This is a story about growing up in the 90’s so if some of these references seem out of date or obscure, don’t worry about it. It’s weird in context too.
Let’s begin our story by flashing back to the 90’s. Polka dot shirts were really big. So was F.R.I.E.N.D.S. There were cassette tapes (and later CDs) which said, “Now That’s What I Call Music”, full of songs I was too young to appreciate. Everyone high key shipped Kate and Leo after Titanic. Comic books were obsessed with becoming darker and edgier, all while sporting characters with “x-treme” names like Bloodsport, Dreadlox, the Maxx, Warblade, and last but not least, Adam X the X-Treme. (I swear I’m not making this up!)
It was the 90’s. It was a weird time.
Our story begins with a young me coming across a certain game CD in my cousin’s collection. It was not the first game I ever played (that would be Spyro the Dragon from the PSOne demo disc), but it was one that caught my eye.
“Tenchu: Stealth Assassins”, it read.
I didn’t know what a “Tenchu” was or what an “Assassin” was. Heck, I didn’t know what “Stealth” was. (To my shame, I pronounced it as STEEL-th.) But what I did know was that the cover had a ninja on it and ninjas were awesome!
So anyway, I decided to play this game with a cool cover and ended up lost in it for several years. More specifically, because I was just a kid and had a hard time following the game, I got lost in its FIRST LEVEL for a few years. Yes, YEARS.
Before we go on further, let me tell you a little bit about Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. I’m not sure a lot of people know much about it at this point.
Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (I’ll call it just Tenchu from now on) was an action-adventure game developed by Acquire and published by Sony Music Entertainment in Japan and by Activision in the UK and US. It is set in feudal Japan and has a strong focus on stealth ninja action.
It allows you to choose between male ninja Rikimaru and female ninja Ayame and take on ten missions. They are all the same 10 missions but I was honestly fine with that. I’m not out here claiming the game is a masterpiece, just that I played it and loved it at some point in my life.
Another noteworthy thing about Tenchu is that at some point, the IP changed ownership and is currently owned by none other than From Software. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has some elements that strongly evoke the Tenchu games. (The grappling hook being a big one.)
To me, Sekiro looks and plays like how kid me perceived Tenchu to look and play at the time.
In any case, the first mission of Tenchu is called “Punish the Evil Merchant”. The setup is that there is this greedy and corrupt merchant and he needs to be taken out. Probably because of his greed and corruption.
The young me knew none of this though. I knew what “evil” meant, but not what “merchant” meant. Make of that what you will.
The mission was set in his estate at night. So there were plenty of walls, roofs, hiding spots, and guards to deal with. There was also a boss encounter with a bodyguard type character, but we’ll get to that.
Looking at it now, the mission is not exactly what you’d call difficult. Most of the challenge came from the game’s controls, which were a bit rough by today’s standards. The boss doesn’t seem too challenging either.
When I was a kid, I had no idea what to do, where to go, who to kill, and what even a “merchant” was. So I was stuck on this one level for years. Literal years. (Like 2 years minimum.)
You’d think I would get frustrated or annoyed, but no. The game lit my imagination on fire and I would always look forward to a chance to visit that cousin again and give “the ninja game” another try. And because it was literally the first level, it was easy to access when I booted up the game.
When game critics and analysts talk about games, they often bring up the topic of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
In simplified terms, extrinsic motivation is the motivation the game gives you to play along. Rescue the princess, kill the evil overlord, save the world, go on a date with your pigeon boyfriend… you know how it is. Almost every game has it.
On the other hand, intrinsic motivation comes from you. It is your own internal drive to play a game or achieve a certain goal or carry out a task in a certain way. Why finish Metal Gear Solid 4 without killing anyone? Because it feels good. Why do risky but cool-looking parkour moves on the roofs in Assassin’s Creed when you can run on the streets instead? Because it feels good. Why take time to painstakingly mix and match armor sets to create the perfect Fashion Souls? Same reason.
Intrinsic motivation is something games need to evoke in us. Some games do it better than others.
Stardew Valley, interestingly enough, is a great example of this. I don’t upgrade my tools because I have to and the game would suck otherwise. I do it because I WANT to in order to further another goal, which I also set for myself.
When playing (the first level of) Tenchu, I had no idea what the game was telling me to do. So extrinsic motivation was basically zero. And yet, I played this game for more than a year. A year of making next to no progress. Why?
Intrinsic motivation all the way, baby!
Kid me totally bought into the ninja aesthetic. And this was before Naruto was a thing. So the only ninjas I knew were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Foot Clan from the same show, and this dumb movie series called Three Ninjas.
What is a small level by today’s standards felt like an immense ninja sandbox for me. I could run on roofs, use a grappling hook, feed poisoned rice to guards, throw caltrops on the ground to stop enemies from running after me, had shurikens, and was a master swordsman.
I felt like such a deadly killing machine, even when I died multiple times to the guards and the boss of the level. But I kept coming back over and over in an almost Souls-like way, ready for more punishment. I never made any real progress and I didn’t know how to save games so I was stuck in that one level.
This might sound un-fun repetitive torture but let me ask you this, dear reader: If Sisyphus (look it up) enjoys carrying his boulder up the hill daily, is he still suffering? Comment with your philosophical analysis below! (I’m half joking. But only half.)
Anyway, so there I was plodding through the first level of this game with enough intrinsic motivation to mobilize an entire college campus. I searched the estate building by building, hoping to find some way of making progress.
One day, I happened upon a window-like opening that led into a small room. It had wood panelling on the walls and floors as well. It also had a hole open in the middle for me to drop below.
In hindsight, this place is SUPER EASY to find. However, kid me had never seen it and treated it like a 90’s detective finding a secret during one of his cases.
I dropped down the hole and triggered a cutscene.
“C’mon, c’monnnn!” whines the titular evil merchant as he tries to grab (seduce?) a woman. The voice was weird then and grating now. That line in that voice used to haunt my dreams.
Kid me thought the guy was jiggling about in a weird and funny way but adult me knows that this pixelated creepo wsa gyrating his hips in an attempt to be seductive or something. He also seems to have no issue with getting rough with the lady, grabbing her arms and refusing to let her leave.
It is the entry of Rikimaru (or Ayame) that interrupts this potential crime. The woman manages to run off somewhere and the player character confronts the evil merchant. His name is Echigoya, but honestly, who cares? He plays into that fat greedy sleazy creepy merchant stereotype quite strongly. He also comes off as a bully and a massive coward.
When confronted, the merchant tucks tail and runs away. Kid me was immediately ready to follow him and strike him down when-
“It looks like you chose the wrong party to crash.” Croons a low male voice with an accent.
The blocky PSOne era cutscene introduces a rival swordsman. He is wearing an era-appropriate kimono(?). It’s also very aggressively pink, which is a bold aesthetic choice that I support.
The character is called Hanbe Sasaki, in case any of you lore hounds care about the deep cuts into the lore of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins for some unfathomable reason.
The Tenchu wiki says that he was a normal guy with no magical powers or abilities. The wiki also goes on to say that his weapon is a tachi (a type of Japanese traditional sword) and adds insult to injury by specifically stating, and I quote, “but his skill with the weapon was mediocre at best.”
Ouch with a capital OW! Damn, Tenchu wiki. I get that he’s the first boss and is probably the easiest but you didn’t have to annihilate him like that.
One cool fact about our boy Hanbe is that he is apparently a user of Iaijutsu, which is a sword technique which involves unsheathing your sword super fast and attacking people with that same slash. That and the fact that he has the confidence to rock a pink outfit are the only two interesting things about him, sadly.
To progress in the game, the player has to defeat this guy and find Echigoya who has run away at this point.
As an adult, I don’t have much trouble with the fight. But as a kid, this was ‘that one boss’ for me for years. If he was mediocre, I was probably worse. I died again and again to this guy, never managing to take him below half health. I guess I DID choose the wrong party to crash.
I faced against Hanbe for about a year and a half before by some luck (or budding skill, who knows), I was able to strike him down! Turns out that sheathing your sword in an ongoing sword fight is like a pretty bad idea…
Kid me felt like a champion! I was elated and excited! Finally, that unsurmountable wall of a man was dead! His dying animation shows him writhing on the ground and gushing out torrents of jam-like blood.
I would also like to mention that when characters bled in this game, the devs put in this horrible sound effect. I think it was meant to allude to blood hitting the floor and sound similar to raindrops or something. But unfortunately, it sounds like a mix between (please excuse the description) a series of wet farts and boiling oil.
With that image burned in your minds, let’s quickly wrap up the rest of this level. The player has to find Echigoya, who is hiding inside one of his many identical warehouses and staring longingly at boxes of his ill-gotten wealth or something.
Fighting him barely counts as a boss fight. He whines and cries while the player character gets to take him down in whatever way that they want. This fight was so easy that even kid me could defeat him in one go.
Defeating Echigoya the evil merchant resulted in the first level ending. I don’t remember what rank I got but it was likely really awful, but that’s fine. The fun I had along the way gets a Grand Master rank from me, and that’s what matters.
After this, kid me had his mind blown because he realized that there were OTHER LEVELS in this game! Nine more, in fact. I never got that far into the game and to this day, I still haven’t managed to finish it. Nowadays, it’s mostly because of how hard it is to get the game and the console.
I know that Tenchu wasn’t exactly a gaming masterpiece or anything but I am filled with pleasant nostalgic feelings when I look back on it.
It’s honestly kind of amazing to think that a single video game level played once every two weeks for about two hours at a time kept me fully engaged and invested for more than two years! There are large open world games I’ve played for less time and had less fun with. But somehow, this old ninja game grabbed my young heart and wouldn’t let go.
I treasure my time with Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, even if it was just 10% of the entire game. It was a really good 10% and it firmly etched itself into my memory.
Hanbe was wrong. It was the RIGHT party to crash. And crash it I did. Over and over again. For more than two years.