It took four hours and thirty-three minutes, but I was done. After hours spent slowly strafing around corners so I could safely shoot enemies, all the while futzing with unintuitive controls; after getting blown to smithereens by yet another enemy missile that seemed like it shouldn’t have even affected me; after multiple attempts trying to complete the same stage, learning enemy layouts and just what it was the game wanted me to do, I had had enough. Codename: Tenka had been on my radar for years, ever since I read about it in an older issue of OPM or PSM in the early 2000s, but I couldn’t justify playing it anymore.
Codename: Tenka, or Lifeforce Tenka as it’s known in its native territory, was developed by Psygnosis, the Liverpool studio whose origins trace back to the British computer scene of the early 1980s. Personally, since that scene is so foreign to me, I more closely associate Psygnosis with their ownership of the Lemmings IP, or later works produced under Sony’s ownership, such as Wipeout and Colony Wars. This particular game was released for the PlayStation in North America on May 31, 1997, with a PC version following sometime later. Contemporary reviews of the game were mixed, with most praise centering on its visuals, and get this, its introduction of a crouching mechanic to a first-person shooter. As Glenn Rubenstein cleverly noted in his review for GameSpot: “And while Codename: Tenka tries to stand out from the crowd, only its crouch feature truly sets it apart from the pack.”
Well, in my estimation, time has not been kind to the PlayStation version (I can’t comment on the PC release) for one unforgivable reason: atrocious controls. Codename: Tenka released less than a month before Sony’s Dual Analog Controller, the predecessor to the DualShock, and has no support for analog sticks. Instead, the game in essence utilized “tank controls,” where the directional buttons moved Tenka forwards and backwards, and changed the direction he was looking to either side. I could also look up and down, but by default these functions were mapped to the L1 and L2 buttons. This wasn’t intuitive, and the three other controller configurations were hardly an improvement. Worse yet, I had no ability to customize the controls outside of these preset configurations. I eventually adapted to the controls, although I never got used to them.
Unquestionably, this game’s awkward control scheme hampered my ability to skillfully eliminate enemies. When possible, I strafed around corners and picked off enemies as best I could without suffering return fire. Other times, I just stood still and engaged in what looked like an old-fashioned duel; it was just easier than moving around and firing. Turning while moving was sort of possible, but also led to the development of calluses that a guitar player would appreciate; even when on a timer, running a mine to a disintegration device, I basically stopped to turn. It turns out, Tenka wasn’t the type of guy who could walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. And speaking of bubblegum, it was apparent from his hard-ass attitude and gruff voice that he was modeled after Duke Nukem. This didn’t do anything for me, although the apocalyptic sci-fi setting piqued my interest.
The game took place in a future where Earth was polluted, war-torn, and semi-derelict. Many folks chose to abandon the planet for off-world colonies, so-called paradises operated by Trojan Inc. In reality, the new residents were unwittingly entering processing facilities where Trojan Inc turned them into half-human, half-robot warriors. Tenka was freed before his transformation was finished, and set out to get revenge. In practice, that meant navigating through miles of futuristic looking corridors, hunting for different colored keycards. The objectives varied from stage to stage but with little exposition, it was never really clear what I was supposed to be doing. Through a combination of determination and walkthroughs, I was able to keep making forward momentum. Honestly, with the “stationary” combat and lack of a map, gameplay started to resemble a first-person dungeon crawler more than an FPS. I swear, I was this close to breaking out graph paper and making a map.
Tying into the futuristic setting, Tenka was equipped with an all-in-one evolving weapon: the Self-Generating Polymorphic armory, or SG-26. The functionality of the SG-26 increased as I collected the neon green cubes most enemies left behind in death. Traditional cartridges, laser beams, and even explosives, this firearm did it all! Much of it wasn’t useful unless I had locked onto an enemy, however. As I guided my cursor over a foe, a lock-on indicator would appear and transition from green to red, letting me know my weapon fire would hit. The growing prevalence of short, hyper mobile enemies halfway through the game furthered my frustrations with the controls. It was difficult to deal with these foes when the best I could do was stand still and fire.
The one aspect of Codename: Tenka that I’ll unabashedly praise is the soundtrack, and it’s inclusion on the PlayStation disc. The game came out at a time when this was a novel thing to do, and Psygnosis went as far as including the track listing in the manual. Now that’s an inherently respectable thing to do, made all the more laudable by the fact that the soundtrack legitimately kicks ass! Primarily composed by Mike Clarke, whose stint with Psygnosis spanned most of the 1990s, his soundtrack was rife with industrial techno and heavy metal power chords. Most tracks incorporated elements of both, but skewed towards one or the other. The main riff of “Joey Does Dallas” had a big dumb sound that complemented Tenka’s character traits, while “Tapered Mind” was a straight up dance club bop. Pretty much every song rated a 4/5 in my book, but a personal favorite was “A Hammer,” which sounded like a lost demo track for Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine.
It’s rare that I don’t see a game through to completion since I’m pretty selective in what I play, but after a few hours with Codename: Tenka, I was done. In that time, I suffered a lot of frustration stemming from the game’s antiquated controls. I never quite got used to them, and instead tried my best to pick enemies off from afar or without them noticing me. This wasn’t especially enjoyable, and after beating my head against the wall trying to decipher my objectives, or how to overcome tough odds, I was ready to move on. The settings I explored were sometimes too dark, and the pre-rendered cutscenes certainly didn’t hold up, but I thought the game’s visuals were still impressive; if anything, they carried a nostalgic appeal for me. The soundtrack, sounding like a remnant from the 1990s, did too. I’ll try to remember the enjoyment I gleaned in the first half of Codename: Tenka, but I certainly won’t forget the pain points, and likely won’t return to it.