons, twenty-five cents to knock ourselves out with his nunchaku.
Ever since then, a part of me has always wanted to be a ninja, and I guess Tenchu: Stealth Assassins is as close as I'll ever get to learning the sacred art of nijitsu.
The ninja mystique is undeniable, and the truly remarkable thing about this game is just how well they pull it off. The ninja credo, "Live by honor. Kill by stealth." pretty much sums the whole thing up. You are a ninja, either Rikimaru or Ayame, in the service of Lord Gohda. Gohda sends you on missions and you are to complete them, preferably without ever being seen by the enemy and without killing any innocents. The missions range from "Punish the Evil Merchant" to "Destroy the Foreign Pirates" and, of course, "Rescue the Princess." All of this takes place in feudal Japan, and enemies are everywhere. It's a ruthless world, and you're the guy (or gal) who's doing the dirty work.
This is one of the most innovative games I've seen in a long time. Most 3D fighters are basically "shoot-em-ups." This ain't so with Tenchu. It's possibly the slowest moving game you'll ever play. Much of the time it takes to play levels is taken up by sneaking around and watching. If you just run up to a guard and try to pull a Rambo he'll call more buddies than you could possibly deal with, and then you'll end up with a bad ranking for the level as well. The game is geared to get players to slow down, making it more strategic than the bulk of the action-adventure games out there. There are a lot of ways to kill the bad guys and it's up to you to choose your style. Maybe you are the kind of ninja who sneaks along walls or maybe you'll get addicted to zipping from rooftop to rooftop with your grappling hook.
You actually play two ninjas in Tenchu. Rikimaru is bigger and stronger, and that makes him easier to play for the novice than Ayame. She is weaker, but cooler looking and stealthier, and once you've got the hang of sneaking around all you need is one hit to kill the bad guys anyway. To beat the game you have to go through all of the levels with both characters, who basically perform the same missions with small changes in the storyline.
The levels are beautifully rendered 3D environments. There are forests, cities, castles and caves that you must navigate to accomplish your missions. You are provided with a crude map of the buildings and major landmarks of the level that marks your position, but even so it takes awhile to get your bearings. You are also allowed to take four items (along with your ever-present grappling hook) to help you out. You pick these items at your ninja supply room before starting the level and if you die with any unused items you lose them. You can choose shuriken, first aid kits, poison rice dumplings, smoke bombs and mines to name a few. As you complete missions you get more items added to your stockpile, depending on how well you did on the level, and if you are never spotted by the enemy you will receive special items to help you out, such as a resurrection leaf.
For the most part the camera tracking and screen layout are quite nice. There is a special meter that tells you how aware an enemy is of your presence. If it shows the "?" the enemy is around but has no idea you're there, too. A "?!" means the enemy has heard something suspicious and may start scanning the rooftops, but still hasn't detected you. A "!" means that the enemy has seen something, but doesn't know it's a ninja, and a "!!" means he's running at you and calling all his buddies. The AI in this game is well done. If you make too much noise by throwing a poorly aimed shuriken or jumping from a high wall or rooftop, the guards will get suspicious. They will scan the rooftops, so if you're standing on the roof and not actively being stealthy they will see you. The death gurgle of a successfully assassinated enemy or the sight of an enemy's dead body will also clue the guards in to your presence. Sometimes they have dogs who have much more keen senses and will alert them to your presence. And then there's always the cat who makes way too much noise when you're around and is unkillable.
The graphics are great. Characters move smoothly and you don't get stuck on walls or in corners like so many 3D games. There are a lot of cinematic pull-aways when you perform certain tasks, and they are all well done. For example, you can kill an enemy in one hit if he is unaware of your presence, and when you do you get an animation of your ninja either slitting the victim's throat, gutting him, or breaking every bone in his body, methodically finishing with a devastating kick to the spine. Blood is profuse in the game, but like a truly skilled ninja you never get any on you. The sound is also remarkable: A game where the Japanese characters speak with Japanese accents! The music is actually quite pleasant, and the only cheesy sound effect is really the "sprinkler blood" sound.
Control is the Achilles heel of Tenchu. The game utilizes the Dual Shock but not the analog joystick, and the control pad is set up so that left and right swivels you around and up and down moves you forward and backward. It's kind of like driving a remote-controlled car. This makes it tough to pick up at first. The training level is good for getting used to the game, but ultimately worthless. Even after beating the entire game, receiving a few "Master Ninja" rankings and one "Grand Master", I cannot pass the training level and get a good comment. Naotada, the trainer, keeps telling me I need to focus. In addition to the screwy movement, the game has a bad habit of making you end up facing the wall, with your back to the action, after you have been pressed up against it using the stealth button.
Overall, I love this game. While the control was frustrating at first, I found myself able to get used to it, and nobody ever said being a ninja is easy. It's the kind of game a roomful of people can watch, and they all find themselves craning their necks when your ninja is looking around and whispering to each other so as not to alert the guards. But the real attractive element is the sheer thrill you get from running up on some unsuspecting bad guy and letting him have it, then rolling off into the shadows to lie in wait for his friends to come along and get theirs.