- Original release year: 1999
- Consoles: Dreamcast
Shenmue was always going to be a victim of its own hype, and since its release I cannot think of any other game that has divided critics so sharply. Shenmue is the marmite of games; you will either love it or hate it. Prior to Shenmue’s release Sega were boasting a game that would be the most realistic game yet, promising high quality realistic graphics never seen in a game before. People thought Shenmue was either going to be the Dreamcast’s saviour, or the biggest disappointment of all time. There was a lot of expectations for Shenmue, and for some, many of these were not met. Despite criticisms and the game’s many imperfections (but hey, life’s imperfect right?), Shenmue should still be seen as a landmark in video game history and a great achievement for Sega. There’s a definite feeling that those that hate Shenmue may just not quite get it, but I’ll come back to that in good time…
It’s November 1986, in a quiet village in Japan, the snow is pouring down, and Ryo Hazuki, the protagonist of Shenmue, arrives home to find a mysterious black car parked outside and the house sign smashed. The music is incredible during this piece, adding vast amounts of depth and rivalling the best Hollywood films. The tension builds as Ryo steps into the gardens of the family home to find his housekeeper, Ine-san lying injured on the floor. She points to the dojo speaking of Ryo’s father. Ryo steps slowly towards the dojo, the wooden doors in front of him closed. Smash, the doors fly wide open as Fuku-san gets thrown through the doors. Ryo fearing the worst rushes into the dojo to find his father standing with a man in long Chinese robes, both staring and facing off against each other. The intro has to be seen to be believed, it truly is incredible. What continues, is a fight between the man in Chinese robes, known as Lan-di, and Ryo’s father. The fight escalated until Lan-di picks up Ryo and threatens Hazuki that if he doesn’t hand over the mirror he seeks, he will kill Ryo. This ends with Hazuki giving in and allowing Lan-di to take the mirror. Lan-di then kills Ryo’s father in front of Ryo, and leaves. Words cannot describe how touching and intense the intro scene is and it remains one of the greatest introduction videos to a video game ever. This leads the player into a fantastic adventure and story of revenge, coming of age and self realisation.
Although graphical capabilities have advanced a fair bit since the Dreamcast, Shenmue’s fantastic attention to detail means that this game has aged phenomenally well. We all know the Dreamcast was ahead of its time, and the graphics in Shenmue were no different. The weather system is fantastic and the gradual changes from day to night are also great. Accompanying the superb graphics, the musical score is nothing short of incredible. Never before in video games had the musical scores ever rivalled that seen by high budget Hollywood blockbusters, but Shenmue changed all that. The attention to detail, depth of interaction and ability to explore the world around you is where Shenmue’s beauty really shines. This is a game that really rewards patience and exploration, and this is where the game has come to be loved and hated…
The game begins with Ryo stood in his room staring at the wall. This is where you start your adventure. The first thing that you will notice is that you can explore every drawer in Ryo’s room, and it’s no different in any other rooms in the game. A look through the drawers will find a photograph, a tape cassette (hey, remember those?) and a walkman tape player to play those tapes on. From this point on you come to realise that you have complete control and what happens next is up to you… Well, mostly. This brings me to the first criticism often levelled at Shenmue; the game is actually fairly linear. That’s right, despite the hype that built up surrounding the game; a quick look at the game reveals it to be a simple point A to B linear adventure game. Some would even describe it as boring as much of the game involves talking to characters to find out what next to do, or who next to talk to. Whilst this is true to a certain extent, this is merely what is on the surface. Spend a little longer on Shenmue exploring the world and you will discover the true depth of the game.
Whilst playing the game, you will encounter a number of side quests and you will meet various characters. There are hundreds of characters in the game, all going about their daily lives. Talk to them daily and you will learn about their lives; who’s dating who, what’s worrying them, who has broken up with who etc. Each person has their own life which evolves as time progresses, just like Ryo’s life evolves. It’s all very real and touching. A lot of the time you will have a choice of how you will continue the story, and whilst none of these ever really affect the overall story, it does add depth to the gameplay. In addition, you will not see all Shenmue has to offer in your first play through, in fact you probably won’t see everything on your second or maybe even third play through. There are a lot of scenes and events that require you to trigger them, and this really adds to the replay value. Each time you view a scene in the game, that scene will be unlocked in the Shenmue Passport (the 4th disc) to be replayed at your pleasure. As well as these nice touches, you can collect toys by buying them from the various capsule machines scattered across the game, or you can head down to the arcade and play some games. Space Harrier and Hang On are available as well as other games such as darts and a boxing game. These are all fun and add to Shenmue’s charm.
You control Ryo using the D-pad to walk. The analogue stick lets the player look at the world around you, the L trigger allows you to run and the R trigger zooms into a first person view allowing the player to explore objects. If you wish to interact with something or someone, A is your interaction button. X opens up your notebook so that you can see where you are in the game and then Y opens your inventory. The controls have attracted some criticism, in particular Ryo’s movement which can seem a little stiff. Personally I never had any problems with the control, but I can see their imperfections now. Whilst not perfect however, they are not bad either and they will not cause a problem. The only time control can be slightly annoying is when trying to control Ryo in small rooms, but I didn’t find it to be too much of an issue, if at all.
Shenmue generally consists of 3 basic gameplay styles. Most of the time will be spent in exploration mode, walking the streets, talking to individuals and progressing in your adventure. Then at times you will be faced in Quick Time Events (QTEs for short). These are action scenes that take place and require the player to quickly press the buttons on the controller as these flash on the screen. The QTEs are a really nice addition to the game and some of the set pieces are fantastic. In particular there is one QTE that is a real favourite of mine, but I don’t wish to give too much away however, as when it comes to playing Shenmue, ignorance really is bliss; the less you know about this game before you play it, the better.
The last game mode is the fighting events. These play a lot like Virtua Fighter games, with the player using the D-pad to control Ryo, and then the A,B,X and Y buttons controlling the kicks, punches, throws and dodges. Much like Virtua Fighter different moves can be pulled off by pressing different combinations of buttons. New moves can be learned through the game and by training, Ryo can improve his moves and technique. The fights in Shenmue are really nice and prove to be a great strength in Shenmue. If there’s anything bad about the fights, it’s that there are maybe not quite enough at times. The third disc more than makes up for it however, and if you haven’t played Shenmue before or don’t know much about it, then let me tell you, you’re in for a real treat as the game builds up to its climax. Whilst these are the 3 main game modes, there are a few more you’ll find in Shenmue, for example in one scene you will have to ride a motorcycle.
Shenmue is completely engrossing. I remember the first time I played it 10 years ago, I was mesmerised by it and almost overwhelmed by the great levels of freedom. Whilst sometimes admittedly you find yourself limited by the game itself, undermining the supposed freedom at times, this is only a minor criticism. Shenmue still remains a landmark in video game history. Never before Shenmue had a game offered such realistic graphics, such attention to detail, and high levels of rewarding gameplay based on exploration. As well as this, the combat system is brilliant and the game is enormous. It’s not quite Final Fantasy or Zelda ‘enormous’, but it’s big and will keep you playing for a while. How long you keep playing for is up to you and how much you want to explore. You could probably brisk through the game quite quickly, but this is not what Shenmue is about and you’ll be missing out on a lot of what this game has to offer.
Despite some minor criticisms and imperfections (not to mention the voice acting, at times, can be
quite a lot bad), Shenmue is still one of the best, if not THE best game the Dreamcast has to offer. Just be warned the game doesn’t end at the end, per say. Shenmue 2 starts where Shenmue 1 ended, but unfortunately Shenmue 2 ends on a cliff hanger that has yet to be re-continued. Really, it’s a complete crime that Sega never finished one of the greatest sagas they ever created, but luckily, thanks to one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns of all time, we will (fingers crossed) be receiving Shenmue 3 by the end of 2017, just 16 years after the release of Shenmue 2.
If you’re interested in ‘backing’ Shenmue 3 and pre-ordering a copy of the game (as well as a whole host of other rewards), you can do so, for a limited time, over at the official site: https://shenmue.link/order/