Shenmue – A Look Back
There are very few games with as rabid and as old fans as Shenmue. The original game released in 1999 for the Sega Dreamcast, and quickly developed a reputation of having a living, breathing world with more things to do than any game had ever attempted. With the long awaited third game being released within the next year, the interest in the original games has skyrocketed. The series’ critics have been rather vocal along with new players’ opinions split. Having replayed the original Shenmue, I have opinions. I’m going to review it with a modern eye and also from a historic perspective. Does it retain any of the magic that it had when released? Or should it be seen as a product of its time, seen as a note in gaming history? Well I’m glad you asked.
Have you ever seen a kung fu movie? How about a revenge thriller? Now take both of those, smash them together, and simmer on low for several hours. The story opens with Ryo Hazuki arrives home from doing something in town. He sees a strange black car sitting in front of his family’s dojo. A man named Lan Di is looking for a mirror (that doesn’t show a reflection strangely enough) and winds up killing Papa Hazuki and injuring Ryo. What follows is an investigation around Ryo’s hometown to uncover the mystery of who is Lan Di and where did he go. Ryo has one thing on his mind—capsule toys—I mean revenge.
The story strangely has very little in the way of urgency. Each day really has a very few things that can be done to move the story forward, the rest of the day is taken up with various diversions. By the end of the first game, really the only thing that is learned is that the dude you’re looking for has gone to Hong Kong. It is an opening chapter, a long meandering opening chapter in what was supposed to (and may still be) several more games.
The best part of the story is honestly the side characters and their arcs, which elevated them from just typical NPCs. All in all the story is a highly interactive almost literal first chapter in what has the opportunity to be a pretty epic story.
Open world games were not nearly as common back in 1999 as they are today. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of one that predates Shenmue (maybe the first two Grand Theft Auto games if we’re being technical) . So, it’s safe to say that gamers who played Shenmue when it was released were impressed by the scope of the playground that was being offered. Grand Theft Auto III, the genre defining game, was still a couple years away from release.
I have heard Shenmue described as an “asking for directions simulator” which while a little bit of a broad, joking description, has some truth to it. You get an objective and then enter “free roam” mode where you are then tasked with asking the people around if they know where to find the objective until you find where to go. It’s not as terrible as the Call of Duty “follow” marker, but it’s not a great solution to keeping the player on track.
The core, moment to moment gameplay is fairly limiting compared to future sandbox games as your options are walk from place to place and interact with stuff. You won’t go around beating pedestrians or stealing cars. The combat is restricted to only storyline or side missions and not used in “free roam” mode. Honestly, the restrictions makes the connection between Ryo and the player more personal.
Another way that Shenmue cultivates a personal connection with the player is through the background activities. Most of the diversions of Japan are represented here, from capsule machines, to vending machines, and even to a fully working arcade and casino. This is the game that uses a forklift job as an actual gameplay mechanic. There is even a working Sega Saturn in the house with games that can be collected. The scope of the mundane tasks that are simulated here accurately is really impressive and still is really unheard of.
The fighting and combat is taken heavily form the Virtua Fighter series. Fun fact: Shenmue was originally being developed as a Virtua Fighter single player game. The combat is smooth and the blows are heavy and visceral. The end fight is against 90+ enemies and the combat never felt restrictive in the least.
As a game in the modern times, though there are some definite quality of life features that modern gamers have gotten used to. It’s difficult to play a game without an adjustable camera for example. The gameplay hasn’t aged all that well, to be honest. The background activities soften the blow a bit, though.
Hoo boy, the English voice overs are rough. Let’s take Ryo, who’s father has died and who has sworn an oath of revenge. You would expect some passion, some sense of urgency wouldn’t you? Ryo’s voice sounds like a man who is about to fall asleep. It’s very easy to pick out the bad guys since they either sound like gangsters from the ‘40s or big dumb idiots. And then there’s Tom. Tom is a Jamaican (!) man who runs a hotdog stand. He sounds like a person who has never heard a Jamaican accent in his life who was shown one Miss Cleo commercial and then told to base his performance off of the commercial. It’s unconvincing is what I’m getting at.
The music, on the other hand, is top notch. Even if you’ve never played the game, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard the main theme before. I would call the style Japanese orchestra. It’s rare for a game soundtrack to make an impression, but the best do and the Shenmue soundtrack is one of the best.
The player screen is rather minimalist in a good way. There is a clock to be able to time appointments and such, and on the top of the screen will appear when an item can be interacted with. One of the combat modes is the QTE (blame Shenmue for all the terrible QTEs from recent games) which ensures you see the button by flashing the button on screen and a loud beeping sound, then rewards you with a noise for a successful press and a buzzer for failure.
For being almost 20 years old, Shenmue is not a difficult game. It is very hard to get lost with the ability to ask for directions and an abundance of maps around town. The combat is easy to pick up and there is little reason to experiment beyond the player’s desire to get better. All in all a game that is really easy to pick up and beat with a minimum of frustration.
Shenmue is a game with a lot of historical value. Most modern open world games have features that have roots in this game. It could be considered the Rosetta Stone of open world games. It is a fascinating look at the beginning of the genre.
As an actual game in 2017, it is rough. A lot of features that have become the norm in modern games are missing and it just ends up being not as fun as it once was.
Should you play Shenmue if you haven’t? It’s debatable. Are you looking at it from a historical perspective? Then most definitely give it a shot. It’ll be rewarding. Are you looking for a fun game to play? The answer is not as clear. It still is a blast to play for someone who has nostalgia like I do. For a modern gamer not so much.
- Good foundation for a story
- The diversions are fun and well implemented
- The combat is decent
- Story lacks urgency
- Bad camera
- Those voices are rough (they’ll make you laugh, though).
- Historical Value: 8/10
- Modern Score: 7/10