Monday, March 28, 2011

Tenchu: Stealth Tanks With Swords

This is a sad post for me to write because it is about a game that I enjoyed a whole lot when I was younger but has not stood the test of time. I rented Tenchu: Stealth Assassins numerous times, but I didn't get around to actually owning a copy until years later when it had passed the initial Greatest Hits phase and became a bargain bin game. I fell in love with the game because, along with Metal Gear Solid, it was a game that challenged the idea of how you play an action game. Use stealth and tricks to defeat enemies, it was revolution. I didn't have to play as some “fake” ninjas like Shinobi who just run headlong into battle, I could sneak around and kill people like a “real” ninja.

The Tenchu series has a really strange history, and in retrospect it sort of explains the weirdness of the games from one to the next. The original game was developed by Acquire, a company that has pretty much only made stealth ninja games and the Way of the Samurai. I guess they've made some weird PSP games as well, but who hasn't?  

Anyway, in Japan the original Tenchu was published by Sony, but then the rights were bought by Activision, not just for the American release for the game, but for sequels as well. Tenchu 2 was developed again by Acquire and it was the basic iterative enhancement. After that, the rights were sold to From Software, and the next few games were developed by K2. For the next few games the US publisher changed from game to game, but K2 continued as the developer.

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, the 3rd game in the series, was a largely streamlined design, retaining the core elements. I also have fond memories of Wrath of Heaven (as well as the Xbox version Return From Darkness), and I have a feeling that game will hold up much better due to the smoother controls. There were a few games on various platforms after that, but I sort of lost interest by then. I guess the recent Wii/PSP game was actually developed by Acquire, the first game in the series by them in almost ten years. Of course, in he interim years Acquire also made a series of Shinobido games, which appear to have been Tenchu games in everything but name. Sadly, these games were not released in the US, in spite of them having had been released in Europe, which I'd assume means they were localized.

Yeah, dogs are not innocent.
As much as I used to care about the Tenchu series, and the original Tenchu itself, I just can't play it anymore. I can get over old blocky 3D Playstation games, and I can even get over awkward looking animations. The thing that makes this game so hard to play is the controls. I know it was an earlier time and the success of Resident Evil made people think it was a good idea, but tank controls are way too awkward and slow for comfortable movement and melee combat. I guess this is just a result of developers trying to make 3rd person action games for controllers in the pre-dual analog world.

That is just the heartbreaking thing. Tenchu was, and still is a cool idea, and while the original game was really cool for it's time, it just doesn't hold up due to it being such an early 3D game. It's not even that the game was (too) poorly executed, it is that 3D action games have basically settled on a control method that works well, and it is really hard to go back and get in the right mindset to play a game without it.

I haven't really communicated what I like about Tenchu. It just taps into that part of my brain that makes me think something is cool. I love sneaking around and killing witless samurai guards. I love to use weird ninja tools to toy with my prey and kill them in funny ways. How can you not like luring a guy into a field of caltrops by dropping some poison rice. Not only will he injure himself on his way to the rice, the rice will make him become violently ill, then die. Sure you could just slit his throat, but where is the artistry in that? Where is the malice? Also, you can zip around on a grappling hook, and that's awesome.


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