Note: This review was originally written February 5th, 2011 for the Average Gamers Show blog.
You are Ryo Hazuki, son of a famed martial artist Iwao Hazuki, you live a quiet life in 1980s Japan, in the town called Yokosuka. You are in high school, and things are heating up with a girl named Nozomi. Everything changes one day, when a mysterious Chinese man named Lan Di shows up, and murders your father, and begin an epic quest to get your revenge. This. Is. Shenmue.
Shenmue is the brain child of famed Sega employee Yu Suzuki. The game started out on the Sega Saturn, and would go through many changes, before landing on our doorstep as the “Shenmue” we know and love on the Sega Dreamcast. The game is largely a cult classic, and even has a sequel, Shenmue II which ends itself on a cliffhanger. Due to poor sales- the franchise has not been continued and Shenmue III has become one of the most requested games of all time, and 10 years later, very little is known about what Shenmue III holds for us.
Shenmue is a game that is hard to define as simply in one genre, it is largely a sandbox game, there is a lot of action, adventure, and a few small RPG elements. Yu Suzuki called the game “FREE” an acronym meaning “Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment”. There are five main areas of the game, the large Hazuki residence, which comprises the Hazuki home, and Hazuki dojo, it’s larger than it seems. Next there is Yamanose, which is a small area with a few homes, and a shrine that is home to a kitten (which you take care of as part of a side-story). The next area is Sakuragaoka, which is slightly larger. There are more people here, vending machines, Sakura Park, and a construction site. Dobuita is the main town area of the game. There are many kinds of shops, and activities including: Bars, Restaurants, an Arcade, thrift stores, tobacco shops, most of which are relatively useless but are fun to explore. The final area is the harbor, which houses nefarious characters, and where you land a job (and do surprisingly little work)
Most of the story progression happens as you wander through the various areas talking to largely clueless people to try and piece together why Lan Di wanted to kill your father and how you can locate him. While the game did not innovate a lot of the features it has, did popularize them, and bring to them to the mainstream audience. Shenmue was one of the first games, to have different dialog trees, events, and actions that could only be gotten depending on the weather, day, or time. For example, a man in the park will teach your karate moves, but only if it is not raining, and only if it is in the morning. The game popularized random weather as well, no two games have the same weather on the same day, and not even a different save file will have the same weather! During Christmas time, the town of Dobuita plays Christmas music, and men dress up like Santa Claus in the town. The game also uses a time feature, you wake up at 8:30 every morning, and stores open and close at different times, and you can go to bed after 8pm- however you will automatically return to the Hazuki home shortly after 11pm. One of the biggest things Shenmue popularized is the “QTE”, or Quick-Time Event, where during a cutscene you are prompted for a button press in order to complete the scene. For example, during a chase scene, someone may knock something into your path, and you must quickly press the correct button to avoid the hazard, this was later popularized with games like God of War on the Playstation 2.
The game is truly a massive place that is also very immersive. The graphics and detail put into the world is astonishing, it’s no wonder the game uses three GD-Roms (and a 4th disc, which contains extras- this equates to a little over 1 DVD and not to mention it has very low quality audio sampling in the voices- if it were in CD quality it could easily be a DVD9 size game). You can pick up and examine all kinds of objects in the world, you can purchase things from the stores, and use your cassette player to listen to the cassettes you have found (be sure to replace the batteries) the world is a very vivid place. However, when there are many people on screen, there is some slowdown (especially during the Harbor sections). The music is always very fitting- most notably the music that plays during the Forklift races. Overall the soundtrack has a very 1950s – 1960s Hollywood-esque orchestrated feeling that suits the game very well. The story of the game is absolutely amazing, and leaves you wanting more all the time. I would play for five hours at a time, and not want to quit, the end leaves you craving the second game even more.
Shenmue offers many reasons to replay the game. There are many things to collect, such as Cassettes, Photographs, Martial Arts Moves, Toy Capsules and various other items. You also have a notebook which you fill up by talking to people all over, trying to play through the game with a complete notebook will add a lot of time to your game. The arcade offers many opportunities to try and break your high scores and win prizes- during its heyday- you could use the 4th Shenmue Passport disc to share your scores at the arcade with an online leaderboard!. Upon completion of the game you unlock a new weather option, which simulates the real weather for Yokosuka, Japan in 1986. There was a feature planned for the US release of Shenmue II, that all of your items, moves, and yen would transfer to your Shenmue II game. However, since the Dreamcast version was never released is the US this trick only works in the PAL and Japanese releases of the game.
Overall the game is an amazing gaming experience that needs to be experienced by every gamer. It has some flaws, most notably some slowdown in crowded areas, and sometimes the game can be slow (in terms of time and pacing) but the positives far outweigh the negatives. Shenmue has one of the most loyal fanbases in video game history. More than ten years after the release of Shenmue II, fans are still waiting for Shenmue III in one form or another, maybe one day our dream will be fulfilled. As for Shenmue, the game is truly a most own for any fan of video games, and it is one experience I will never forget, I look forward to playing Shenmue II.