Video games are not just fun, they can also be educational. For example, while playing the stealth game Tenchu: Shadow Assassins, I learned that in feudal Japan, female ninjas wore the sort of miniskirt/half-shirt combo one would normally expect to see worn by a teenage girl at a rave.
Perhaps Tenchu is not a paragon of historical accuracy, but it sure is entertaining. The throwaway story follows ninjas Rikimaru and Ayame as they work together and later, mysteriously, in opposition, to save a princess. I never cared about the story, but I always cared deeply about the intricate task of sneaking through a village and leaving bodies with surprised looks in my wake.
The game begins with taciturn scar-faced ninja Rikimaru dealing with people making trouble for his boss, Lord Ghoda. As a ninja, Rikimaru is a master of stealth, able to blend into the shadows so well that soldiers will walk right past him. This is bad for the soldiers, as Rikimaru, while virtually defenseless if caught, can quickly kill a soldier taken unaware. During the game he will drag enemies into the bushes and slit their throats, toss them down wells or leap upon them from rooftops. If he sneaks up behind an enemy he can steal his sword and kill him with it, stopping only to say “sorry, friend.” This phrase, heard over and over, really grates on your nerves after a while.
(Parenthetically, is an apology really going to make you feel better when a ninja slits your throat? I don’t think so.)
Gameplay: An Abundance of Toys
Rikimaru will find various useful items as he wanders the streets. A water container can be used to douse a torch and plunge an area into darkness. A shuriken can be thrown at an enemy. It won’t kill usually kill him, but it will make him stumble, sometimes off a cliff or into a torch. (At one point in the game I knocked a guard from a guard tower and he fell on another guard, killing them both. Alas, I could never repeat that.)
Oddly, shurrikens won’t kill soldiers (who, if there is nothing to fall into or off of will simply get mad and try and find you) but will kill enemy ninjas hiding in the bushes. While Rikimaru has the ability to see normal enemies in bright red with the touch of a button, making them easy to spot, ninja foes are almost invisible, so players have to look carefully whenever they hear a nearby voice mumbling something like “my foot’s fallen asleep.”
The game continually adds new items, such as smoke bombs and ancient Japanese grenades. You start playing as Ayame halfway through the game, and she gets even more toys, including a cape to hide behind and a cat that can safely reconnoiter and carry back useful items (including, if found, other cats).
Presentation: Puzzles and Puzzling Imperfections
Stealth games are generally a mix of strategy and puzzle solving. Some are open-ended, like Thief and Hitman, offering dozens of different ways to complete a task, while others, like Splinter Cell, offer linear, puzzle-oriented gameplay. Tenchu falls in the second class, with small levels that offer a limited number of possible solutions. A good deal of ingenuity is required. Often areas look impassible at first, but there is always some way to get through if you are clever enough.
While Tenchu is a lot of fun, it suffers from weak presentation, annoying design flaws and some low-budget characteristics.
Some things are just badly done. For example, the screen would periodically lighten, but it was hours before I realized this was supposed to be the effect of fireworks lighting up the area, because the game did nothing to make that clear and the effect looked nothing like light from fireworks. It’s a clever idea, but a clever idea badly implemented is not worth doing. (At times Tenchu uses lightning instead of fireworks, which works much better because the thunder makes it clear what is happening.)
The Annoyances That Keep Tenchu From Greatness
There are other weaknesses. If you are spotted by a guard you can quickly flick the remote to jump out of his sightline, jumping into the bushes or a large pot, but too often flicking the remote caused me to jump towards the enemy instead.
If you are spotted you will run away to the beginning of the level. I really like this, because you don’t lose any of your progress; everyone you killed is still dead. But if you have any smoke bombs, useful for sneaking past enemies, a prompt will tell you to press a button to throw a smoke bomb to escape. This isn’t necessary, but in a game that often has onscreen prompts to follow, it is very hard to ignore one, and I often wasted a precious smoke bomb. I can’t for the life of me think why the designers would do such a thing.
Some flaws can be dealt with. Stealth kills involve pressing a button and then following an onscreen prompt, and one prompted move, thrusting the Wii forward, almost always fails. But I eventually figured out that if I flicked the remote down the game would interpret that as the thrusting move.
Some flaws are just annoying. You can swing from tree limb to tree limb like a monkey, but the controls to do so are stupidly awkward.
Some flaws impact gameplay. You can climb up to ledges, although it is often tricky to position yourself correctly to do so, but once you’ve climbed up you can’t generally climb down in the same manner.