Tenchu Review

23 Sep

Please note I wrote this revue specifically about Tenchu: Stealth Assasins.

It has been the history of criticism to hold the subject of our concern up to the light shone by it’s peers and see what chips this beholds. This method of establishing merit is almost universally accepted and practiced by the learned peoples of many places and ages.

The romantics believed that criticism, at least of art, could only be qualified in terms of the nature of the artist. They said the hand that shapes the curve of the pottery, and the history of that hand, the heart that sustains it- are what give the art value.

Still others who believe the old adage that criticism is the realm of those who are jealous.

But what ever your beliefs on criticism of art or cars or political administrations it is a commonly known fact that video games are only ever reviewed in the context of video games. Though the great manifestations of any cultures creative expressions are always treated with great reverence, video games, a common phenomena in our time’s are not given the same respect. They are not reviewed and criticized as well spent moment of life but as a frivolous past time. And one would be hard pressed to argue if not for games like Tenchu.

The decisive game mechanic in Tenchu is one that is now common- though at the time it was innovative. This is the stealth aspect of the game also seen in the first Metal Gear Solid and Thief on the PC. Should you attack an enemy when he is unaware of your presence he succumbs to your blade with only one press of the attack button. On the other hand should he see you and recognize the fact that you are of the enemy faction he draws his sword and raises the alarm. At this point your attack button does much less damage when you strike him as well as giving him the opportunity to block. So a level with 16 enemy characters could be completed by hitting the “x” button only 16 times (and some running) in the hands of a master but for most the same “x” button would be mashed hundreds of times. And let’s see why.

Playing Tenchu is like watching the fantastic inner working of a Swedish Coo Coo clock crafted to be the finest in the world. But imagine that same masterpiece of mechanical precision was actually a third person action game. A third person action game set in historical Japan featuring ninja’s, stealth and some of the slickest game play to date.

Tenchu is laid out across ten levels with some ending in final bosses and some ending when you reach a certain geographic destination. Then within each level there are three possible placement patterns for the enemy characters. So if you see a member of the opposing clan in the first building on the left when you start level 1, then you can definitively know where every other enemy will be and how long it will take you to get to them.

On the other hand if the first enemy you see is a dog in the second building on the right all the enemies will be in different locations but predetermined locations none the less. Granted you have to play the game a great deal to learn the levels and possible enemy placements but as you will see that is exactly the point.

Crunching the numbers on the possibilities, we arrive at the figure of approximately 15 different puzzle combinations (unique level + enemy layout) that do not contain boss characters. That means that there are 15 puzzle possibilities that could be completed by a blind person who had memorized the right sequence of button combinations.

Granted the same thing could be said about most 2D platform games but that is exactly the idea. Tenchu is a magnificently complex elaboration of a very simple premise. In fact more accurately Tenchu started out as a fragile but calm system and through player choice and action proceeded to a chaotic mash up of angry computer controlled ninjas, stealth meters and sword clashes. It started simple and keeping that fine balance was the true task.

Because the game is very difficult to master most players never develop the skill sets necessary to identify the placement patterns in the game. With three possible start points for enemies and sophisticated AI, Tenchu created an experience that for most people felt very random. Essentially the illusion of Alea was created. The illusion was created and then draped across the Coo Coo clock of a perfect reason and order that was the starting point for the Tenchu program. A game that most often ends as an alleic experience but if played by a master created complete immersion in an Agon frame of mind. The Agonic competition coming from competition with one’s self as the game is for one player, none the less some of the most ferocious competition in digital history has arisen from feverish attempts to beat your last stealth score.

Tenchu is also a fantastic game from the perspective of creating an immersive world for the players to lose themselves in. The story is tangible enough to provide a cohesive narrative but not prominent enough to skewer the player’s attention away from the game’s real value- it fun playability.

The graphics are also of a similar caliber. Considering Tenshu’s late 90’s release date the graphics are a respectable representation of the feudal Japan setting for the game. Polygons are few and colours are limited but the artwork is kept simple and the animations kinetic. In fact the smooth movement of the main characters, both when interacting with enemies and traversing the expansive terrain is a highlight of the game play experience.

As well, the sound effects are used with confident reserve to generate a suiting atmosphere for the entire game. The music is some of the best heard in the medium since early Mega Man. The songs are almost better than the early Capcom classic because they are more refined and consistently evoke the emotional goals of the levels. The product of all this hard work by the designers is an experience rich with the pleasure of mimicry.

So Tenchu is brilliant. It is filled with the qualities of Caillois’ Agon, Alea and Mimicry. It draws the player in and holds them firmly but comfortably in the synthetic realm of feudal Japan. Tenchu is a flawless expression of fun and an accomplishment that deserves to be viewed along side Belgian beer summer days and the art of Mucha- a game that doesn’t just make the Playstation better but a game that makes life better.


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