I’ll never forget the look on my Mum’s face on Christmas morning, 1998. The turkey was cooking, the present unwrapped, and my brother and I had just popped Tenchu: Stealth Assassins into our original PlayStation console.
Then came the blood. Gallons and gallons of polygonal blood. The 18 certificate should have been a giveaway, but somehow the reality of ninja assassinations must have been lost on my Mum as she approached the till at our local games emporium, instead picturing how her sons’ glowing, cherubim faces would weep with joy upon receiving their most-wanted of gifts.
But when the ninjas leapt from the rooftops, splitting lowly guards in two like meaty Kit-Kats with their katanas, Mum must have wondered if this was quite in the same spirit of Christmas as the wintry saccharine cards and carols surrounding us.
From blood spills to Bloodborne
The Tenchu series, first developed by studio Acquire and later by Dark Souls and Bloodborne legends FromSoftware turns twenty this year. But it’s been nine years since we’ve seen an entry into the ninja-stealth-and-slash-em-up series, and that was the risible Shadow Assassins for the Wii.
It’s hard to put into context just how amazing Tenchu seemed to a 10 year old me all those years ago and, to a slightly lesser extent, to the industry as a whole. Here was a 3D game that put the emphasis on sneaking and tactical planning (some months before the seminal Metal Gear Solid, it should be noted), all wrapped up in that coolest and most mysterious of historical killers, the ninja.
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Set in Feudal-era Japan, the series focussed around ninjas Rikimaru and Ayame, members of the Azuma Ninja clan and servants to the wise Lord Ghoda. You’d travel the land, stamping out corruption, whether that was sliding a blade between the ribs of a lecherous merchant, or going head to head with a fallen ninja and demonic warriors.
Rikimaru and Ayame had a wide array of moves and tools at their disposal. Rikimaru, the stockier, older, stoic ninja, would use his longer single blade to dice foes to pieces, while slight-but-speedy Ayame would use twin blades to pepper baddies with holes. Each would also have access to a growing array of ninja gadgetry – like a 16th century James Bond, you’d be rewarded for completing a level without being spotted and using only the gore-tastic stealth kills by receiving new items like poisoned rice balls, smoke bombs and caltrops.
And you’d sure need them – the Tenchu series was famed for its brutal difficulty levels, something that would be adopted by From Software for its later Souls titles.
Rushing into a battle was a sure-fire way to get turned into tooled-up kebab, and getting killed meant starting each level from scratch, losing your limited provision of gadgets in the process. The focus then became on truly knowing enemy patrol routes and, in many cases, avoiding them altogether to reach your target.
Striking from the shadows once more?
The Tenchu series would peak on the PS2 with 2003’s Wrath of Heaven, before sadly slipping into obscurity after a string of so-so sequels and spin offs. It was in many ways a game ahead of its time – the first title remembered here so fondly even predated the introduction of analogue sticks with the original DualShock controller. And so it holds up poorly today, with relatively clunky movement and dire camera swings.
But its influence can be felt anywhere that open level design, shadows, gadgets and swordplay come together, be it in the Assassin’s Creed series, Hitman or Dishonored.
And so Tenchu makes this year’s E3 2018 gaming extravaganza so potentially exciting. Twenty years after the launch of the original title in the series, could we see Rikimaru and Ayame return?
It’s quite possible – a revival of the series has been touted for some years now, but a cryptic teaser trailer from FromSoftware at last year’s Game Awards set tongues wagging.
With hidden weapons, gallons of blood and a ye-olde feel to the trailer, some speculated that the trailer, with a tagline (or title) or ‘Shadows Die Twice’ could have been the long-awaited Bloodborne 2.
But this seems unlikely – would Sony, the IP holder for Bloodborne, really let FromSoftware reveal one of its crowning jewels away from one of its own PlayStation showcases? Unlikely.
Dig a little deeper, as Giuseppe Nelva of DualShockers did, and the evidence of a Tenchu revival steps out of the shadows. From the use of traditional Japanese instruments in the trailer to the presence of a ninja scroll and famed ninja weapon the kunai, it’s all there. Even the Shadows Die Twice line evokes the sneaky nature of those early games.
It’s speculation at this point of course, and anything can happen at E3. But here’s hoping for the surprise appearance of Tenchu at this year’s E3 – I’d love to see what Mum would make of those executions in spruced up 4K.
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