There is no time in my functional memory that does not include at least a passing knowledge of the existence of the ninja, so I can’t say for sure when I became aware of them. (Most likely it occurred during a way-too-young viewing of the 1980s Michael Dudikoff classic American Ninja series.) As with more or less every preadolescent with such inclinations, I became enamored with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the latter part of the decade, and as previously noted, one of my first games was Ninja Gaiden.
And so it goes. But unlike many of my peers, I never really grew out of my fascination with the ninja. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of the Japanophile douchebags. However, I do find the feudal era of Japanese history fascinating, and chief among the fascinating things about it, for me, are the ninja.
Rather than just going ahead with the working knowledge of ninjutsu that I and everyone else gleaned from those late ’80s incarnations, I actually did some studies and learned some facts. It was really weird, for example, when I found out that the Ninja Turtles were not, in fact, ninja at all. They acted much more like a group of samurai. The Foot Clan, on the other hand…
(Well, aside from the fact that they were robots.)
Ninja have been characters in video games since approximately forever. A cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals that the oldest game ninja is older than me, and I’m almost 30. While I cannot accurately say that their perception in games has evolved alongside my knowledge, there have definitely been some strides.
I have a lot of love for stealth games. I gather from the vitriol against the erstwhile genre on the internet that I am in the minority with this love, but as far as I am concerned, it is unconditional. When presented with the option, I will never alert anyone to my presence, even if going in guns blazing would be easier.
I played some of the first two games, originally released on the PlayStation, but the fact is that I have only spent a lot of time with the third Tenchu game, known in the USA as Wrath of Heaven. And despite never having even completed it, I love it.
The funny thing about it is that, well, it’s not very good. It is essentially a hybrid between a puzzle game and a Hitman game, only without the solid gameplay shown in the best examples of the former or the complexity of the latter. And heaven forbid that you end up in open combat; the non-stealth fighting in the game appears to exist only to remind you that YOU ARE A FUCKING NINJA AND YOU SHOULD KILL WITHOUT BEING SEEN.
The game came out during the year between moving out of my parents’ house and moving to New York City. I spent a lot of time in that apartment playing games, and Tenchu was one of the ones with which I spent the most.
Working through the fortresses and towns in the dead of night to unravel the rather baroque story got me through a lot of nights in what would turn out to be my last full year of college. I worked, and worked, and worked to get through the game, possibly harder than I did at school. In the end, I achieved the same success in each. Which is to say I reached a certain point where the cost-benefit ratio of continuing leaned heavily enough into the red that I stopped.
Still, much like college, I have a lot of fond feelings toward Tenchu, enough that I have considered dusting it off and bringing it back into a world where there are dozens of games that feature ninjas and/or stealth, and do it better than Tenchu ever dreamed.
I have my doubts about whether this will ever come to pass; Dishonored is about to come out and I never did play Ninja Gaiden II. (On the Xbox 360, I mean. I played it a lot of the NES.) I imagine that, for me, the Tenchu series will best be served to remain a fond memory rather than a ruined revival. At least until they release another entry in the series and I decide whether or not to give it a try.