Bury the Shovelware: Tenchu Dark Secret

The fall from grace. Unless your heart is nothing more than a cold, shriveled lump, you probably don't like to witness a once-respectable series slowly degrade. It's happened to many franchises. Often the decay is gradual, with gamers slowly noticing a decline in quality and is correlated with slumping sales. Other times a single misstep can throw an entire series against the ropes and nearly into submission. Either way, it's never pleasant to witness failure. Well, almost never.

What was once a prominent pillar in the stealth world has been slowly regressing into mediocrity. The Tenchu series was one of the first and most successful entries in the emerging stealth-based genre of the late 1990's. Though games involving evasive maneuvering over combat had been around for awhile, they truly flourished in 3D. From the onset, Tenchu was there. Peered with and rivaled against other top-notch franchises such as Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell, the word "Tenchu" was synonymous with heart-thumping, adrenaline-pumping sneaky gameplay. But everything eventually dies. And the Tenchu series received a terminal illness in the form of Tenchu: Dark Secret. Unless somebody steps in and performs some sort of miracle, we might have to talk to Tenchu fans about video game heaven. It's where all game franchises go when they pass away. All of Tenchu's friends are there, like Golden Axe, ToeJam & Earl, and Ecco the Dolphin (Sega, please prove me wrong on these).

00:00:02 - Published by Nintendo! I had no idea. I shouldn't let that change my perception, but it's still worth noting.

00:00:07 - The title screen is somewhat nice. Looks suspiciously un-shovelware like. Perhaps the bad game will be in stealth.

00:00:34 - It's been ages since I played the original Tenchu: Stealth Assassin, so I decide to watch the intro movie.

Bandit: Aw damn it, I hit the princess!
Rikimaru: You'll die for that.

I love it. Similarly, I hate it.

00:01:57 - So the game begins and I'm given the task of taking out a few scrubs. The game isn't hideous thus far; just kind of lacking. It uses a bird's eye view of the action, which could have given it a Metal Gear kind of feel. Unfortunately, it's zoomed in too close and makes spotting enemies from afar very difficult. Moving at a speed any faster than moderate walking will make you likely to literally run into an enemy. Also, the game is d-pad controlled which eliminates any kind of movement pacing (as opposed to an analog stick which allows for subtle variations in movement). Analog movement isn't always necessary when stealth is important; Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid worked wonderfully with just a d-pad. But when the screen is zoomed in so close, it really becomes a problem.

00:02:41 - Another issue with the stealth: the 3-D buildings have enormous roofs. When Rikimaru presses against a building, the camera shifts to give him a better view of his surroundings, as in most stealth games. Yet the roofs tend to cut off most of the action and are capable of obscuring the entire view of the area surrounding the structure. In other words, pressing against the side of a building usually gives you a nice view of the roof under which you'll be discovered.

00:04:22 - Ha, more bad dialogue: "She lost consciousness. That'll happen when someone shoots you with an arrow." Death? Nope. Injury? Nope. Simply a loss of consciousness. Ridiculous ... oh, no worries, Ayame followed that statement up with a "Aw, I'm just kiddin'." Humor ... in stealth.


00:06:08 - After missions, the user is taken to a menu screen. One of the options is a "Kill Gallery," featuring little graphics related to the types of kills and the enemy it was used on. Cute. It'd be better if it was a snapshot of my actual gameplay, but I'm not complaining.

00:06:17 - For the second mission, I'm allowed to choose between Rikimaru and Ayame, the main difference being he attacks better from the front and she attacks better from behind. How intricately diverse. My mission, as stated? "Annihilate Kill [sic] all the enemies."

00:07:20 - So the second mission uses tall grass instead of buildings as cover, as it's actually a lot better than the buildings of the first. Still not perfect, but much better.

00:08:10 - Second mission > first mission. But second mission &#8800 fantastic.

00:11:33 - The third mission is ... very much like the first. There is some slight strategy: if I manage to find and kill the "leader," then the rest of the enemies will flee. But I'm given no indication as to who or where the leader is. I've just gotta kind of guess. Which is kind of like just killing everyone anyway.

00:14:19 - Wait, what? Like in the Metal Gear Solid series, you enter an "alert mode" once your character is spotted. The enemy then calls reinforcement. But the enemies seem to "reset" after you manage to elude being spotted and "alert mode" is over. The post-elude period is one of the best opportunities to kill an enemy in most stealth games. You draw an enemy out by getting their attention, take cover, and then when they're making their way back to their post, BAM! Death. Yet here, I caught myself sneaking up on an enemy, just to have them disappear as if Benny Hill had directed Enter the Dragon.

00:16:56 - Not the worst game I've ever played, but still a letdown for fans of the series.

For the record, I'm being overly dramatic for (not very) humorous purposes. Tenchu: Dark Secret isn't nearly as bad as the critics said it was, but it's inarguably a mere shadow of its PSX origins. It's always sad to see a franchise fade. Some might say that as the market changes, certain games just can't make the transition. To paraphrase Brian Wilson, they believe some games just weren't made for these times.

On the other hand, other series tend to stay fresh regardless of the generation or platform. As a certain blue friend of ours is getting ready to prove, gameplay trumps nearly everything. Assuming that time and effort were put into a title, not much else should matter. Perhaps this is a situation where the fault belongs more to the publisher than the developer. If a franchise is relatively successful, then perhaps it's a "ahh, they'll be all right" type of situation. Something like that would never happen to an A-list series. For example, Nintendo would never take a new Mario game for granted, much like the manager of a baseball team would still put the best closer in if they were only one inning away from winning the World Series with a 10 run lead. Similarly, if a franchise puts out a really terrible game, perhaps the publisher would address the issue and make sure that the next iteration was able to reinvigorate the series. But if a franchise is somewhere in-between, it can go under the radar and slip into a bad place. Publishers, let this be a warning: keep an eye on all of your franchises.

In gaming, the term shovelware refers to any game in which time and effort were eschewed in favor of turning a quick profit. Bury the Shovelware takes a closer look at these titles, typically those that inhabit the lower end of metascores. It attempts to: 1) find out where and how the developer went wrong 2) identify common traits present in most shovelware 3) measure how long the game can be suffered.