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Shenmue (Dreamcast) artwork

Shenmue (Dreamcast) review

"Summarizing the appeal of Shenmue and the reason why I love it so much has been one of the hardest things I have ever tried to write. Maybe its because Shenmue is less a game and more of an “experience”. Indeed its lack of many of the traditional elements of gameplay has caused many people to dismiss it as nice to look at but a chore to play. For me this is a valid point, as a game Shenmue offers very little in the way of thrills. But as an experience it is rivalled only by its sequel in providi..."

Summarizing the appeal of Shenmue and the reason why I love it so much has been one of the hardest things I have ever tried to write. Maybe its because Shenmue is less a game and more of an “experience”. Indeed its lack of many of the traditional elements of gameplay has caused many people to dismiss it as nice to look at but a chore to play. For me this is a valid point, as a game Shenmue offers very little in the way of thrills. But as an experience it is rivalled only by its sequel in providing a coherent and beautiful world in which to inhabit for the short time it will take you to finish it.

Shenmue tells the first chapter in the story of a young man called Ryo Hazukis life. The action begins in December 1986 in a small Japanese town called Yamanose. As the game begins he rushes home to his fathers dojo, snow falls softly on the ground and as Ryo reaches the family home is is horrified to see his father being beaten by a mysterious stranger called Lan Di. Lan Di demands something from Ryo’s father, a mirror that is buried under the tree in the garden. He then mortally injures Ryo’s father and leaves. Ryo’s father dies in his arms and Ryo swears to hunt down Lan Di and avenge his death.

The rest of the game unfolds at a leisurely pace. Ryo must collect clues as to Lan Di’s whereabouts and motive for killing his father by talking to the local population. He gathers information in his notebook and performs various tasks that enable him to carry on with the story. This part of the Shenmue experience is extremely linear. You are directed from incident to incident in a very straightforward fashion. If you so desired you could rush through the game in roughly fifteen Shenmue days. But that would be to a foolish thing to do. Not only would you miss the many little extra scenes that come later in the game (ie. Christmas in the Hazuki House) as well as those that appear via exploration (several scenes with Nozomi). You would also be depriving yourself of the best of Shenmue, which is the actual ability to live out another life (albeit in a limited fashion).

Shenmue has a world so fully imagined that Ryo has almost complete freedom in how he spends his days. If you wish to carry on the search for clues you can do. But there is also the local Arcade to play in, parks to practice your martial arts in, people to chat to, a kitten to feed. All kinds of places to explore and just enjoy the experience of wandering round and seeing the sights. Let’s not mince words. The graphics in Shenmue are astonishing. The textures and detail on everything from the characters right down to the tiny little capsule toys you can buy from the Toy Machines is amazing. Even the voice acting is convincing and in the most part well done. Ryo himself comes across as a decent and heroic guy. Polite and honourable, he is protective of his friends and lethal when crossed by enemies. His natural impetuousness is tempered by his desire to learn from those who can teach him and he has a respect and decency that makes him a fine character to be playing.

For me the beauty of this game was one reason why I did not want to rush through it. Everyone time I booted the game up I felt I was closing my eyes and entering a dream of another life. A dream where I was a handsome young martial artist living in Japan in the mid-1980’s. In a way all the best games should have the ability to lift you out of the mundanity of your everyday existence by throwing you into worlds full of dragons, or aliens, magic and mayhem. Shenmue has no fantasy elements, but Ryo’s life and situation is just a fantastical to me, a female, born and bought up in the UK as any Final Fantasy game. As a teenager in the 1980’s I was also able to appreciate how well the game designers had realised small things like the fashions and the games arcade to create such a strong sense of a particular time and place.

Tied up with Ryo’s hunt for his father’s killer is much information on the philosophy and practice of various Martial Arts. Again, this really made the game for me as the study of Martial Arts is of great interest to me. I liked the way the fighting was incorporated into the storyline and Ryo’s search for knowledge is also linked to his growth technically and spiritually as a Martial Artist. I practiced his moves for hours in the local Parks and although I found the actual fighting situations a bit awkward and clunky, the actual wealth of information provided on the various moves and the clever way that when practiced to a certain level the moves would gain extra parts to them was a great touch.

Apart from fighting, the action is limited to things know as QTE’s or Quick Time Events. Here a button command will flash and you must press it quickly or Ryo will fail in what he is trying to do. For example in one QTE you must chase a man through the streets, as you run pressing the buttons as they flash up will allow you to dodge obstacles. Failure sees you tripping and losing the man you are chasing. These are the weakest aspect of the game as failing a QTE merely fades the screen to black and then resets to let you try again until you get it right. From what I’ve played of the sequel, this seems to have been fixed so QTE’s come more sparingly and can be failed first time, causing slightly different events to unfold.

Shenmue Online also provides a huge wealth of history on the towns and every character in the game. Search through the biographies on the site and you will see even the stray cats and dogs have been given mini-biogs! It wasn’t necessary for Sega to so that, but the fact that they cared enough to do so shows the overall love and attention that has been lavished on the creation and realisation of the game.

As this is the first chapter of the Shenmue story, it ends without much of a resolution. You have to admire the far thinking creators at Sega’s AM2 who planned this epic to span several instalments. The death of the Dreamcast Hardware has been a hiccup in the evolution of the Shenmue storyline, with the second chapter available only to DC owners in Japan and Europe. Whatever happens with the development of the storyline the first chapter remains one of the Dreamcast’s landmark tiles. A stunning achievement whose overall impact is far more than the sum of its parts. This is not a game for those who demand action, violence and fast-paced fantasy gaming. It is a very mellow experience and one that inspires as much dislike as it does adoration. If you are one of the lucky ones who “get” the appeal Shenmue then this will probably remain one of your favourite games, like it had for me. Whatever you think of it, you have to admire the aspirations it has to be more than just another run-of-the-mill game.

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Community review by falsehead (March 08, 2004)

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