Many people around the world watch the Ninja Warrior and Ultimate Beastmaster gameshows. Centred around a comically oversized and carefully padded obstacle course, the shows are an absolute triumph of non-lethal contraptions, with exaggerated commentary from various entertainment personalities as competitors negotiate awkward hurdles and tumble into water hazards. There are no shurikens but lots of shrieking. Any true ninja would be ashamed of the overeager procession of Spandex-clad, would-be shinobis and rightly dismiss the entire gaudy enterprise as frivolous shadowplay, a noisy, inelegant distraction from the important business of infiltration, sabotage and assassination.
In video game terms, both shows have more in common with Sonic the Hedgehog than Tenchu, the franchise that hews closest to our pop culture ideal of the austere shadow warrior. The once ascendant series is now essentially defunct, and while invisibility on current-gen consoles might seem appropriate for a stealth game, the fact that Tenchu has utterly vanished makes me so very sad. Ninjutsu scholars might argue over which installment represents the climax of the series, but there was a tangible sense of purpose and poetry to 2003’s Wrath of Heaven (essentially Tenchu 3, and the franchise’s first outing on PlayStation 2). It arguably deserves the prize for that awe-inducing subtitle alone: Wrath of Heaven sounds like it’s what your Azuma clan ninjas will be battling against, but it’s actually the ultimate unlock, a devastating technique awarded to those players dedicated enough to surpass Tenchu’s exacting shinobi standards.
Set in Edo-period Japan, Wrath of Heaven initially presents itself as a sweeping epic that threatens to dip into the melodramatic, thanks to a long, dreamy and at times logic-free opening cinematic soundtracked by a mash-up of rock, dance and classical tunes. But for all the overarching grandeur of Lord Godha’s campaign to defeat an evil warlord by claiming three enchanted jewels or somesuch, Wrath of Heaven boils down to a series of discrete infiltration and assassination missions for its two leads: the severe, white-haired Rikimaru (who resembles a katana-wielding Alistair Darling) and the poised, lethal Ayame (a small framed girl with two kodachi blades and more speed than brawn).
At first, your ninjas seem a little earthbound compared to their opponents. After gutting strolling ronin and oblivious archers, you’re soon fighting demon-horned footsoldiers, vengeful forest spirits and weird, exploding midgets. Slowly, your abilities also begin to bend toward the fantastical. While you begin each mission by arming yourself from a straw hut of basic equipment – spiked caltrops to dissuade pursuit, old-school throwing knives, a blowgun, poisoned rice cakes to lure and immobilize sentries – as you progress through the story, your powers become more interesting. There’s a reincarnation talisman, various enchanted blades, and supernatural skills such as turning invisible or freezing enemies with mind control. There are no choke points that require you to use these uncanny abilities – you can also play through the entire game with just your steel and a grappling hook.
Wrath of Heaven opens up like an exquisite flower, rewarding the effort you put into it. And it does take an effort. While dangling the fantasy of being a silent, deadly infiltrator scything through a sandbox, it also limits early enjoyment with unintuitive controls and an annoying camera. But no-one said being a shinobi was easy. Stick with it, and instead of cowering fearfully round a corner waiting endlessly for the right moment to strike, you’ll soon be jogging up behind guards and eviscerating them in the open, before grappling back to a rooftop to avoid being spotted.
While the one-strike kills balance brutality and elegance and still feel fresh 12 years in, the open combat feels far less evolved. You could view it as a deliberate attempt to nudge players toward achieving the highest stealth rating – if nothing else, it speeds things up enormously if you avoid getting tangled up in brawls. The additional rigours of frustrating boss fights and the lack of checkpoints, forcing you to restart each level from scratch when you die could charitably be seen to chime with the implied severity of the ninja code.
Even today, most games run out of steam as they approach their apex. But one of the most striking things about Wrath of Heaven viewed from 2017 is simply how much is packed into it. Notably, there’s a third playable character unlocked after beating Rikimaru and Ayame’s separate campaigns. These days, Tesshu would be considered a generous post-release DLC, or would simply be carved off as a retailer-specific pre-order bonus. His shorter campaign injects something new into Wrath of Heaven just at the point where the player is mastering its layered knottiness. A doctor by day, hired assassin by night, Tesshu barrels through missions with his bare fists, relying on his superior medical knowledge to slay his foes.
And slay them he does: Tesshu’s stealth kills are almost educational, in that at the crucial moment, the camera cuts to an X-ray view so you can see exactly how this amoral expert works, be it jamming a surgical needle into the base of a skull, or violently offsetting a very specific vertebra. Motivated purely by money, Tesshu’s assassin rating for each level is calculated by the gold he loots from his victims. It also means he has to purchase his mission loadout of equipment, a minor rearrangement of Wrath of Heaven’s framing mechanics that makes for a surprisingly satisfying expansion of the core experience.
Beat Tesshu’s campaign and there’s yet another bonus: a standalone mission that scoops Rikimaru up into a portal and deposits him outside a modern-day office block patrolled by handgun-wielding security guards with the simple instruction “kill the CEO”. Transplanting a Tenchu ninja into an urban setting suggests a way the series could have evolved, but after Wrath of Heaven, the franchise stayed, literally, stuck in the past. A series of okay-ish ports and semi-sequels followed. Some had a whiff of a good idea – in 2006’s Tenchu Z, enemies could literally smell you coming if you were unfortunate enough to plunge, Ninja Warrior-style, into a cesspool water hazard – but the most recent Shadow Assassins, for Wii and PSP, came out back in 2009. The shine has completely left the Tenchu marque, and it’s truly a shame.