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LONG BLOG

Where the Hell is Tenchu?

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With the 5th generation of consoles introducing a 3rd dimension to video game development, there was now a room for a newer Ninja game to take advantage of that step forward. Both Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi, the premier ninja action game series, where 2D action romps. On the PS1, the Tenchu series was released featuring full 3d action and was very well-received.

At that moment, the Tenchu series was born, as one of the earliest advocates of 3d action-stealth gameplay. Its innovations were built upon by other game franchises, as well as sequels and spin-offs.

Yet, the series's initial success started to wane with every sequel, and it had no permanent publishing home. Eventually, what was once a critically acclaimed ninja-action franchise became nothing more than a mid-tier disappointment. The once formidable ninja retreated into the shadows.

So, what the hell happened here?

The Tenchu series is a 3rd person Stealth-Action gameplay franchise. It features recurring ninja characters, Rikimaru and Ayame, in almost all the games. Unlike earlier examples of Ninja games, Tenchu actually focuses on stealth as a core mechanic. To that effect, the player has a number of tools that help them stay hidden, distract enemies, and escape from danger.

Originally released to wide critical acclaim, the series then started to taper off. Tenchu can be divided into the mainline series, which are a number of sequels that roughly follow each other, and the spin-off games.

All critical ratings are from Gameranking.com, and commercial performance is based on some research by myself.

A) The Mainline Series:

The mainline games are actually difficult to accurately define, with the best qualifier being the Japanese titles which are numbered for the four mainline games. The rest, while mechanically similar in some ways, can be considered spin-offs to the main series.

1- Tenchu: Stealth Assassins:

  • Released: PS1, 1998 in Japan and NA.
  • Developer: Acquire.
  • Publisher Sony, Activision.
  • Critical Reception: 84.26%
  • Commercial Reception: About 3M units sold.

As the first games in the series, Tenchu immediately broke new technical ground on the PS1. By taking advantage of the new 3d capabilities of the console, Stealth Assassins was considered the first "realistic" ninja game, and it complemented that "realism" by focusing on the stealth aspect of ninja roleplaying. Characters have access to a number of tools that help them stay stealthy. Chief among those tools is the grabbling hook, which allows the characters to go on top of buildings and trees, adding a level of verticality seldom seen during that time.

Featuring two distinct characters, the aforementioned Rikimaru and Ayame, the game also had a good replayability factor. Especially combined with a ranking system that rates your effectiveness at successfully completing the mission as a ninja. It helped that the cheesy story was well-acted considering the time (no Jill sandwiches here) and that each character experiences the story differently.

The setting, which is during the Sengoku period of Japan (16th century), was a natural fit and is the setting for all nine games in the series. However, there are no historical characters in the game, which differentiates this from other games that use the same setting (like Onimusha).

Overall, Stealth Assassins is the best selling game in the franchise and is an important milestone in videogame development, especially considering the fact that it released before another more famous Stealth-Action games (Metal Gear Solid).

2- Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins:

  • Released: PS1, 1998 in Japan and NA.
  • Developer: Acquire.
  • Publisher: Activision.
  • Critical Reception: 78.59%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 900K units sold.

The second game in the series was a straightforward sequel to the first game, even if it is a prequel story-wise. Now with a third playable character, the game emphasized the replayability of the missions further instead of the addition of extra levels. That allowed players to experiment with the characters, tools, and maps to find the best way to finish any given mission.

One feature that was a bit revolutionary at the time was the inclusion of a mission editor, which allowed players to customize missions to a significant degree. From changing the time of day to changing level objectives and characters. That also contributed to the replayability of the game.

In many ways, this sequel improved on the gameplay, graphics, enemy AI, and general presentation of the first game. Yet, it did not meet the same level of success and was accused by some of basically being more of the same (Which is weird considering Activision's major success today in annual Call of Duty releases).

3- Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven:

  • Released: PS2, 2003 in Japan and NA; XBOX, 2004 in Japan and NA; PSP, 2009 in Japan.
  • Developer: K2 LLC, FromSoftware (PSP only).
  • Publisher: Activision, FromSoftware (PSP only).
  • Critical Reception: 79.38%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 2M Sold on PS2 and XBOX.

Making its jump to the 6th generation of video games, Tenchu had what I consider its best game in the series. Not developed by its original developers, but by a subsidiary of Capcom, the now-defunct K2 LLC, Wrath of Heaven somehow fully understood everything the series stands for and made it better.

Better looking, better mechanically, and better storytelling. Still using the dual point of view of two characters, the game shows a number of micro-stories in each mission that complements the main plotline, not unlike the Hitman series.

It is notable that the game was not very positively received at the time, but retrospective reviews have found it to be a very tight Stealth Action game that has a "tangible sense of purpose and poetry".

4- Tenchu: Shadow Assassins:

  • Released: Wii, 2008 in Japan, 2009 in NA; PSP, 2009 in Japan and NA.
  • Developer: Acquire.
  • Publisher: FromSoftware, Ubisoft.
  • Critical Reception: 69% on the Wii, 65.18% on the PSP.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 400K units sold on the Wii and PSP.

After several spin-offs and side projects that were poorly received and poorly sold, the Tenchu mainline series returned with a bloody action game on the Wii (before also releasing on the PSP), taking inspiration from such games as Red Steel. Since this is the last Tenchu game to be released, we can probably say that the tactic was not a huge success.

On the Wii, the series tried to continue its refusal to upgrade its graphics and presentation, and it mostly got away with it. However, by now, the series wasn't a commercial hit, and probably few could justify the extra resources needed to continue on stronger hardware.

Back to the Wii game, it seems opinions are divided between how well the motion-focused control scheme works. Regardless of the game's mechanics, it is a true sequel to the Tenchu series, with a focus on Ninja-Opera storytelling and a Stealth Action gameplay that is satisfying to pull off, but frustrating when you have no idea what to do.

B) The Spin-Offs:

With the release of the first Tenchu Spin-Off, there was a noticeable drop in quality that was not forgiven by the consumer base. Almost all five Spin-Off games were poorly received both commercially and critically.

1- Tenchu: Fatal Shadows

  • Released: PS2, 2004 in Japan, 2004 in NA; PSP, 2010 in Japan.
  • Developer: K2 LLC, FromSoftware (PSP only).
  • Publisher: Sega, FromSoftware.
  • Critical Reception: 60.54%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 220K sold.

 

There is really no reason that Fatal Shadows should be considered a Spin-Off instead of a sequel, other than the fact that its Japanese name is not numbered like the others. Also, there is the other fact that it looked and played like a low-tier budget game. For some reason, Fatal Shadows looks and plays worse than Wrath of Heaven, a game that was released the previous year.

Other than those two facts, there is little difference in how the game actually plays. It is still the Stealth Action game with the Ninja opera story.

2- Tenchu: Time of the Assassins:

  • Released: PSP, 2005 in Japan.
  • Developer: K2 LLC.
  • Publisher: Sega, FromSoftware.
  • Critical Reception: 51.25%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 220K units sold.

 

As the first game released on the PSP, Time of the Assassins served as a warning of the technical short-cuts and limitations that would be a feature of these games. With a poor automatic camera, muddy visuals, and very poor draw distance, the game is almost unplayable as a Stealth Action game.

Simply put, any Stealth game needs the player to have the ability to get as much information from the game as possible. Seeing where your enemies are, where vintage points could be, potential dark corners. With the poor camera and graphics of this game, it boils down to trial and error gameplay, where you suddenly realize there is an enemy in front of you where you couldn't see them. Playing like a Mr. Magoo Ninja half the time.

The poor gameplay overshadows (get it?) the return of the mission editor, which should have been a reason to boot the game regularly as a portable retelling of the series so far.

3- Tenchu: Dark Secret:

  • Released: DS, 2006 in Japan and NA.
  • Developer: Polygon Magic.
  • Publisher: FromSoftware, Nintendo.
  • Critical Reception: 34.35%.
  • Commercial Reception: About 70K units sold.

Nearly everything in this game was a disastrous mistake. A DS game that relies on the weakest parts of the DS, and none of its strengths. A Stealth Action game that looks and plays much worse than the Metal Gear games on the MSX2. With muddy, vaseline covered, 3D graphics, the game is abominable-looking.

With the graphics being such a disaster, it is no surprise that the gameplay suffers as a result. Not that there was any potential there, to begin with. Slow, with little nuance or tactics to speak off, the game is a terrible execution of Steal Action gameplay.

Most surprisingly is that this game was published by Nintendo in the west. Typically, we expect a much higher degree of quality in Nintendo-published games. As a final note, if you want to really see how shit this game looks and feels, compare to the ambitious but still lackluster Ninja Gaiden DS game. While that game is not pretty by any stretch, it is miles better in every bloody way.

4- Tenchu Z:

  • Released: Xbox 360, 2005 in Japan, 2006 in NA.
  • Developer: K2 LLC.
  • Publisher: FromSoftware, Microsoft Game Studios.
  • Critical Reception: 56.93%.
  • Commercial Reception: About 500K units sold.

As one of the many games that Microsoft had sudden exclusivity deals within the early days of the Xbox 360, Tenchu Z was decidedly a miss. Barely upgraded visually and mechanically from the PS2 games, this wasn't the game to show off the console's new HD power. In fact, it even lacked the stylistic touches that compensated for the game's graphics that it had in Wrath of Heaven.

Most damning, however, was how the game's best selling point turned out to be its worst aspect. Boasting about more than 50 missions, the game forgot to make any of them memorable or unique enough. The result being, that doing the same thing 50 times exposes the shallowness of it all. Past great Tenchu game hid the faults in its A.I. by having unique levels. That tactic was forgotten in the sake of making more boring content.

5- Shadow Assault: Tenchu:

  • Released: Xbox 360 Arcade, 2008 in Japan and NA.
  • Developer: FromSoftware.
  • Publisher: FromSoftware.
  • Critical Reception: 48.57%.
  • Commercial Reception: Unknown.

 

The fact that the subtitle is before the main title is not the only different thing about this Tenchu game. Released on the Xbox 360 arcade, this was more an experimental title, laying out in a grid-like Bomberman. First thing I thought of is that this would have worked much better on the DS game. A second thing I thought of is that it isn't as good as Bomberman, and barely good at all.

You are able to use many of the characters in the Tenchu universe, and use them to lay out Ninja traps for the typically dumb AI to fall into.

Suffice to say, I don't think Microsoft got much from their limited exclusivity deal with this series.

With two great games, two good games, and five bad ones, it is certainly not a surprise why the once respected series keeled over and died. It somehow managed to tarnish itself to such degree that even its belated effort to inject some quality back into the game was met with poor reception.

Let's look at the elements that sealed this Ninja's fate.

Downward Commercial Trend:

A constant theme in Tenchu's commercial performance is the series's inability to leverage its successes. The first game on the PS1 was a major success that was followed up by a decent sequel, with less than half the sales. After which, came another major success on the PS2, with Wrath of Heaven selling around 2 Million copies. Yet, the follow up was a disaster, with Fatal Shadows failing to sell a quarter of the previous game's sale.

At that point, there is not really any downward trend. Instead, it was a fall down the precipice of commercial reliability, and into the bog of financial failure. Ironically, towards the end of its life, the Tenchu series appeared to be pulling back with around 500K sales on the Xbox 360 game, and the Wii title. However, the failure of Tenchu's return-to-form on the Wii (Selling around 300K on the Wii and 100K on the PSP) meant little confidence in the brand going forward.

While it is understandable that the series would not be able to pull the numbers of the first and second game consistently. In order for this type of game to continue progressing, it needed at least to sell 1 Million copies reliability, which it did not reach after the release of Wrath of Heaven.

Noticeable Drop in Quality and Refusal to Upgrade:

If you go back and play every Tenchu game, you will see one step forward, and that's between Stealth Assassin and Wrath of Heaven. Other than that, the games either look worse, or marginally better but with none of the style. Mechanically, the games also stagnated, with repetitive gameplay and little invention. At least with the exception of Shadow Assassins on the Wii.

Honestly, I think the scores of the second and third games are products of their time and would be higher in today's lower reviewing standards. After which, I agree with all the terrible review scores with the exception of the Wii game.

It just looks like the series stopped trying, and simply rehashed its dated graphics, and refused to update its gameplay. When a game fails to surpass its prequel, then the franchise is doomed to fail.

The decline of the Mid-Tier Game:

Now, that Tenchu failed to leverage its early successes in becoming a high-tier game series, it survived in the mid-tier. If technology has remained at the Wii and PS2 level, the franchise could have conceivably survived at around 500K sales with the occasional dip.

However, with the rising costs of HD development, which led to the death of the mid-tier developer in the PS360 era, Tenchu had to either step-up or die.

It died.

Since there are more bad games than good ones in the Tenchu series, it is fair to question the desire for more sequels. Chances are, any sequel would be more Tenchi Z rather than Wrath of Heaven. While that is a fair concern, it does not detract from the core reasons why another Tenchu game would be most welcome now.

Ninja Hitman Action:


Currently, there is a considerable dearth of Ninja games, with both Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi not releasing anything in ages. Yet, both those games have respectable replacements in Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, since both are ostensibly action games. In contrast, Tenchu is a game most like Hitman rather than your typical action game.

It is a franchise where preparation, observation, and stealth are key. Each kill is the result of careful movement and situational awareness. Previously, the games made a lot of concessions due to graphical and processing power, but you can imagine a full-fledged Hitman-like game but with Ninja action.

That's why, even if Ninja action games make a comeback, there is always room for Tenchu in the market.

Multiple Character Viewpoints:

Personally, I have always been a fan of multiple character point of views for the same story. It has a lot of storytelling potential, and the different characters invite multiple playthroughs. It worked wonderfully for Resident Evil 2, and it worked wonderfully for past Tenchu games.

More than anything, it allows for two cool characters to share the spotlight, and Rikimaru and Ayame are cool characters in their own right.

Also, it brings us to the next cool thing about the series:

Invites Multiple Playthroughs:

Because of its multiple points of views, and the Stealth Action mechanics, the Tenchu series has always been an immensely replayable series. It invites experimentation in gameplay and attracts players looking for excellence in their assassinations.

That's made better with the potential for sprawling maps with multiple objectives. Nothing different from the recent style of the recent Hitman games. Except, with Ninjas.

Here where we come to discuss the possible future for the franchise. After trading hands so many times, FromSoftware has been the final holder of the IP for quite some time. Since the last game was released in 2009, it means there have been about 10 years since the last game.

With that in mind, here is what I think is the going to be the future of the franchise:

Sekiro: Shadows Replace Shadows:

Reportedly, the upcoming FromSoftware game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, has started development as a Tenchu project. Then, as the project gained shape, and it started going more into Action gameplay as opposed Stealth Action, it started becoming its own thing.

This development tells us two things. First, is that Tenchu as a series has been in the mind of FromSoftware developers. Second, is that this may actually be the death knell of the Tenchu franchise. If Sekiro becomes a success, it may start a new Ninja franchise by FromSoftware, meaning they would not want to cannibalize their own franchise by releasing another Ninja game.

As Sekiro succeeds as a spiritual successor to Tenchu, the other game disappears.

Two FromSoftware Ninja Games:

This is the least likely scenario, but with the increase in Japanese Samurai and Ninja games (Sekiro, Nioh, Ghost of Tsushima), maybe FromSoftware decides they can have two Ninja franchises. Especially since both appear to have very different gameplay styles.

In this case, FromSoftware can use the success of Sekiro to drum up excitment for a Tenchu reboot. One thing for sure, there won't be a continuation of the past games, but a reboot is most likely.

**************************************************************************


The "Where the Hell is" is going to be a series where I discuss the decline and disappearance of game franchises that interested me greatly, and now are gone. For a series to be covered, it needs to have three or more games, an unresolved conclusion or different storylines and is a series I somewhat played. Please feel free to give me any feedback or recommendation, as I always try to write better blogs.

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About Lord Spencerone of us since 5:57 PM on 01.12.2014

Hello all, I am Lord Spencer, your friendly neighborhood royalty. Yes, the ancient bloodlines are letting absolutely anyone in these days.

Being the lurker that I am, I have been following Destructoid for more than four years. Well, its 3 AM where I live now, and I just plunged in getting HUGE in the way.

Here is hoping for a fun time.

Oh yes, here is a little more info about me that is probably not as interesting as I think it is:

-I owned and played about 1000+ games.
-I owned and read about 2000+ books (I counted comic books I read as a kid so this is not as impressive as it sounds).
-I absolutely love Legos.

Out of all the games I played, I only regret playing a few. I am a big fan of gaming, and thus I really like most of what I play.

Thanks to the excellent work of community member Dango, now I have a cool infographic of my top 20 games. This list is not my final one, but what I thought off at the moment. If you notice, they are presented in chronological order:





Oh, and here is a link to my blogs:
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