In the history of video games, ninjas are everywhere — from Bad Dudes to Shinobi to Ninja Gaiden to Final Fantasy. Ninjas are so popular in video games that it’s easy to get confused and think that they are simply fictional characters, created by game designers. You know, like Mario, Pac-Man and John Madden. However, ninjas were real and played an important role in the history of medieval Japan, although the real ones barely resemble the characters we are used to seeing in video games. With one exception…
Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven is the third game in the Tenchu series, and like its predecessors, it is a very realistic simulation of what a real ninja was like. Tenchu encourages the player to rely on stealth and sneaking to complete your objectives, instead of constant fighting seen in most other games about ninjas. This means that instead of walking up to the front door of a heavily guarded compound in broad daylight and whipping throwing stars at everyone, you instead wait until nightfall, then climb over the wall, and then sneak in through an open window.
The realism is evident right from the character select screen, as you are given the choice to play as one of three very realistic ninjas. The first, Rikimaru, is realistically dressed in traditional ninja garb, which covers up everything except for his most recognizable features: a scar around his eye, and his hair, which follows the ancient ninja style of looking like it was cut by a drunk amputee using a flowbee while having a seizure. The female ninja, Ayame, wears the traditional tight pants and tank top that all female ninjas wore in those days. In order to keep her identity a secret, she makes no attempt to cover her face, and constantly yells out her own name when confronted. Then she kills everyone who sees her.
There is also a third ninja, called “Guy I Haven’t Unlocked Yet”, who is not playable until you beat the game as both Rikimaru and Ayame. This is to recreate a special, little-known branch of the ninja, who would only go into action if two other ninjas had already done all the missions and defeated the enemy armies first. They weren’t very useful.
In order to assist you in completing your missions as stealthily and realistically as possible, there are many items to help you. The time-honored tools of the ancient ninja — such as grenades, mines, sticky bombs, exploding arrows and fireworks — will all help you sneak around by making a lot of noise and drawing attention to yourself. There are also whiskey flasks that you can drink from to recover your health, throwing stars (which are mandatory for all ninja games) which you can use to kill dogs or piss off enemies from a safe distance, and “strength potions”, which, even today are still used (no longer by ninjas, but by professional athletes). Let me tell you, you haven’t experienced true ninja-realism until you’ve gone into a mission armed the same way real ninjas were — with your grappling hook, ninja stars, whiskey, steroids and bottle rockets.
In addition to the characters and weapons, the designers also went to great lengths to make the missions as realistic as possible. Instead of the tired scenarios that we’ve seen in hundreds of other video games, every level in Tenchu is something that’s never been seen in a game before. For example, in one mission you have to rescue a kidnapped princess. In another mission, you have to cross a graveyard, but instead of having normal human guards, which wouldn’t make any sense at all, the graveyard is full of fire-breathing zombies, just like in ancient Japan. I can’t even tell you how many books I’ve read about ninjas that described all the times they had to sneak past zombies, often while laying landmines, shooting off fireworks, and drinking whiskey. At one point, you even have to infiltrate a large castle guarded by wooden combat robots, which were a staple of many feudal lord’s armies at the time. The historical realism in Tenchu is beyond anything you’ve seen in any other ninja game.
Of course, the best item in the game is the poison rice ball. Guards love to eat rice, and if they see a rice ball, they will go to it without question. The prospect of free rice causes them to forget any other concerns they may have, such as doing their job, the huge cliff they will walk off of in order to get to it, or why there is a big pile of dead guards all around the rice ball. Apparently in medieval Japan, rice grew in a ball shape on trees, and when it turned ripe it would fall from the tree, similar to an apple. So just like you wouldn’t find it unusual to see an apple laying on the ground, the guards in the game understandably find nothing strange about seeing balls of rice laying around outside and eat them. They also don’t see anything wrong with finding them in underground caves, on top of roofs, or inside castles.
You may be asking why the guards are so stupid about the rice balls. It’s because they are stupid about everything. I have to admit that I don’t know much about the profession of being a guard in Japan during this time period, but considering how realistic the rest of this game is, I think it’s safe to say that the guards in this game are also very true to their historical counterparts. If this is indeed true, then it’s safe to say that only really low-intelligence people were hired as guards. There could be a lot of reasons why. Considering that there are so many evil plots for you to stop, it’s entirely possible that all the people of average intelligence or higher were evil masterminds, leaving only the dumb people to be their guards. Or maybe the average guard’s diet just contained a lot of mercury.
Of course, all this realism would be wasted if the player didn’t play along and try to act like a real ninja. So in order to encourage you to sneak through levels, you can kill any guard in one strike if the guard doesn’t see you. You lose points for being seen, but gain points for every “stealth kill”, so getting a high score requires not being seen and killing from the shadows. If your score is high enough, you will get a new item that will help you be even sneakier, so it’s a reward you can put to good use.
However, if you are bad at sneaking, don’t worry. You can plow through enemy guards pretty effortlessly, or if you want, just run past them; they probably won’t be able to catch up. After a while they will stop chasing and instead mock your cowardice by saying things like “Yeah! Run away! Run away toward that thing I was supposed to be guarding…DAMMIT!” Of course, doing this will get you a low score, but that’s okay since getting a high score only rewards you with items that make it easier to sneak around, which you weren’t really doing anyway.
There’s no denying the realism of the Tenchu series, and Wrath of Heaven is a perfect example. Whether you’re sneaking up behind a zombie and cutting its throat, drinking whiskey to recover from a tough battle against wooden robots, or shooting off fireworks to distract Buddhist Monks while you sneak into their evil temple, you’ll marvel at the accuracy of all these activities. Nothing could be closer to the real thing.