Platform: PlayStation CD
Date of Release: March 1998 (Japan), September 1998 (US)
Developer: Acquire Co.
Publisher: SPIKE (Japan)
Genre Keywords: Sneaker, Third Person, Action, Ninja!

Tenchu: Silent Assassins or simply Tenchu (天誅) as it was known when it made its way to me (imported and un-translated) was my own, personal moment of realization: Japanese things are cool™. The quality of voice acting in the cutscenes (horribly dubbed for the US release), the mood set by the hauntingly beautiful music (bought the soundtrack) and classical Japanese architecture (with you in the shadows) and the unadulterated, quite alien content - all of this resonated somewhere within my borderline angsty teenage soul. The game eventually became the quintessential sneaker game for me, and nothing else has measured up since. The balance of AI cleverness/stupidity and the "just right" difficulty level, the map design, the appropriate arsenal - it was simply perfect.

You could do all this crazy ninja stuff, in color and full 3D:

Now if that list reads out like something out of the "ninjas are cool" book, realize that this game came out before ninjas were "totally sweet" because they could "flip out and kill people"¹. Anime and kanji wasn't on t-shirts yet, and people still thought that "manga" was an Italian word for "let's have noodles". On top of that, the aforementioned 3D aspect was pretty darn new as well, having been so far restricted to Tomb Raider and iterations. Everyone else was still doing sprites or very large, blocky polygons that moved with the grace of, well, large blocks. The ability to control a swift and deadly ninja in a detailed, open (there were stages, but they were large and mostly unrestricted) world was quite unprecedented.

The openness wasn't only present in stage design; it was also a factor in mission design. As a ninja, you had excellent grasp on sword technique, assassination techniques, and various other tools to eliminate opponents - but you could go all the way and ... not kill anyone. The very second mission, in fact, consisted of making it from one side of town to another - this was slightly complicated by said town being populated by other ninjas (ninjii?) and hapless bystanders who would raise alarm. If you were good enough however, you could traverse the entire town entirely without being seen; not until Deus Ex and later Hitman would such lethal ability be combined with the option for total pacifism (Thief doesn't count, Garrett couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag). Tenchu was the first to give you separate awards based on not only how many kills you had, but also how stealthy they were - a separate award was given for never being noticed at all (Hitman would borrow this later as well).

Admittedly some missions were far more cut (ahha) and dry, but the ability to sneak by undetected and prance around on rooftops giggling at the fools below (silently, of course) changed the way I looked at games from then on.

The game had some shortcomings but for the life of me, I can't remember what they were. Camera, perhaps - but since no one has created a good third person camera to date this is forgivable. Lousy AI? I think not - if you apply only a bit of imagination, you'll see that overly intelligent AI in a video game is the bane of fun. A single guard spotting you and alerting the entire town full of archers and swordsmen = quick death, restart, and consignment of game to rubbish bin. Tenchu's foes were right on the line between tough and frustrating - and more than 3 at once would usually spell defeat. You can't really ask for much more than that, even in current era games.

I awaited Tenchu 2 with much eagerness; however it was not to be. What was captured in the first game was never recaptured, as the atrocious voice acting in the US release of Tenchu, hinting at the loss of soul in the game, revealed. It would be attempted again and again, but no game after the first could recapture those magical moments of mayhem and stealthy badassery. I wonder how good it could have been if it had the funds Metal Gear Solid got?

Disclaimer: I know I have hindsight-ward rose-tinted glasses on. I'm sure if I picked the game up today I would immediately start bitching about the lousy controls, the lack of mid-mission save, the incredibly juvenile dialogue, the fact that doing poorly on a stage means you got FEWER toys to take for the next one, the pop-in, the clipping ... but at the time, back when we played games the way games were meant to be played (/end old gaming fogey talk), it was magic.

A word about the soundtrack; while certainly it isn't as good if you haven't played the game, it was a fantastic work that suited the ambiance perfectly. Dark and slow to match your steady, skillful process on rooftops or in ancient woods, and eerie and disjointed when fighting amongst the temples of the freaky fire demons. And the opening vocal song is sung in Hausa, for crying out loud! How cool is that? Also rather odd, but there you go. The soundtrack (and for the next game) was created by Noriyuki Asakura, who also wrote music for Rurouni Kenshin; fans of either will find much to like in both. The title track was sung by Yui Murase who also contributed to the Tenchu 2 soundtrack.

As a sidenote, this is the same game studio that came up with the fantastic Way of the Samurai. Unfortunately, they also came up with Samurai Western, Tenchu 2 and Way of the Samurai 2. As studios go, they feature somewhere around Atlus, with that stroke of brilliant genius interspersed with utter crap -but perhaps this is true for all studios. A discussion for another node, I'm sure.

¹ DejaMorgana has pointed out that ninjas were "cool" for quite some time before 1998; what I meant to imply is that ninjas weren't quite as commonplace and passe as they have become lately (the waxing/waning of the ninja pirate zombie memes) - not a month goes by where a ninja game isn't released. However upon further reflection (Ninja Gaiden, ninja classes in Final Fantasy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc), it may be more accurate to say that Tenchu came out at a time where ninjas were at the nadir of the eternal ninja sine wave, at the low point of their coolness in the mass consciousness.