In December, Japanese developers From Software released a cryptic teaser in which all Dark Souls fans were desperate to see any hint of their favorite series. However, the phrase «Shadows Die Twice» at the end of the video leaves little doubt that From Software’s next title will be connected in some way to their old Tenchu line. This means that Hidetaka Miyazaki set out to conquer the stealth genre, and given his original approach to game design, there is hope that the studio under his leadership will be able to present something completely new in this direction.
Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was released in 1998 and was one of three games (besides Metal Gear Solid and Thief: The Dark Project) that laid the foundation for the stealth genre in its modern form. However, these were far from the first attempts by game designers to resist high-speed action titles, and the genre itself has its roots in the late 70s.
Manbiki Shounen (Shoplifting Boy) (1979)
Although the title 005 described below is officially considered the first stealth game, in 1979 another game was released that built on key elements of the genre, but did not receive due attention. We are talking about Manbiki Shounen (Shoplifting Boy) for computers PET 2001 from Japanese game designer Hiroshi Suzuki, in which the player’s goal is to steal things from the supermarket for as much as possible and avoid the shop owner’s line of sight.
The following year, Suzuki developed a sequel, Manbiki Shoujo (Shoplifting Girl), in which a girl was sent to steal. Shoplifting Boy is known to have inspired Taito to develop another stealth pioneer, the Lupin III.
005 from Sega is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s first stealth game. Despite the fact that a solid part of the title is devoted to a fairly standard 2D action game in which you had to control a helicopter, shoot balloons and dodge falling projectiles, it was the small stealth episodes that were of the greatest interest in the game.
In them, the player in the role of, as you might guess, a spy must collect all the suitcases with secret documents without getting into the eyes of the guards patrolling the levels with pixel lanterns. In order to get past them, 005 must hide behind boxes placed everywhere, gradually making his way to the roof, from where the next segment with helicopter gunfights begins.
Castle Wolfenstein (1981)
The first game to focus entirely on the fresh direction was Castle Wolfenstein, developed by Silas Warner for the Apple II.
The player had to explore the rooms of the fascist castle, either avoiding enemies or getting rid of them. Warner introduced many key elements of the genre into the game, such as timed lockpicking or the ability to impersonate one of the opponents. If the player gave himself away, the enemies pursued him from location to location, and killing them was not the most convenient solution, because the sounds of shots and grenade explosions attracted attention.
In difficult situations, you could go the other way and reveal yourself by taking someone hostage, and at the same time taking away from the victim, passes to other levels.
Castle Wolfenstein became incredibly popular, and Silas Warner, realizing that he had found something completely fresh for the industry, began to develop a sequel.
Another game where the stealth gameplay was diluted with helicopter missions. Arriving at the enemy base, your hero named Jimbo Baby must penetrate into its very heart in order to destroy the plans of the «mad leader». To do this, in one of several buildings consisting of many rooms, the player must find an access card to the last level.
So that the guards wandering around the area do not cause problems, Jimbo has everything he needs in his inventory. He can impersonate his own with false documents or «disable» opponents with gas grenades. Also in the main character’s backpack there is a mine detector and explosives for the final touch of missions on the ground.
As a result, with the help of first-person helicopter flights and third-person stealth missions, game designer Chris Gray managed to create a more atmospheric representative of the genre, in which, unlike Castle Wolfenstein, there was no way to solve the problem by simply killing the enemy.
Metal Gear (1987)
The notorious Hideo Kojima turned to stealth not at all because he wanted to repeat the success of the Wolfenstein series, but as a result of the limited capabilities of the MSX 2 computers, for which he was tasked with developing an action title. According to Kojima, MSX 2 could display no more than two or three enemies and no more than four bullets on the screen. Realizing that this could not be made into a furious action game, the game designer went the other way and laid the foundation for one of the most popular series in the gaming industry. The first game in the series was Metal Gear.
Kojima has definitely managed to take the genre to the next level. In addition to the gameplay, Metal Gear offered a solid story for those times, and balanced action, including in the form of boss fights. In Metal Gear, like in Castle Wolfenstein, there were too few bullets, and in order to get a pass to another territory, you had to explore the entire map. A doubtful moment in the game was the zone of vision of opponents, who sometimes noticed you only if you go to meet them, while being on the same line with them.
In the 91st year, Kojima will release Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, in which he will present all the good things from the first part already in a polished form. But then the series will have to be silenced for a long seven years before firing again.
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines (1998)
Before going through the main three of the stealth genre, I would like to mention another interesting title, released in the same 1998 year. Technically, Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines is a representative of RTT (Real-time tactics), but at the heart of the game is definitely the heart of stealth, just in an unusual isometric view.
At the disposal of the player come six different characters, each with their own abilities, with which you must complete the mission, making as little noise as possible. In the event of the death of any of the characters, the mission is failed. As in any good stealth action game, the player is confronted by a huge number of opponents who cannot be dealt with by standard methods.
Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (1998)
The first part of the Tenchu line sends you to feudal Japan, where you, in the guise of a ninja, must foil the plans of an evil sorcerer. With a third-person view, you jump, climb, somersault on the roofs of an old town, involuntarily thinking about Assassin’s Creed. In Stealth Assassins, the player could choose for himself: fight with opponents in the open, or hunt down each guard separately and deal with him at the right time, using a deadly katana. By the way, the game encouraged the second option, adding points for silent kills, and subtracting them if the player was noticed by the enemy. The exceptions were the fights with the bosses, which were a great opportunity to dilute the leisurely gameplay with active sword fights.
Stealth Assassins featured quite a few stealth elements that were new to the genre. The most notable of these was the boarding cat, which allows you to climb on the roofs of houses or jump from one building to another in seconds, adding verticality to the game. Another important part of the gameplay was a special indicator showing how far the NPCs are from the player.
As for other elements, Stealth Assassins was one of the first to allow the player to hide in the shadows, cling to the wall, distract enemies by throwing objects in the right direction, and also started the fashion for inserting spectacular cut-scenes during murders. Among other things, the game, in principle, is considered the pioneer of the genre in 3D.
In the future, eight more titles will be released as part of the series, but, according to the public, none of them managed to surpass the original. Let’s hope Miyazaki changes things soon.
Metal Gear Solid (1998)
After a long silence, the author of Metal Gear saw in the PlayStation an opportunity to restart the series, and with it the entire stealth direction. We can say that Kojima showed the world how exciting and versatile the game can be in principle and he focused, of course, on what he does best — on stealth.
The series moved to 3D, and Kojima successfully foresaw all the difficulties that players might have with navigating the terrain in the new format. To avoid difficulties, the developers have provided players with all the necessary tools, from a visual 2D radar to the ability to switch to first-person view.
Snake retained a fondness for carefully moving around the map while lying and sitting, but now he has learned to lean against the wall and climb a number of objects, such as ladders and military equipment. While at the wall, Snake could knock on the wall, thus distracting the enemies from their standard route.
There was a huge selection of weapons in MGS, but only one pistol allowed Snake to deal with opponents silently. Although, of course, various hand-to-hand techniques can be added to the arsenal of the protagonist.
But, despite the fact that MGS was not opposed to the player getting involved in the action, she made it clear that she was relying primarily on tactical stealth. Careless players, by their actions, collecting hostile NPCs from all over the map, soon realized that they would not last long in this way, especially on a high level of difficulty.
Thief: The Dark Project (1998)
Thief: The Dark Project was developed with the goal of taking the highly successful FPS (First Person Shooter) formula and putting it back together as one of the most prominent representatives of the stealth genre.
In The Dark Project, the developers have focused on the interaction of the player with the environment. All the standard FPS attributes, such as a first-person view, a health bar and some kind of weapon in hand, were in place, only the whole gameplay revolved primarily around the indicator at the bottom of the screen, the brightness of which displayed the level of stealth of the protagonist.
The second key element was sound. The amount of noise emitted by the player directly depended both on the speed of his movement and on the surface that this or that character stepped on. From the sounds of the opening door and the dialogues of the guards, the player learned the territorial details, the location of the opponents, as well as the level of their anxiety. Add to this various weapons made in the entourage of the Middle Ages, intended primarily not to neutralize the enemy, but to distract him and go unnoticed.
Unlike Stealth Assassins and Metal Gear Solid, the developers of the first Thief did not just offer to complete any mission from point A to point B (albeit in several ways), but opened up the player to a full exploration of locations. Of all the key trio of 98, the developers from Looking Glass Studios managed to captivate the player with the passage «in the shadows» instead of action.
Soon such series as Hitman, Splinter Cell, and even Deus Ex will also have their say in the genre, but it was in the 98th year that the foundation was laid for their existence.
Every year the line between stealth and other genres has become thinner and thinner, so it will be especially interesting to take a look at From Software’s ideas. Given their approach to the Souls series, it’s quite possible they won’t want to brew another hodgepodge of genres, and will try to take stealth to the next level of evolution. And if so, I hope they succeed.