Shenmue – DreamcastRelease: December 2000
Most would agree that the majority of games considered to be legends have one thing in common – innovation. While breaking new ground isn’t always required for a game to be considered great, it certainly helps, and if done correctly, not only lifts the game head and shoulders above the rest, but can redefine an entire genre. Legendary Japanese designer, Yu Suzuki, responsible for such classics as Outrun, Space Harrier, Super Hang On and Virtua Racing has often walked the innovative line, but perhaps never more so than with his epic free-roaming action adventure, Shenmue.
Set free on the Dreamcast in late 2000, Shenmue, the first episode of a planned, but ultimately doomed series, is perhaps one of the most innovative games ever released, though not the biggest selling, due to the Dreamcast’s relatively poor showing.
In the game, players took the role of Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese student, and martial arts trainee. One day, as he gets home and enters his family’s dojo, he witnesses his father being attacked by a strange, garishly dressed man known as, Lan Di, who is intent on acquiring an artefact called the Dragon Mirror. Ryo tries to help, but is sent flying by Lan Di, who then forces Ryo’s father to reveal the location of the mirror by threatening to kill his son. Once he has the mirror, Lan Di kills Ryo’s father and promptly leaves. The scene is set for an epic journey as Ryo vows to have revenge for his father’s death.
Shenmue was a third person adventure for the most part. As Ryo, players had to live out his life, exploring his home town, Yokosuka, and seeking any clues about Lan Di’s whereabouts. This included talking to Ryo’s friends and remaining family, and other residents of the area. Important information gleaned from speaking with others would help to advance Ryo’s quest, often pointing him to someone who can help him, or some sort of important event. As the game progressed and more information was found, Ryo would further explore the area, including the main shopping district and the harbour, where, while on the trail of a notorious gang with links to Lan Di, Ryo gets a job as a forklift driver, and meets a powerful ally in the process.
Shenmue wasn’t all talk and forklift driving though, and spread throughout the game were plenty of martial arts-laden scraps, which used a combat system almost identical to Virtua Fighter, complete with masses of moves and specials. In fact, Shenmue was originally planned as ‘Virtua Fighter RPG’ before it was renamed, so this gives you a good idea of the close relation of the two titles.
One of the major game elements of Shenmue, and one that has been taken and used more times than we’d care to count, were the QTE mini-games. Short for Quick Time Event, these were impressive interactive cut-scenes where the player had to quickly press the right button on the controller when prompted. Failure to press the right button would usually change Ryo’s outcome on the event, such as hitting pedestrians or colliding with obstacles during a chase scene, or getting hit by an opponent in a choreographed fight. But, hitting the right buttons would result in Ryo pulling off moves straight out of big screen marital arts movies, with predicable results. This gameplay mechanic has most notably been seen in such other titles as God of War, Fahrenheit and Resident Evil 4.
The real-time gameplay system was another innovation. While a game hour wasn’t a real hour (more like a minute), time did flow realistically, and certain events or meetings wouldn’t occur until a set time, meaning that players would have to kill time beforehand. Luckily, this wasn’t a problem for most, as aside from the actual main gameplay, one of Shenmue’s biggest, and most applauded features was the fantastically interactive and realistic environments that you could kill said time in.
Shenmue’s world, while not as large as many other games, was packed to the rafters with interactive elements and more detail than people had ever seen in a game before. The world itself looked amazing, with graphical attention to detail second to none, and Ryo could spend time buying toys from gumball machines (which could be collected), buy items from shops (including food, games and music), use telephones and play on a range of arcade machines, including darts, boxing and even the full versions of Super Hang On and Space Harrier. You could even nurse a teeny kitten back to health if you wished – Awwww.
Although now widely considered a classic, some critics at the time were not so fond of the game. Many labelled Shenmue boring, as the majority of the title was spent exploring and talking to characters or waiting for the next big event. Others thought the game relied too much on the QTE, ‘on rails’, events, and disliked the mundane feel of the world. Personally, I disagree with such comments. Shenmue was a game that you had to become absorbed in, and while it wasn’t action-packed, it was superbly atmospheric and packed instead with character.
The story was compelling too, something of a rarity at the time. The real world setting was far from mundane, and was so richly detailed, it drew you in more so than any sci-fi setting or clichéd fantasy backdrop.
That said, Shemue did have some faults. First and foremost was the voice acting. This wasn’t bad per se, but wasn’t great either, especially the ultra-creepy and soulless children’s voices (*shudder*). And, although I didn’t really find any fault with the QTE events at the time, Shenmue does have a lot to answer for, and is single-handedly responsible for the growth of developer laziness in today’s releases. If a game needs a complex action sequence these days, rather than spend time developing a decent game mechanic, too many devs now simply shove in a QTE event instead – bah! In some cases, the majority of the game is nothing but one big, cheap-ass QTE event – are you listening Bourne Conspiracy!?
Some of Shenmue’s faults were addressed in the sequel, Shenmue II, which dealt with the voice-over issue by retaining the original Japanese speech and subtitles. This was admittedly down to budget, and was one of the only reasons the game got a release at all, but it was a good move nonetheless.
The sequel was also much longer and more varied than the first, with more fights and mini-games, not to mention locations. But, it’s the first game that holds the legendary title, and if you’ve still got a Dreamcast handy, you should jump onto eBay right now and grab a copy; you won’t regret it. And with that, I only have one question to ask… Do you know where I can find some sailors?