Tenchu 2: Birth of a Late Gamer
How could I not want to play a game called Tenchu: Stealth Assassins? I had no idea what the word Tenchu could possibly mean, but it sounded Japanese, and being a Dragon Ball Z super-fan, anything Japanese was cool.
Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was in fact quite cool. You control a ninja, grappling from rooftop to rooftop while slaying enemies by the dozen. An arsenal of shuriken, smoke bombs, grenades, and various other tools turn you into a silent, killing machine.
I have fond memories of this game, from searching for Echigoya in the first level, to the ending FMV. Always chasing after my nostalgic youth, I booted up Tenchu.
I often forget the challenges of returning to the original PlayStation era of gaming. Nothing about the controls felt intuitive. Stiff movements required full-stops to sluggishly change direction. The fixed camera could be moved by holding L1, but at the sacrifice of mobility. It’s not an easy thing to slip back into after being pampered with dual analogs for so long.
The tutorial level alone put me through the ringer. I struggled to get a handle on the controls and was neither stealth nor assassin. I messaged Low_Score about my struggle (poor word choice). I joked about how I somehow beat the game as a kid, but as an adult, I could barely get through the tutorial. That’s when Low_Score shook my world.
“We never beat it. We used codes to skip to the end.”
That explained why my most vivid memories were of stage one and the ending. Now I had to play through Tenchu: Stealth Assassins to rectify my cheating past. I’m glad I did.
I got used to the controls (so much so that I forgot I could control the camera when I went back to a modern game). Once I could traverse the environments, the game became much more enjoyable. I’d sneak up on enemies, make daring escapes, and reluctantly kill dogs (no problem beheading people, but throwing a shuriken at a dog? Suddenly I have a moral compass).
Let me be clear, Tenchu was not an easy game. Every level involved trial and error with punishing deaths. Thankfully, weak AI and short draw distances made it easy to escape, assuming the controls cooperated.
I’m still not totally sure what the plot was, nor can I recall the motivation of the main bad guy, but I wasn’t expecting the Last of Us-level storytelling. The lack of a cohesive plot didn’t detract from the fun (and frustration) I had playing Tenchu.
It wasn’t long before I started looking into Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins. My memories of this one were less fallible. I recalled my anticipation leading up to its release, but for some reason or another, I never played it.
More past transgressions in need of rectifying.
Tenchu 2 is a prequel to Tenchu. The story features Rikimaru and Ayame, the two playable characters in Tenchu, as teens learning the ropes of the Azuma Ninja Clan. As with the first game, Tenchu 2 gives players the choice between these characters (and an unlockable third character, Tatsumaru). However, this time around, the different characters follow different stories that all build toward one narrative.
Naturally, I started with Rikimaru. He was my character of choice in the original Tenchu due to his wicked cool character design. The dude bleeds “ninja” (in more ways than one). His design is about the same in Tenchu 2, sans the scar.
The first mission subverted my expectations in a big way. A game that revolves around ninjas being one with the shadows and darkness opens with the character outside on a sunny day. There are lush green trees, rocky formations, and small streams of water. Not a shadow in sight.
The environments would surprise me time and time again throughout Tenchu 2. In the first game, there was little variety in environments. Sure, there were small towns, wooded areas, mountain sides, and a variety of building interiors, but none of them stood out, nor were any of them crucial to the mission. They all had the same dark lighting and muted color schemes.
In Tenchu 2, the environment is key to the mission. Missions feature caves, forests, islands, towns, boats, mountains, and huge buildings; all larger in size and scope. Each one feels special and gives that mission a memorable experience. Unique areas are full of color with the most dynamic lighting one could expect in a PlayStation game.
Weather adds another layer to the environments that is not present in the first game. Pouring rain during an intense battle adds a cinematic quality. Thick fog rolling through an island builds tension. Small touches like these build atmosphere and help immerse players into the world.
To make matters more interesting, Tenchu 2 includes a number of ways to interact with the environment. Traps are scattered throughout the levels to keep players on their feet (usually by knocking you off them). Mines, arrows, or boulders triggered by movement can take chunks of health, or worse, blow your cover.
Traps aren’t the only things to keep a lookout for. Animals make a return to Tenchu 2. Like the first game, animals may alarm enemies, attack you, or some combination of the two. I expected to encounter hissing cats and barking dogs, but I just about jumped out of skin when I turned around underwater and saw a shark swimming right at me.
Another addition is the semi (and I do mean semi) destructible environments. There are select bamboo trees that can be cut down (it looks real cool killing an enemy and having a tree fall in the background). The occasional breakable wall reveals untraveled paths, and finally, boxes, baskets, and vases are satisfyingly smashable and sometimes hold items.
But pretty environments aren’t worth much if traversing them is a chore. The controls were mostly the same as the original, barring a few additions. For one, weapons can be sheathed, allowing for quicker movement and a wider field of vision. Tenchu 2 includes a block button, which can also be used to quick step and jump greater distances.
The grappling hook remains a prominent means of transportation, however, this time around it loses a bit of its original utility. In Tenchu, I could grapple just about anywhere. I could grapple to a wall opposite of me and land behind a foe, striking them down. In Tenchu 2, the grappling hook is limited to ledges. While this made grappling to higher areas more manageable, I missed the freedom.
Overall, it’s a fun game. There is a lot of trial and error, and plenty of pulling your hair out (figuratively in my case), but it is satisfying to stalk an enemy and execute a stealth kill. I would study the enemy, learn their route, then drop down and decapitate them with gobs and gobs of blood spurting everywhere.
The boss fights were a test of attrition. One misstep could spiral into a death. Time and again, I’d step forward to attack, only to find I was not fully facing the foe, causing me to push past them and leave my back wide open for a devastating retaliation. I cherished the levels without boss battles.
Let’s get to the meat of the changes, and the reason I think Tenchu 2 is the superior game of the two: the story. Tenchu 2 tells a story that is not only clear (I’m looking at you, Tenchu), but also emotional.
I could not believe the number of cutscenes in this game. With the first game fresh in my mind, I figured I’d get a quick narration and the occasional boss-monologue.
Each character has a unique personality that shines through their story. The loyal Rikimaru strives for justice, the brash Ayame seeks revenge, and the skilled Tatsumaru, well, no spoilers. Each narrative shows a different viewpoint of the overarching story.
The story didn’t blow my balls off, but it kept me engaged throughout. I loved how grounded it was when compared to the supernatural elements of its predecessor (although there are some nods to the supernatural). There were no demons or different dimensions, there was just a woman named Kagami (with the world’s safest breasts) bent on toppling both sides of an endless war.
I cannot talk about Tenchu 2 without mentioning the Mission Editor. Players can design their own mission with choices including location and objective, as well as added difficulties such as a time limit or stealth requirements. Once these parameters are set, a grid opens in which buildings, landmarks, paths, or people can be placed.
The Mission Editor adds countless hours of gameplay. This is especially true if you and several friends build missions and compete to see who does it best. I can only imagine how well something like this would do given online capabilities. Maybe one day.
You might be asking yourself, “why is this guy rambling about this old game?” Really, you should be asking me. You know what, don’t bother. I’ll just tell you.
The Tenchu franchise has a dedicated fanbase, but rarely do I hear the masses clamoring for it. The few times I do hear people talk about it, it’s almost exclusively about Tenchu: Stealth Assassins.
I get it, the first game did a lot of cool things for stealth games. Tenchu: Stealth Assassins earned its place in the annals of gaming. I hope people continue to talk about it until the end of time.
But what I really want is to hear people talk about Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins. As a lifelong fan of the series, this is the only installment I didn’t dabble in. The fact is, I forgot it existed. Perhaps this is because they stopped numbering the games after two, allowing me to focus on new installments without concerning myself over chronology.
I get the sense that I’m not the only one who missed this game. It came out in the year 2000, near the end of the PS1’s lifecycle, thus being overshadowed by other late releases such as Final Fantasy IX and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, as well as the release of the groundbreaking PlayStation 2. A somewhat obscure ninja game was easy to overlook.
Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins is overlooked no more! I will grapple up and shout about it from the rooftops! I will corner people at parties!
But seriously, if you’re a fan of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, or ever had interest in playing it, I implore you to check out the sequel. Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins improved upon the original in almost every way. Sharper graphics, unique environments, and a story that is both engaging and realistic, Tenchu 2 delivers on all fronts as a follow up. This is the point where I make some sort of ninja-related pun for a strong close, but I’m not going to that.
Want to do the leg work for me? Leave your best ninja pun in the comments! Or, better yet, talk about your experiences with Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins.