Takuma Endo interview – Tenchu, Kamiwaza & Ghost Of Tsushima’s legacy

Kamiwaza: Way Of The Thief screenshot

Kamiwaza: Way Of The Thief – it’s like Tenchu but you don’t play a ninja (pic: Acquire)

GameCentral talks to the creator of Tenchu about the remaster of long lost PS2 game Kamiwaza: Way Of The Thief and the future of ninja games.

There aren’t many people that can claim to have invented a whole genre, but while it had many antecedents, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was the first proper 3D stealth game – released in February 1998, seven months before Metal Gear Solid. 2D stealth games had certainly existed before then, and there’d been innumerable games with ninja protagonists, but Tenchu was the first time the concept was realised in 3D, helping to create the late 90s and early 2000s fad for all things stealth.

Fashions come and go but it’s easy to see echoes of Tenchu in everything from Assassin’s Creed to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. There have been many Tenchu sequels since, but original director Takuma Endo, and developer Acquire, only worked on the first two (and the oft-forgotten Shadow Assassins for PSP and Wii). He also went on to produce spiritual successor Shinobido, and its sequel, but there is another evolutionary link in the series that most Western gamers will be unaware of.

Kamiwaza: Way Of The Thief was originally released for PlayStation 2 in 2006, right at the end of the console’s lifetime and only a few months before the launch of the PlayStation 3. It has much in common with Tenchu and Shinobido, in terms of gameplay, but instead of a ninja it features a noble thief who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Unlike the Tenchu franchise, Acquire still owns the rights to Kamiwaza and so they’re now planning to remaster the game for modern consoles.

Although we haven’t played Kamiwaza ourselves yet we were able to talk to Endo about the game, his previous work with historical stealth games, and the surprising impact of the Western made Ghost Of Tsushima.

It’s an interesting discussion about the birth of a genre and how making a similar game today would be a much more difficult proposition. Or at least it would be for a Japanese developer compared to a Western one…

GC: My understanding is that the original Tenchu came about from you winning a game design contest? Is that actually true?

TE: Your information is half correct! [laughs] There was a games contest, and I did win. However, it was for a different game, not Tenchu. However, through that experience it did allow me the opportunity to make a game and the game that came out of that was, of course, Tenchu.

GC: What was the game that you actually won for?

TE: It was just a different action game. I was 26. After graduating from university, after about six months, I worked in IT. And the purpose of that was to save money, which I then put into forming a company, in order to make games.

GC: So were you a programmer at that point? What did you do at university?

TE: I didn’t study programming directly, that was all self-studied, however in university I did do IT things. But mainly things like IC chips and things like that. So it was much more of a hardware focus than the programming side of things. I remember that for the final project within university they had a specific thing that would probably equate to something like a graduation thesis, and you had to do some kind of project and what I did was I made a game.

GC: What was your earlier experience with video games? What early titles inspired you? I’m guessing you would’ve been playing on PCs at that time in Japan?

TE: In college I studied while making games and playing games. [laughs] When I was working on games in university, I made a multiplayer game with up to eight people. I absolutely played a ton of games. Basically, I would wake up and spend some time playing some action games and then I’d program my own games and then I’d play some role-playing games, and then I’d go back to programming and – as you expected – at that time I was playing games on PC.

GC: What were your initial plans for the game, did they change much over the course of development?

TE: Originally, actually, it was supposed to be a ninja game set in modern times. That was what I had originally received the go ahead from Sony Music [the Japanese publisher of the first Tenchu – GC] was for that style of game. However, when it actually came time to work on the game I found it difficult to convey to the staff what specifically I wanted to do, what kind of game I wanted to make.

And so I realised that if we moved the setting from something that was modern to Middle Ages Japan I was able to convey the concepts that I wanted much more clearly and that the people that were working on it were able to understand better and then able to create the game that I had envisioned. That went much more smoothly than at the initial stages.

GC: There’s a number of interesting things about Tenchu but the most obvious are that it was one of the first ever dedicated stealth games and also one of the first serious ninja sims. But which came first? Was the ninja theme part of the original design or did that come later?

TE: Yes! That was something that we absolutely strove to do when we first made Tenchu. It was the idea that using this as a subject… ninjas aren’t supermen, they’re not omnipotent and capable of anything and everything. They have human limitations and so the question was how would those limitations translate into gameplay and into the abilities of the character you are playing as?

So in thinking about things like that we absolutely wanted to make something that showed someone, although obviously at the peak of physical ability and highly capable, that is still human and fallible, and able to lose and to die. That absolutely was a stated goal of making Tenchu.

GC: It’s a common complaint of mine that video games are very bad at basic wish fulfilment. Despite Japan’s enormous influence on gaming there are very few ninja or samurai games of note. Pirate and cowboy games have only very recently been any different and somehow the industry has gone 50 years without a decent robot action game. One where being a robot is intrinsic to the gameplay and not just window dressing. Was that your intention with Tenchu, to create a game where being a ninja wasn’t just a superficial detail?

TE: Using ninjas specifically… I think it’s a yes, to what you’re saying. While at the time there were many games that used ninjas as a theme, the idea of actually using the most characteristic trait of a ninja, which would be stealth, was not really present in any of those games. So, again, that goes back to, well then, why did we make this game? Well, so we could represent that within a game. So, yes, to answer your question simply.

GC: And I suppose you have no plans to make a robot game?

TE: [laughs] No plans at the moment, I don’t really think the robot theme necessarily matches what Acquire is going for. We prefer to deal with more human subjects.

GC: Yeah, that’s what they always say…

All: [laughs]

GC: I’m curious as to how much the idea of a stealth game was already an established concept when you were making Tenchu. Certainly in the West, the original Metal Gear games were not well known, but did you feel you were working with a completely blank canvas?

TE: Particularly in regards to 3D stuff, no. There wasn’t really anything else on the market that was like that. When it comes to other 3D games they were kind of very linear, in how they used space and things like that, and so there really wasn’t anything that used any kind of movement or stealth like that.

GC: So you created a genre, which few get a chance to do.

TE: [laughs]

GC: How pleased were you with the final product? Was there anything in specific that you were hoping to get in the game but couldn’t?

TE: Due to budgetary concerns I would say the ideas that I had for the game from the beginning, maybe about 30% made it in. And the rest kind of hit the cutting room floor.

GC: Almost 25 years later and Tenchu’s success almost feels like a double-edged sword. It is still probably the first title most people think of when it comes to ninja sims, which says a lot for its quality, but it also underlines that the sequels and the Shinobido games, not to mention titles from other developers, didn’t really have the same mainstream impact. Why do you think that is?

TE: To a degree, I would agree with you. The difference between Tenchu 1 and 2 is that with 2 we wanted things to be a little more ninja-esque, if you will. So maybe increasing the speed of movement, making the movement a little bit more natural, and also giving the player a wider sandbox to play around in.

However, by doing so that had the unfortunate effect of causing the balance to get off kilter, therefore the balance perhaps wasn’t as good as it was in the first game. And so the first game ends up maybe playing a little bit better, as a game, because of that.

Moving on, as you say, to the Shinobido series, obviously Tenchu was something that we looked at, to reference when making the game and the goal, of course, was always to surpass those games. The issue there was that I thought there was a tendency we had to maybe make the game have more of an entertainment aspect to it, particularly from the perspective of story and characters. That said, if you were to ask me what I think the best game in the series is, it would be Shinobido.

GC: Was adding those story elements, and moving away from the simulation concept something that was asked for by the publisher?

TE: Not necessarily, at that time we worked on the Shinobido games with a company called Spike Chunsoft, which you might be aware is now part of Dwango/Kadokawa Group. Basically, their idea was to make something that could be played repeatedly and had a lot of replayability to it. And so they worked on that and then after that they also made something called… are you familiar with Way Of The Samurai?

GC: I am, yes.

TE: So, Way Of The Samurai was also something that was set in that medieval Japanese period, but that game would be something that allowed for multiple branching paths and, depending on the actions that you take, you end up seeing something different within the game. And so that was something that was referenced within Shinobido as well, and they all kind of came together to create these games that had multiple aspects to them.

Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief concept art

Kamiwaza: Way Of The Thief concept art from back in the day (pic: Acquire)

GC: So Kamiwaza came after that? What was the original concept for the game? What kind of audience was it pitched at? It seems to have a noticeably different tone, so was the new protagonist an acknowledgement that a straight ninja game wouldn’t work anymore?

TE: Yeah, part of the reason for making the game was, we’d done ninjas, we’d done samurai, and this was one of the more unexplored elements of Japanese history, which was this kind of noble thief character. Which is something that does come up in folklore and things like that.

GC: So a Robin Hood type character?

TE: Yeah, exactly. Robin Hood would probably be a really good analogue for the thief archetype we have in Japan.

GC: It’s fascinating how these tropes exist in all cultures. So I’ve seen the trailers and watched some walkthroughs of the game and it seems like stealth is a smaller part of the game than in Tenchu. Was that a reaction to the fact that stealth was falling out of fashion at the time?

TE: Yes, perhaps the focus wasn’t as pinpoint on stealth as it was in previous games. That said you can absolutely play the game from a stealthy perspective. You can also play the game more open if you like, and there’s times when you’ll be discovered and it kind of turns into this panicking situation, where you as the player are trying to escape and run away. So it really allows for a lot more from gameplay, but the stealth element is still there and it’s still a fun, viable way to make it through the game.

GC: Was there ever any plan for a Western release when it originally came out?

TE: At the time, there was no plan to release the game outside of Japan. The idea of the remaster comes from the fact that this was a game that was very near and dear to us. And it was a game that… obviously it’s not Tenchu, because we can’t work on Tenchu again, but as a game that we ourselves published in the past this is something that we could work on and we would be able to bring up-to-date on modern platforms.

So this gives the game an opportunity, obviously in Japan but also in the West for the first time, for people that have never played the game to actually play it and to see what it’s all about.

Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief – it’s ‘extremely Japanese’ (pic: Acquire)

GC: So as the creator for a game that seems very Japanese, were you worried about how well the localisation would work and how it’d be received?

TE: Absolutely we were worried! [laughs] This, to us, is an extremely Japanese game. It was never made with the intention of selling it in the West and it was made for a Japanese audience. And so, even though there might be an analogue of the character, with Robin Hood, it’s still a very different character, it’s a very different time and place. And your cultural upbringing and your cultural awareness is going to really inform how you perceive this character.

That said, I hope that players who aren’t able to connect to it on a cultural level, they will perhaps be able to appreciate it as a fantasy, and as taking place in a time and place that they are not familiar with. And hopefully they’ll be able to enjoy it from that perspective.

GC: Was there any talk of making a sequel at the time?

TE: There were never any plans to do a sequel. Even working again on it now, there really isn’t this idea that it needs necessarily to have a sequel. I was just more interested in bringing a game that is really not easy to be played nowadays, due to it coming out on the PlayStation 2, to more modern hardware and making it more accessible to people today.

GC: I’m curious to know what you’ll be working on after this remaster and in particular what impact Ghost Of Tsushima has had on Japanese developers and the fact that it has been a major worldwide success?

TE: There was this period where publishers kind of… maybe not refused, but weren’t interested in dealing with games that dealt with Japanese history or really Japanese settings as a subject. And so for quite a while you didn’t really see these types of games come out, because nobody was really wanting to publish them; so developers weren’t able to make them.

And then you have Ghost Of Tsushima that comes along and it kind of proves the opposite, that there is a market and that people are interested. It really had a big impact in Japan, for developers, showing them that this was still viable. And also kind of giving them inspiration and courage to think, ‘Well hey, maybe we can actually approach this subject matter again and start making games within this broad genre’.

GC: It surprised me to see so many Japanese developers, I think it was an awards thing in Famitsu, proclaiming Ghost Of Tsushima as the best game of 2020, when I would’ve been far less surprised if they’d felt insulted by it, and dismayed that a Western developer was being given huge budgets to make games set in Japan. Whatever you think of the game it’s obvious from the moment you start playing it that it is not a Japanese made game.

TE: In terms of the setting, this is not a setting that is particularly well known, even in Japan itself. How it was chosen and why it was chosen, that is something I think particularly resonated with developers. Because it shone a light on something that not only is a Japanese setting but it’s a very specific time and place in Japanese history. That’s something I think really resonated with a lot of developers and was really fresh to them. Because that was something that not even Japanese people would probably pick if they were going to choose a medieval Japanese setting.

You also have to understand, and you brought this up in your question, but the budget level is completely different from something that could be made in Japan. If we were to bring a game of the scale of Ghost Of Tsushima to a publisher, there’s no way they would give us the go sign to go ahead and create that game.

By the same token though, because of that game’s existence and because of the influence that it had, it definitely influenced us at Acquire to think about Japan as a setting again. And being able to rework Kamiwaza we began thinking, ‘Well, maybe it would be ninjas, maybe it would be samurai, maybe it would be something else’ but what could we do, using our history as a setting? What kind of games could we make? It definitely got the wheels in our minds turning and was something to think about again as we go into the future and continue to develop games.

GC: Are you optimistic about the future of the Japanese games industry in general? Western fans are certainly worried about Japanese developers being sidelined right now, by major publishers. Does the success of Ghost Of Tsushima, and also FromSoftware, give you new confidence that your work will be appreciated by a large worldwide audience and that publishers will support you?

TE: Honestly, more and more Japanese makers have shifted development to smartphones. And that’s just the reality of things in Japan. If you look at the sales of console games you’ll see that they’re declining, unfortunately, and that’s just something that’s been happening for a long time now. That said, within that, there’s still a group of Japanese developers who, maybe looking more at Asia or the Western market, are still focused on console games.

Obviously, finding publishers that are interested in publishing those things is a big part of getting them out there, but there’s definitely still a future for developers who want to develop for consoles and not smartphone, and making the types of games that they want to make.

At Acquire, our focus is still console games and even if the audience has now become something beyond Japan that’s something we’ll think about, but we do want our games to continue to come out for console.

GC: Well, that’s great to hear, thank you very much for you time.

TE: Thank you!

GC: Oh, actually do you know if Tenchu or Shinobido will be on PS Plus Premium at all? I really want to play them again now!

TE: No idea!

GC: Darn. [Neither are listed as coming to North America yet, we’ll see about Europe later this week.]

Kamiwaza: Way Of The Thief will be released for PC on October 11 and for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch on October 14.

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