The Making Of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins
Graeme Mason sneaks behind the scenes of the acclaimed Playstation hit
It’s been 21 years since developer Acquire blended stealth and the supernatural in a deluge of blood and steel. With From Software’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice looking to evoke the spirit of Tenchu, Retro Gamer jumps niftily backwards to the very first game in this legendary and much-loved series
S tealth became a serious sub-branch of the third-person action adventure in 1998. Emerging from a dark corner came ashadowy trio of games: Metal Gear Solid, Thief: The Dark Project and Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, the latter a tale of two ninjas in feudal Japan. As with stealth, ninjas had been presented differently prior to Tenchu. Famous examples include Joe Musashi, aka Shinobi, and Armakuni from System 3’s The Last Ninja, neither of whom worry about brazenly striding around their respective worlds and eliminating enemies face-toface. Tenchu would revolutionise this, rewarding the player for a sneaky, undetected approach.
The idea of Tenchu began in Tokyo with a man named Takuma Endo. “I had been developing games since I was at university and went freelance after I graduated,” he tells us. “I started my own business, just about when the Playstation launched. I wanted to develop a Playstation game!” Endo’s company, Acquire Corp, founded in 1994, took part in a competition run by Sony Music Entertainment. “We won, and got the right to produce a project, but couldn’t think of the right one. Then, after struggling for six months, we came up with the ninja concept.” The idea was placed into a demo featuring motion-captured characters and a science fiction-style backdrop. The demo demonstrates how different Tenchu could have been before Acquire decided to use a more authentic scenario, and once development began on Tenchu, the chief concepts of honour and revenge came into play. “The word ‘tenchu’ means to attack against the person who did the wrongdoing, and is often used in samurai drama,” says Endo. “Then we looked into Japanese folklore to help us create images of demons and hell.” While most of the opponents in Tenchu are of human origin, there are also supernatural beings to combat. Emaciated fire-breathing cultists, axe-wielding giants and recurring villain Onikage all offer challenges beyond the realm of normality. Tenchu is the story of Rikimaru and Ayame of the Azuma ninja clan in the service of Lord Gohda. Their roles are to infiltrate those who have become corrupt or greedy, and as the game proceeds, the pair are drawn more often towards the demonic
Lord Mei-oh and his unearthly warrior, Onikage. Eventually, Gohda’s castle itself is ransacked and his daughter, Princess Kiku kidnapped by Onikage,
leaving the Azuma no choice but to confront Lord Mei-oh. Fortunately Rikimaru and Ayame have a range of traditional and fantastical items to help them. The former include caltrops for deterring pursuers, rice paper for route-marking and poisoned rice, alongside esoteric items such as an animal horn – which instantly pacifies nearby alerted foes – proving most useful to a ninja who wishes to remain undiscovered.
With Sony planning to release Tenchu only in Japan, the game’s development caught the eye of an American publisher keen to produce titles on the increasingly popular Playstation console. Working at Activision was producer David Grijns. “I was in New York City in 1996 when I saw an ad for a job in market research for a small company that had gone bankrupt a few years earlier. They called me, and I flew to Los Angeles, and a few weeks later got offered the job.” David’s initial role didn’t last long. “I convinced the management team to fly me to Tokyo to look for Playstation titles and the rest begins with Tenchu.”
David spotted a small preview in Japanese games magazine Famitsu, and was instantly intrigued. “We contacted Sony and discovered they had no plans to release the game outside of Japan. At the time, they were shopping the rights to another Playstation title, but I said,
‘No, no. I want Tenchu!” Bill Swartz, boss of Activision Japan, negotiated the rights to publish Tenchu in other territories, with Larry
Galka acting as producer in the US and Masami Yamamoto producer in Japan. Yet despite David’s enthusiasm, it was a big step in the dark. “Tenchu was a relatively big risk from the standpoint of introducing gameplay that no one had ever seen before,” he recalls. “And technically, it stood at the dawn of full 3D games made possible by Playstation. It was also a full-on stealth game that happened to be set in feudal Japan and had absolutely nothing to do with the western perception of ninjas as superheroes.” While this was the reason for Sony’s reticence to release Tenchu outside Japan, Activision loved how the game unapologetically represented ninja as they actually were – pure stealth killers, better off striking from darkness than in a straight fight.
Meanwhile, back in Japan, Endo and his team were under pressure, not helped by the abrupt change of setting. “We didn’t have so much time to study when we decided to convert the style,” he notes. “So knew we had to make the game based on something we already knew.” The Acquire founder himself took on a multitude of roles as the developer worked overtime on Tenchu. “My role was director, planner, writer, sound editor and so on, and I also did game tuning. There were no designers at the time; we made it together.” There were several vital tenets that the team insisted should remain. A male or female ninja could be selected, each presenting the story from a slightly different perspective, and each armed with a grappling hook. While authenticity was a plus for Acquire, the truth may have been – ahem – stretched a bit with this
useful item. Ground level situation getting a little hot? Then take to the sky with the grappling hook – but did ninjas really use them? “Yes, they did,” nods Endo. “Although while the hook that ninjas used is somewhat similar, it doesn’t stretch out like a rubber band as it does in the game.” The free-flowing nature of the hook, and the ability to use it anywhere was a function that the developer struggled to implement in Tenchu, but they persevered, buoyed by how cool and helpful the mechanic was.
Another challenge faced by the team was the draw distance that the Playstation could realistically handle. Recalls David, “It was a new platform at that time and everything was new in terms of 3D asset development and engine architecture. For a stealth game in which a ninja like Rikimaru needs to be able to spot enemies from a long distance, there was always a trade-off between engine performance, framerate and gameplay.” Given the nature of the game, setting the whole story at night seemed a logical decision. “Computer specs at the time were not high enough to show a number of objects under daylight, and yes, the night setting suited the image of ninja,” Endo adds.
The team achieved a look that perfectly showcased the abilities of both the Playstation and the developers. “In the end, I think Acquire found a good balance,” says David. “The game looks dated today, but in 1998, it was beautiful and looked like nothing else on the market.” Takuma Endo, at the business end of wrestling with the game’s engine, feels more pained upon recalling these issues. “We had some severe graphics problems, such as framerates dropping when a number of enemies appear on-screen. We had to arrange enemies at the right places to avoid it. It was also challenging to include five languages on a CD-ROM, with each one containing 40 minutes of voice acting data.”
And Tenchu didn’t just look different; it played different, too. Each level varies in objective, from crossing a checkpoint to locating a rare medicinal flower. It’s possible, if hazardous, to stride through each mission, taking on enemies face-to-face. But a safer and more rewarding method is to sneak around walls and roofs butchering enemies silently using a combination of the ninja’s Ki meter and a selection of bloody kill moves. “The Ki meter works simply by distance, and was my idea to represent the skill of a ninja, the ability to detect danger,” explains Endo. “I thought giving all the information within a minimap would make the game unrealistic.” Rikimaru and Ayame must trust their senses if they are to remain undetected – sight, sound and the Ki meter are essential.
This ‘Spidey sense’ became a core ingredient of Tenchu along with its gory and exaggerated death moves. “The stealth kills sold the game so there was always a push to add more but I think the enormous replayability of the game showed that the game’s depth was surprising even without more stealth kills,” David says. “It’s hard to believe now but in 1998, sitting in conference rooms at Activision, people’s jaws would drop seeing Rikimaru and Ayame brutally take down samurai in a variety of stealthy ways.”
Tenchu was released in February 1998 in Japan with the western versions following a few months later. After briefly considering a Nintendo 64 port, it was decided to keep the game Playstation exclusive, with the American/ European versions including an extra two levels and multiple layouts for each mission. Activision’s gamble paid off. “It was our best-selling game in 1998 and a huge boost to company profits at a time when we were still struggling to earn market share,” remembers David, who estimates the game shifted over 5 million copies including re-releases. And strangely, 21 years later, Tenchu stands almost alone in its unique genre. “Outside of Thief, Splinter Cell, and Metal Gear, pure stealth games are few and far between. And yet Tenchu was somehow different than all these games.
It was very deliberate and unapologetic in its depiction of 16th century Japan. It refused to show ninja as anything other than what they were – shadows. Born in darkness and destined to die in the darkness.” Back in issue 127 of Retro Gamer, our readers, to the surprise of many, voted Tenchu number four in the Top 25 Playstation Games feature. What does Endo think makes the original game so enduring? “I think the idea of Tenchu, to become a ninja and wander around freely, was relatively new at the time – you can see its influence today in many games,” he muses. “To say the least, we made this game with the greatest effort and all our creativity. Sadly, Tenchu has been forgotten in Japan, but I am very happy that it is highly evaluated in the west.”
For David Grijns, at the start of his videogame development career, his first game demonstrated the sort of company he was working for, in addition to influencing heavily his own career. “I was young and somewhat naive, and pushed for things that could have ended my career. To their great credit, the management team at Activision was a rare beast – they didn’t want to hear what they already knew – they wanted people to challenge them and defy the common wisdom. It was in that spirit that Tenchu came to be, and it has informed virtually everything I’ve done in this business since.”
It’s hard to deny Tenchu’s appeal, both as a pioneer of the stealth game, and as a unflinching window into the way of the ninja. Today, the series lives on in Fromsoftware’s spiritual successor
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which like Tenchu is published by Activision and actually started development as a Tenchu game. We feel that’s fitting, knowing the series is still there, behind the scenes, operating from the shadows.
People’s jaws would drop seeing rikimaru and ayame brutally take down samurai david grijns