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Retro Review: Tenchu, Ninjas and My Stealth-Gaming Guilty Pleasure

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Welcome back to ToG and Retro Review! This week we are delving into the stealth genre of gaming and tackling one of my favorite games of all-time.  The stealth genre was more or less made popular in 1998 with the release of such games as Metal Gear: Solid on the PlayStation and Thief on the PC.  Both games were critically successful, with Metal Gear spawning a series of critical and somewhat controversial sequels.  However, one game was released prior to MGS and Thief that first utilized the stealth genre in an original way, while also fulfilling my dreams of becoming a ninja.  That game was Tenchu: Stealth Assassins.

Ninja arcade games had been on the scene for years before Tenchu hit the PS2.  Games like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden were familiar sites at most local arcades, but the point in those games was always to take the fight to your attacker.  There was little difference between Ninja Gaiden and the protagonists from Final Fight (or Double Dragon…or insert your favorite side-scrolling action game here).  Published by Activision, Tenchu was the first to treat the ninja primarily as assassins; encouraging and rewarding players for working from the shadows whenever possible.  Tenchu encouraged the player to be stealthy, though the game allowed for multiple options for dispatching your enemies.  Stealthy play was often rewarded with a nice cut-scene depicting a gruesome and Tarantino-esque bloodbath the followed each kill.  You were allowed to choose between two playable characters:  Rikumaru and Ayame.  Both ninja utilized the same basic attacks, though Riku used a single katana while Ayame utilized dual swords.

tenchu characters

Character choices

I enjoyed Tenchu, and though the story goes off the rails (as it eventually delves into the spiritual realm of ninjutsu), the idea of what it is to be a ninja…stealth and sneaky quick kills while disappearing into the night, are all intact.  Voice acting was lacking, outside of Riku, though I’ve definitely heard worse.  The graphics haven’t aged well, and though Tenchu was the first in the stealth genre, MGS and Thief have both aged much better.  Regardless, Tenchu holds a special place in my heart as the first to give us something the others never could; the chance to be a ninja assassin.


In between each level you can use in-game currency to purchase weapons

This is all fine, but where did all of this lore come from?  I mean, we assume so much to be true or are indifferent to their origin, but how much of these games is historically accurate?

To be honest, there isn’t a ton of reliable information on the ninja.  Seems somewhat appropriate that this ancient Japanese culture of stealth and spies has limited recorded information on it’s origin.  It’s thought that the origin of the ninja began with a melding of immigrants from China into Japan as early as the 8th century. Words that we often associate with the contemporary ninja are rife throughout their history.  Shinobi, a word we probably think is synonymous with ninja, actually is synonymous with ninja!  There were two major ninja “clans” in Japan that developed over time, the Iga and the Koga.  The ninja from these clans evolved into three different grades:  the jonin (leader), usually the head of a strong family, the chunin, a skilled ninja of the middle class, and the day laborer genin (lowest). As the people of the Iga and Koga clans grew in notoriety, their ninja were often recruited by the ruling class and sometimes even samurai themselves.  Oda Nobunaga, an important Japanese historical figure responsible in part for unifying Japan, was thought to be one of the men responsible for scattering the ninja.

So there you have it, the ninja in a nutshell.  But what do you think?  Have you uncovered some lost historical info on the infamous ninja?   Tell us in the comments below!

1 Hatsumi, Masaaki. Ninjutsu, History and Tradition. Action Pursuit Group, 1981.

Stacy dabbles in the dark side of the force and uses science to teach students to be Batman. When not speaking science he is scouring the internet for information that will probably spoil his favorite movie before it comes out. Little happens in the respective worlds of Star Wars or Batman that he is not aware of. And Han shot first.