You can’t use the words “katana,” “stealth,” and “intrigue” in one sentence without talking about the legendary ninjas. Okay, maybe you can. The point is, from the shadow world of feudal Japan to the glimmering lights of mainstream Hollywood, ninjas have come a long way and have deeply infiltrated the world of video games as well. I’d like to think that somwhere in between the secrecy of their actual era – when they weren’t even called ninjas yet – and the infamy they enjoy today, one of my favorite games of all time had a hand in transforming them into gaming icons. I’m talking about Tenchu III: Wrath of Heaven.
Wrath of Heaven was the first game I played on the Playstation 2. During the formative years of the second iteration of Sony’s money-magnet, I was still rocking to Playstation titles like Metal Slug, Crash Bandicoot, and 3Extreme. Of course, I also experienced Tenchu 2 on the PS, which only helped whet my appetite for what was then a very high-end graphical upgrade to the familiar ninja stealth action-adventure. Tenchu III: Wrath of Heaven was a treat – a full length campaign that can be replayed using three layouts per map and with different master ratings was vastly improved by a chaotic, often nonsensical multiplayer mode where you can play as minor characters, major bosses, and even dogs standing on their hind legs immitating the main characters Rikimaru and Ayame.
Echigoya: Punish the Evil Merchant!
Among the many things that Tenchu III impressed upon my then still-innocent mind was its very first mission – it was the exact same mission on Tenchu 2. The map was Echigoya, and your mission was to “Punish the Evil Merchant.” This sets the tone for the rest of the game: your ninja characters are led by an honorable leader and your task is to be the shadowy allies of his justice. Of course, the first mission leads to deeper intrigue – but yeah, which ninja’s first mission doesn’t?
Aside from the pretty decent stealth gameplay and the entire “stalk unseen” aspect, the third-person fighting was also intuitive enough to master easily, especially if you bother to know your basics. A good number of combination moves can be gleaned from the PS2 controller’s layout, with even stealth keys having lethal applications in open combat. Better yet, in Tenchu III: Wrath of Heaven, your ninjas take on varying degrees of supernatural skills, the ultimate of which is the namesake of the game, the one-hit Wrath of Heaven move. Sure, it can roll down your health to just one hit point, but an easy to remember secret cheat code entered through the pause screen can fix that quickly. If you follow the honorable ninja code, however, you can just take health items or allow yourself to be killed if you have your rare replacement technique handy – an early version of Naruto’s kawarimi no jutsu.
The boss fights were quite something too. With each “unlockable” boss, you add them to your mutliplayer screen. Now THAT aspect of the game was hilariously replayable.
Ninjas, Demons, Bosses, and Dogs
You can play as ninjas, minor enemey characters and even slighlty badass ones like the red and blue hanya demons, and even as the overpowered bosses of the game. You can even make like Snoppy and play as dogs. Of course, Snoopy isn’t half as badass – or weird – as the ninja dogs in Wrath of Heaven.
Multiplayer maps range from empty levels to small towns with samurai patrols that add to the multiplayer mayhem. Ranged and close-quarter weapons aid you in your fight, along with your character’s weapons of choice. Mix in special moves like the Wrath of Heaven (even the bosses have their specials), and it’s a hell of a ninja-demon-boss-dog party.
There are also special missions that two players can help each other out with – and boy when ninjas combine their already awesome assassination sequences, it can be a beautiful thing.
The Ninja Culture
During those years, I wasn’t that much into the cloak and dagger genre yet, but Tenchu III definitely had a hand in bringing me into the fold. The game itself didn’t have many original facets to offer though, and, in retrospect, was nowhere near the masterpiece that Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid was – but it was a truly engaging game with a lot of promise.
It mixed and matched Japanese folklore, western influences, the predatory feel of the stealth genre with the mayhem of open combat, and rolled it into an admittedly imperfect but still enjoyably coherent whole.
In retrospect, even with cheesy facets and a ridiculously unrealistic take on shinobi folklore, Tenchu III: Wrath of Heaven set me up for a lifelong affair with stealth genre games. In fact, it helped solidify – if not finalize – the ninja-stealth genre not only in video games, but in most other mainstream media.
Now every time I hear the name of the place Echigoya I draw my katana and shuriken, ready to become one with the shadows. Anybody seen an evil merchant galivanting about?