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Ranking the Tenchu Series

Ranking the Tenchu Series

Acquire’s Tenchu series was one of the first games to take us to feudal Japan and emphasise stealth in an open environment. Giving you tools to distract your foes and vanish from sight it set the formula many games would crib from going forward.

Initially published by Activision until FromSoftware bought the rights to the series in 2004. Acquire themselves only worked on the original pair of PlayStation games and the fourth game in the series Tenchu: Shadow Assassins for the Wii. Other companies took on development duty for the other entries, with K2 LLC being the main torchbearer with Acquire focusing on a new ninja franchise, Shinobido.

Outside of the four main entries there have been a few spin-offs that will also be included in the list. These include a quirky Bomberman-esque puzzler and a top-down take on the series.

Tenchu Dark Secret

9. Tenchu: Dark Secret (Nintendo DS)

(2006) - Polygon Magic

The only Nintendo Tenchu title is unfortunately a missed opportunity, rather than trying to emulate the PlayStation originals, Dark Secret instead goes for an overhead stealth approach with an emphasis on laying traps. Almost as if it’s trying to play like the original Metal Gear games. Unfortunately the camera is a little too close to the action making it far too easy to accidentally run into enemies off-screen.

Tenchu Z

8. Tenchu Z (Xbox 360)

(2007) - K2 LLC

Tenchu Z had Microsoft helping with marketing but unfortunately it’s arguably the weakest of the stealth games. Control has taken a step back from the PS2 era titles confusingly changing what worked previously. Visually it’s very bland and colourless and feels extremely generic, barely taking advantage of the generational leap it should’ve represented. It’s also just not very fun to play, and if you can make being a ninja a chore then you have failed.

Shadow Assault Tenchu

7. Shadow Assault: Tenchu (Xbox 360)

(2008) - FromSoftware

A Bomberman-esque puzzle game is perhaps not really what you’d expect from a ninja series but that’s exactly what Shadow Assault: Tenchu is. In a way it’s adapting the top-down nature of Dark Secret but putting a purely puzzle spin on it. It’s a little simplistic but it’s a fun little title that invokes the ninja aesthetic without actually playing very much like a ninja game.

Tenchu Time of the Assassins

6. Tenchu: Time of the Assassins (PSP)

(2006) - K2 LLC

This non-canon PlayStation Portable entry plays like a fully-fledged Tenchu title, it also didn’t come out in the US. It allows you to select from a number of ninja from prior games (including some that are canonically missing) as you once again defend Lord Gohda and rescue Princess Kiku. On the whole it’s a pretty solid title but the ever present black fog and control issues make it harder than it needs to be. If only the PSP had a second analogue nub…

Tenchu Shadow Assassins

5. Tenchu: Shadow Assassins (Wii/PSP)

(2009) - Acquire

The fourth main entry is a bit of an odd one, visually it’s easily the most accomplished but it makes some fundamental changes to the series that may put you off compared to the prior entries. There is less of an emphasis on items with the now iconic grappling hook missing in action, this makes the level design a lot more linear and less open than the other titles. Getting spotted by enemies is a fail state now rather than forcing you to run or enter combat, the game is more like a set of stealth puzzles.

If you have a sword in your inventory you can battle enemies by waving the WiiMote to match what is on screen to attack or deflect attacks which is wholly unsatisfying. Motion controls are used liberally to make you dash from spot to spot and for performing stealth kills, which if performed incorrectly cause you to fail the kill. The PSP version thankfully changes these to button presses and is therefore the better option.

Tenchu Wrath of Heaven

4. Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven (PS2/XBOX)

(2003/2004) - K2 LLC

The third main Tenchu game made the jump to the sixth generation consoles and picks up after the first game, with Rikimaru presumed dead after hoisting a boulder to allow Ayame and Princess Kiku to escape after defeating Lord Mei-Oh. The game introduced various mystical elements like sorcerers and actual magic to the series that up until this point had been very grounded in reality.

Control was much improved over the PlayStation prequels and moment to moment gameplay was better thanks to the lack of fog. Being able to see enemies from further than a few feet away makes all the difference!

Tenchu 2 Birth of the Stealth Assassins

3. Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins (PSX)

(2000) - Acquire

As the name suggests Birth of the Stealth Assassins takes us back to where it all began for the Azuma Ninja Clan with Rikimaru and Ayame as teens being taught their ninja ways. Rikimaru and Ayame are joined by a third older ninja, Tatsumaru. The game has a heavier emphasis on story than the original game, and even though it’s a pretty stereotypical “fall from grace” plot it’s still quite engaging.

The first thing you’ll probably notice if you play this straight after the original is that the colour scheme is much brighter, a subtle nod to the protagonists being youthful and optimistic perhaps. For the most part this plays like the original, limited view distance included thanks to the accursed fog but the sequel did bring with it a mission editor for the first time in the West which allowed you to save creations to the memory card.

Tenchu Stealth Assassins

2. Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (PSX)

(1998) - Acquire

The original entry hasn’t held up quite as well as I’d hoped going into this article but it’s still a surprisingly fun game to play. The map design whilst relatively simplistic in comparison to later games have a focus to them that makes navigating the rooftops with your trusty grappling hook a lot of fun. There is a simplicity to the game’s focus on gameplay over narrative that makes it immediately engaging.

The fog that plagued a lot of original PlayStation games rears its ugly head here just as it does in Tenchu 2 and in much the same way that Silent Hill used it to increase that games atmosphere, Tenchu tries to do that too. It can be a little bit too intrusive here though unfortunately although you do get used to it, but it can cause many a swear word to leave your lips when you drop from a roof ready to stealth-kill someone only to be scuppered by an enemy JUST out of sight.

Tenchu Fatal Shadows

1. Tenchu: Fatal Shadows (PS2)

(2005) - K2 LLC

Taking place between Tenchu: Stealth Assassins and Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, Fatal Shadows sees Rin replace Rikimaru alongside old timer Ayane. It keeps a lot of what was great about Wrath of Heaven but the whole game is framed liked a TV serial with “Next time on…” bumpers which immediately makes it better than Wrath of Heaven.

It’s more of an evolution of the gameplay from Wrath of Heaven rather than making too many changes but generally feels tighter and more satisfying to play overall. The visuals are great with some really pleasing map design and for the most part it always feels like your fault when spotted rather than the controls getting in the way.

Final Thoughts

It feels kind of wrong to give the top spot to a non-Acquire entry but in reality, they all have a feel that is distinctly Tenchu (except perhaps the abomination that is Tenchu Z) so they all ultimately feel like refinements to that original entry. Playing these again I was surprised by how unique they still feel and in that respect I think it’s a shame that a new Tenchu had to die so Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice could live, although it does look fantastic, the grappling hook being a nice link back to its inspiration.

K2 LLC who made the majority of the non-Acquire titles are a subsidiary of Capcom and most recently made the 3D Samurai Shodown Sen way back in 2010. Acquire themselves moved on from Tenchu to make a new ninja series, Shinobido, which had entries on the PS2, PSP and the Vita. Perhaps FromSoftware might return to Tenchu at some point in the future, despite the spottiness of the spin-off titles, the series still has plenty to offer in my opinion.

What did you think to my rankings? Which entry is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below.

Simone Brown

Simone Brown

Staff Writer

Often reminiscing about the 'good old days'. Simone has almost perfected her plan to enter the Speed Force and alter the timeline.

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Acelister - 01:55pm, 1st October 2018

I honestly didn't know there were so many Tenchu games! I played the first and a demo of the second, and I remember hearing the name Tenchu X, but the rest? They just ninja vanished from me.

pucechan - 02:34pm, 1st October 2018 Author

I know right? To say there are only four main entries, the amount of spin-off/side entries is funny. Outside of Tenchu Z and the DS entry they are all interesting even if they suffer a bit from their age.

JudgementalWaifu - 02:29pm, 1st October 2018

Such a good series! Forgot about the puzzle one. I wish From Software would go back to this becuase they never really finished the story and that is a shame.

pucechan - 02:38pm, 1st October 2018 Author

I hope so too, playing through them again I think they'd really work with a modern take. I'd love an open world entry a la Metal Gear Solid V. Could really do something interesting in that framework.

Tim - 01:20am, 13th November 2018

Need to buy them how can get  them for my  collection 

pucechan - 01:31am, 13th November 2018 Author

Unfortunately all of the games are only available physically except for Shadow Assault: Tenchu which you can still get digitally via the Xbox 360 Store and is playable via Backwards Compatibility on the Xbox One.

Daddiedeadly - 01:37am, 13th November 2018

I would like a remastered for PlayStation 4 wrath of heaven really all of them 

pucechan - 01:43am, 13th November 2018 Author

I'd love to see a Tenchu HD Collection honestly, it's unlikely to happen but you never know!

Mark - 05:28am, 27th January 2019

Hope you read this .But maybe they don't need to make a original game because ratings of tenchu were always low but maybe they can make a tenchu relating to current generation .maybe tenchu online for friends to talk and strategies and go kill bad guys .or maybe a last man standing where friends can jump on buildings and stuff and go sneak up on each other and kill each other

pucechan - 09:08am, 27th January 2019 Author

I think Sekiro will end up incorporating some elements of the original series but I still think a single player Tenchu could work fine in 2019. An online multiplayer ninja game could also be really neat though I agree!

Mark - 08:09pm, 30th January 2019

Yeah a single person would work.good and people.think it can't compete with games like souls and Bloodborne but it can with current technology and graphics etc I personally think it's one of the best game ever and it's bad ratings are only because of graphics that's all

Prime - 06:03pm, 27th January 2019

I agree with the list. Tenchu Fatal Shadow is the best of the series even with no Rikimaru. Ayame, though weaker, still can be awesome to play with and enjoyable. From Software should do something about this series after Sekiro.

pucechan - 06:58pm, 27th January 2019 Author

Glad you enjoyed the list! I hope we'll see it return one day. Hopefully working on Sekiro will feed From's ninja love and they go back to that well!

Jeremy - 05:25pm, 12th December 2019

I think they should make another Tenchu game. It should have the same controls and movement as Tenchu 1 and Tenchu 2. This enables you to see the whole world from the Ninja's point of view! What makes Tenchu great is the fact that a real Ninja (Sho Kosugi) helped to make the game. He created the movement and deadly combat techniques. Everything about it is authentic and with today's graphics it would be even more great!!! Sho Kosugi or even Ninja Grandmaster Jinichi Kawakami should help make the game to ensure its authenticity and real deadly Ninja techniques of bone breaking, Ninja weapons combat and stealth kills etc. The Tenchu series has always been my favourite games and l saw Tenchu Z gameplay a few weeks ago on YouTube and immediately fell in love with it!!! I immediately ordered the game online and had it delivered to my home! I got it a few days ago. The game is great and l love the graphics and stealth skills! The thing I also like most is the fact that l can design and edit what my Ninja looks like. Obviously, l always choose the traditional all black Ninja suit with only the eyes exposed!! Then l head off into the knight to rid the world of evil. I cannot wait for a new real Tenchu! I don't even care about Sekiro! I am a Tenchu fan till the day that l die!

Gabriel - 08:30pm, 29th February 2020

Tenchu Stealth Assassins is one of my all time favorite games. The soundtrack is simply amazing.  I never got around playing Fatal Shadows but now that I recently got a PS2 again I'm definitely going to play it. 

pucechan - 03:05am, 1st March 2020 Author

It definitely holds up the best of the mainline games. I had a lot of fun revisiting it!

elyai - 06:22am, 4th March 2020

I didn't know there were soo many tenchu games. I really loved played Tenchu Z though, so I might have to fight you on your rankings but thanks a lot for the article. Maybe I should check out Tenchu Fatal Shadows for starters.

pucechan - 11:11am, 4th March 2020 Author

All the mainline games are absolutely worth playing! I'm glad you enjoyed Tenchu Z though. I was kinda sad that it didn't gel for me at all honestly.

If you do check out Fatal Shadows I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Harbinger - 10:33am, 4th March 2020

OG Tenchu was hands down the best soundtrack on the psx, and I always loved the focus on stealth over combat (Grandmaster rank was attainable by killing no-one but remaining unseen)

pucechan - 11:13am, 4th March 2020 Author

The soundtracks for all the main Tenchu games are fantastic. Understated but really atmospheric. I have a soft spot for the original Tenchu too, I have a lot of memories connected to that game!

Michael Guerra
Michael Guerra - 10:28pm, 16th June 2020

I was a real ninja fanatic when I was a kid in the '80's as were I'm sure lots of people from my generation.. From what I recall the holy grail of games I had on C64 was in fact The Last Ninja.. I suppose you could say the spiritual successor to this was in fact the Tenchu series although incorporating more sim elements as ninjas are supposed to be more stealthy..

My favorite as far as gameplay was Shadow Assassin's on PSP which I thought was really done brilliantly.. Although some titles may not be necessarily new there are plenty of great ones on the market in the ninja genre or similar.. Ninja Gaiden Sigma, Nioh, and soon Ghost of Tsushima among others.. I also think it'd be great if we got another Tenchu reboot somewhere down the line preferably based on Sho Kosugi's films.. 

vocabularyisfun - 12:21am, 31st August 2020

you misuse the word "simplistic" repeatedly. it is not a mere synonym for "simple".

King_chaly - 07:53am, 4th September 2020

Fatal shadows is definitely the best one honestly and if they do end up making any remakes/remasters or new games they need to build off the formula of that game. Imagine Tenchu 2 with that gameplay. also Tenchu wrath of heaven needs to be higher honestly that game is a CLASSIC! 

Lx - 12:03pm, 28th December 2023

Aint no way he said tenchu z was an abomination