It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years already, but way back in 1998 I discovered a video game that totally rocked my world. I’ve played a lot of games in my time, but this was one that pushed every one of my buttons so assuredly and repeatedly that even though I “beat” the game in just nine hours of play, I continued to play the game over and over and over again for the better part of 10 years. I loved it that much, and I still love it, despite the advances in video game technology in the intervening time.
What was this miraculous game? It was Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, a third-person stealth-action game featuring ninja where the focus was put squarely on sneaking through the maps to achieve mission goals, rather than just hacking and slashing through a horde of enemies. Tenchu even beat the critically acclaimed Metal Gear Solid to the market, which is why I get more than a little peeved when people claim that it was Metal Gear Solid and not Tenchu that inaugurated the stealth-action genre. Tenchu is more fun and has greater replay value, too, so there.
Anyway, Tenchu had numerous sequels and spin-offs, most of which are actually pretty horrible. We haven’t heard anything from the franchise in five years now and I expect that we never will. The era of Tenchu is truly over.
The thing that I loved about the game was that it made playing a ninja feel like being a ninja. There have been other video games that feature ninja as protagonists and these games have been, by and large, purely action affairs with nary a bit of stealth to be found anywhere. In Tenchu it was not only recommended that you spend minutes at a time scrutinizing enemy movements to determine the best possible moment to strike, but required. Getting into a straight-on confrontation with the bad guys was an invitation to quick and ugly death. Sneak up on someone, though, and assassination was as simple as a button press. Lovely.
Considering that the majority of Tenchu follow-ups couldn’t even get this formula right, it seemed like it would be impossible for any other developer to make a game that captured some bit of that feeling in a meaningful way. That’s why I found Mark of the Ninja to be such a pleasant and unexpected surprise.