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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.