Playing the 1998 PlayStation game Tenchu: Stealth Assassins for a Let’s Play recently got me thinking about how badly I’d like to see that franchise make a comeback. The original game is one of my all-time favorites, and I remained a foolishly diehard fan of the series through its ups and downs. Despite my biased love for the more recent entries, there’s no denying that the series hasn’t been at its best for quite some time, and with 6 years already passed since the last entry and current rights holder From Software concentrating on their highly successful Dark Souls series and its next epic Bloodbourne, a new Tenchu sadly doesn’t seem all that likely. However, I still have high hopes for what a new Tenchu game could look like given the time and budget it deserves.
Stealth certainly remains a very major part of the gaming landscape, but things have changed quite a bit since Tenchu‘s heyday in the late 90’s to early 00’s. Its contemporaries like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell have incorporated a greater emphasis on action and gun play, with stealth only being something you half-heartedly attempt for a minute or two when you first start a new area and if you are spotted, no big deal, the game just becomes a third-person shooter. And those games, along with newcomers to the stealth genre like Assassin’s Creed, are big on sneaking around in broad daylight and in “plain sight”, including even hiding in crowds of people to conceal yourself from your enemies.
While I’m not necessarily knocking any of these mechanics, it isn’t the way that ninjas operate. A new Tenchu game should not incorporate ANY of those things. The game should take place almost entirely at night, when ninjas generally do their work. Ninjas are certainly extremely skilled fighters and should be able to hold their own should they be spotted, but in no way should the game be set up to where it can easily be played as an action game. As in early Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell games, the most effective approach to being spotted should always be to retreat and re-hide in order to get the drop on your enemy. One way to keep this from feeling as clunky as it used to feel in those games is to take a page from the Batman: Arkham games, where enemies aren’t stupid and just forget you were ever even there if you wait them out, but instead remain aware but nervous, which you can use to your advantage. You would use various tools like smoke bombs, shuriken, caltrops (spikes you drop on the floor for people to step on), grappling hooks and so on, both to confuse your enemies or outright dispatch them. You would leap from rooftop to rooftop, stalking and frightening your enemies, and isolating them in order to more easily kill them individually. That said, the actual combat should still be fairly deep, and allow you to use a combination of your sword, your throwing weapons, and punches and kicks in order to battle your enemies, with fights being very slow-paced and deliberate with a lot of blocking and parrying. Still, at any point during a fight you should be able to take out an opponent with one well-placed slice to the throat or stab to the heart if you are skillful enough to perform such a maneuver.
In addition, I think they game should have co-op. Much of the appeal of the Tenchu games is having Rikimaru and Ayame both be playable characters, and while it’s enjoyable getting to play through the same story from two different but intersecting perspectives – which should also be included – I think that a new Tenchu should just blow it out let two people play both of those perspectives at once. What I really think would be ideal – and I know this is ambitious – is to have the two people playing the game not always even be in the same area at the same time. Not necessarily force both people to complete the same objectives or even levels at the same time. Instead, have each player start together, but have them branch off and accomplish different tasks at different times, the way a two-person team actually would – divide the work, you-do-this-while-I-do-that type of thing. The two players would almost be playing separate games, although they’d still be happening concurrently in the same game world (think an MMO server). Then they’d meet back up at various points when they need to tackle a larger task together. Or maybe, to make it even more ambitious, the game would let you CHOOSE when to split up and when not to, and each team would make their own choices in each playthrough whether to divide and conquer, or stay together and be a deadly two-headed ninja beast. How you play would make various other portions of the game easier or more difficult, since tag teaming boss A would leave boss B to destroy a town and gain more power and make him harder to take down later, for instance. It would give the game extremely high replay value as no two playthroughs would be alike.
Getting back to Assassin’s Creed, that is the franchise that I’d like to see the new Tenchu take its cues from as far as how your character moves around the environment. Even in the early days of 3D, and on a platform that was never a superstar in the realm of large 3D environments, the Tenchu games were always very vertical, allowing you to use your grappling hook to scale up buildings and run and jump along rooftops and mountain ledges. The way that characters in Assassin’s Creed games scale buildings and leap across chasms and scurry along narrow beams with little more than holding the direction you want to go in should be exactly how Tenchu plays, very simple and streamlined without you ever having to really think about the controls. Another unlikely source I’d like to borrow gameplay from are Spider-Man games, as I think that you should be able to use your grappling hook with almost as much ease as Spider-Man shoots his web, letting you not only swing around the environment to traverse it even more quickly but also let you use it to make flying stealth kills. You’d swing towards the enemy below, slice his throat as you are flying by, and be back up on the next roof before his lifeless body even hits the ground. The grapple should have its own dedicated button and always just be a quick tap away, rather than having to open a menu or take the time to slowly aim a reticule at just the right spot to use it – although that will also be an option during times when you are trying to reach a specific place and/or speed isn’t as important as accuracy.
So you might be asking yourself, why not just pitch this as a whole new ninja game? Why does it have to be Tenchu? Well, I just really believe in the potential of the franchise to be something truly great and to be able to stand side by side with any AAA franchise out there. The main characters, Rikimaru and Ayame, are fantastic characters with a lot of depth, and I feel that the better games in the series had a really solid story, and taking that and having it be expanded and tightened up by some of the amazing people writing scripts for games today could really show just how good the story and characters really were and how great they can truly be. One of the ways the Tenchu series quickly lost its way is tone. The first Tenchu game was very dark and moody, and that was immediately abandoned when, in the first sequel, we played as the characters in their teenage years, complete with spuny personalities and temper tantrums. Later Tenchu games went more for the intentionally tongue-in-cheek bad 70’s grindhouse kung-fu movie vibe. I feel that a new Tenchu that gets back to the vibe of the first game would be amazing, more like an Akira Kurosawa film (I’d even go so far as to say what the hell, make the game black and white too like the CG sequences of the first game, but that’s probably pushing it. Maybe an option at least?)
Ninjas and feudal Japan really lend themselves to a huge, epic story like Kurosawa used to tell in his films, and a game that had that while still staying true to that in its gameplay as well would really find an audience I feel. Besides just stealth being watered down nowadays, ninjas have zero respectability in games anymore. The most prominent ninja-based game of the last decade or so is probably the modern version of Ninja Gaiden, games that are all about in-your-face action with buckets of blood and girls with big bouncy breasts (including one particular Ninja Gaiden game where you could literally make your character’s boobs jiggle by shaking the controller. No, seriously). And sadly, some later Tenchu games also fell into the cleavage trap, furthering the need for the series to redeem itself. I just feel that ninjas deserve better. There’s nothing wrong with the hack-and-slash version (though I still take offense to the controlled boob jiggling), but I’d like the other end of the spectrum to be represented in games as well. The honorable side. The Tenchu series began with the motto “Live by honor, kill by stealth,” and I don’t see any reason why that can’t be applied to a modern game. There are a lot of seemingly abandoned series that I’m dying to see make a return – Skies of Arcadia, Fear Effect, Klonoa, Space Channel 5, Timesplitters, I could go on – but to see Tenchu not only return but to do so in a manner worthy of the potential that was present in its first game is one of my absolute biggest gaming wishes.
Oh, and definitely bring back Noriyuki Asakura as the composer. His soundtrack for the first game is among the most gorgeous soundtracks I’ve ever heard, gaming or otherwise. Just listen to this song (all the way through) and tell me it isn’t incredible that such a lush, complex and beautiful song was actually in a video game in 1998.