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It’s been many years since Activision and developer Acquire cheekily tweaked the nipples of controversy with ninja stealth game Tenchu, thus kicking off an enduring franchise.  Playing one of two characters from the Azuma ninja clan, Tenchu - literally meaning Heavenly (ten) execution (chu) - saw the player taking on the role of an assassin whose task was to eliminate various nefarious wrongdoers.  The game was very similar in style to the then-recent Metal Gear Solid revamp on the Playstation: it clearly rewarded the sneaky and cunning amongst us whilst penalising those who went rushing in, sword held aloft and breaching several health and safety regulations.  Given an “18” certificate by the BBFC, Graeme Mason discovers whether this classification was deserved, and why Feudal Japan was such bloody good fun…

Five key elements to Tenchu


Rikimaru is an agile fellow - as you might expect for a ninja.  He sports a nifty power jump, some quick-footed shifting and a narrow rectangular sword (or ninjaken) that offers three different “kill” moves - these vary according to how he is facing his victim at the moment of attack.  The silver-haired Rikimaru is the stronger of the two ninjas.


Sylph-like and graceful, don’t let this fool you into not taking Ayame seriously.  Packing three different kill moves to Rikimaru thanks to her twin short swords (or wakizashi), Ayame moves quicker, although the trade-off is her inability to finish a conversation.  She and Rikimaru both have a grappling hook for those occasions when the roof becomes very appealing.

The Ki Meter

Know it well grasshopper, for it will be your loyal friend.  This useful device tells the ninja how close his enemies are and whether he has been spotted or not – the higher the number, the closer the enemy.  It also has a colour-coded alert indicator: blue means you are undetected and can go about your deadly business freely;  yellow means you’d better hide quickly whilst red means you’ve been spotted: run away or prepare to fight!


Extra equipment can be bought at the start of each mission.  Packets of poisoned rice help to quietly eliminate the guard dogs that attack the ninja and give away his position;  health potions restore lost energy and small bombs are useful for despatching enemies should you be discovered.  Razor-sharp caltrops can be dropped behind the ninja to discourage pursuers and there are several useful unlockable items as well such as armour and an attention-deflecting instrument that imitates local wildlife.

Evil Lurks…

Rikimaru and Ayame will come up against an eclectic range of enemies.  There are plenty of enemy soldiers (swordsmen and bowmen), towering giants, small fire-breathing demons and brainwashed occultists to contend with, whilst the main assassination targets include a corrupt government minister, an iniquitous businessman and a pirate captain.

The Plot

Starting off with some routine kill-the-main-bad-guy levels, Tenchu slowly develops into an intriguing story involving the ninjas’ boss, Lord Gohda, and his rival Lord Mei-oh.  A bitter power struggle ensues between the feudal lords which takes in several later levels, but don’t panic:  there’s still plenty of assassinating to be done in the meantime, although ultimately Rikimaru and Ayame must rescue the kidnapped Princess (aka Lord Gohda’s daughter, Kiku).  As well as all the trappings you would expect from a game set in 16th Century Japan, Tenchu also incorporates various mythological elements, giving it a classy and compelling supernatural sheen.

Why is it a Classic?

Stealth gaming was just taking a grip in the late nineties, but Tenchu was one of the few games that totally embraced it: a “Grand Master” score was only possible if the player completed a level without being spotted once.  It’s ten levels are subtly varied, from the assassination missions to the invasion of Rikimaru and Ayame’s own castle and the fortified home of chief bad guy, Lord Mei-oh.  The floating camera can be controlled by the player which is especially useful for looking around corners and thanks to the understated music, the game has an impressive atmosphere and authentic feel to it.  It may appear difficult to get to grips with initially, but Tenchu rewards perseverance…and patience.

The Moves

Leaving aside the “kill” moves that we’ve already mentioned, the two Azuma clan ninjas are as highly manoeuvrable as their status would suggest.  Both can nimbly leap in any direction, and this can be accentuated into a power jump, with the ninja performing an impressive barrel-roll in mid-flight.  Pressing a movement button twice in quick succession performs a quick skip in the relevant direction;  when crouching down, the ninja can spin around on the spot and also roll in any direction.  These, plus many other moves, coupled with the ninja’s ability to hug walls and hang off roofs all help in his or her main objective: to remain undetected!  Naturally, should the ninja have to resort to combat, there’s a range of vicious sword attacks at Rikimaru and Ayame’s disposal too.

Best Tip

At the start of the game, Rikimaru and Ayame can choose from a limited selection of equipment to help them.  As you progress through the missions, unlockable items will become available.  The most practical of these are the armour (for obvious reasons) and an extremely helpful horn that imitates a random member of the local wildlife, thus dissuading any suspicious guards.  Other than this, the best advice we can give is to have patience:  never has the old adage “fools rush in” rung truer than in Tenchu.  Take time to watch the guards, their movement pattern and check out if they have any colleagues in the vicinity before springing out from the shadows.

Bloody Hell!

Yep, there’s blood - a veritable slaughterhouse full of it in Tenchu, the main reason it sports that small red round circle with the number eighteen on the cover; and with each characters’ different kill, powerful gushes of crimson are a prime feature.  Rikimaru has a simple throat-cutting attack and a rather more complex move that involves a couple of broken bones for the victim before the terminal sword through the chest.  Ouch.  Despite her relative lack of stature, Ayame’s death-dealing is no less bloody thanks to her lethal twin swords.  Of course, on occasions, a face-to-face battle is inevitable and these skirmishes are no less graphic: we just feel sorry for whoever had to clean all the mess up.

Best Level

It’s hard to choose with so many superb ones to select from. Candidates include  “Destroy the Foreign Pirate” where Rikimaru/Ayame must clear a local port of invaders before taking on the captain himself aboard his vessel; the evocative snow-bound mission to execute a corrupt local minister and a mountain-top errand to retrieve a precious flower where the ninjas take on a resident tribe of mythical giants.  But we’re going to plump for “Reclaim the Castle”, a complex level that takes in several outbuildings as well as the square keep, atop which awaits arch-henchman Onikage.  Moving up vertically through the building challenges every aspect of the ninja’s abilities as enemies skulk above, below and to the side. 

What the press said…ages ago

Playstation Pro

“Tenchu is an excellent fighting game where guile and stealth are more important than brute force.”

Official Playstation Magazine

“Tenchu is more disturbing than the Marquis de Sade’s photo album.”

What we think

Whilst its gore level and violence is undoubtedly not everyone’s cup of ginseng, Tenchu exudes class and playability.  The graphics are functional rather than amazing, yet the gameplay, smooth motion-captured moves and a subtle soundtrack gave it the edge over its peers.  The camera can be a pain at times, but it’s easily manipulated once you get the hang of it and the varied levels (with three different layouts of enemy for each one) ensure long-term play as well.  And with the series still going strong on the current generation of consoles, it appears the gaming public are as eager as ever for more ninja adventures in 16th Century Japan.


Platform: Sony Playstation

Publisher: Activision

Developer: Acquire

Released: 1998

Genre: Stealth ‘em up

Expect to pay: £1+