For those who may not be aware, Shenmue is a game originally released for the Sega Dreamcast in 1999. An early example of an open world game, it was incredibly innovative for its time. Recently, Shenmue creator Yu Suzuki announced that the long awaited Shenmue III was finally being developed. To celebrate, the original two games have been re-released on modern consoles and PC.
I played Shenmue for the first time when it originally came out on the Dreamcast, but 14-year old me was never able to get past the early parts of the game’s closing act. Hopefully, with age and wisdom, the re-release would afford me the chance to finally see the game’s end.
Re-playing the game now with a more learned eye has provided me with a much different view of the game. What I was happy to accept at age 14 I can see that fault with now, but I can also appreciate what older games were trying to do with earlier technology and the impact they have had on what has come since.
Shenmue has always been divisive, even among the most hardcore of Sega and Dreamcast fans, and I can completely see why.
Let me first say that I enjoy the game. I don’t think it’s the greatest game ever, but I do think it’s a very important one. There are bits of Shenmue I really enjoy, and bits of it I not hugely fond of. While I don’t feel any one part of it is out-and-out bad, for every good aspect of the game, there is also a flip side.
Released two years before Grand Theft Auto 3 – the game that made “open world” a household name – as an early example of an open world game it really is astonishing. Seeing all the detail and care that has gone in to every little part of the world truly makes you appreciate just what an achievement this game was on the technology AM2 had to hand. Every location is filled with NPCs wandering around and every single one of then you can have a conversation with. All of the characters are wonderfully designed – even those that have absolutely nothing to do with the overall plot – and their personality shines through. Nothing like this had been seen before, and knowing it was all done on 1999 technology is astounding.
However, all of the environments are somewhat ugly. This is not to say that the graphics are bad, indeed they are some of the best of that time period, but rather that they are all so…grey. Apart from a few small areas of green, which can look beautiful at times, Dobuita and the other suburban areas you travel through are all cement and grey brick. When you get to the harbour this becomes even more apparent. Maybe it’s because I grew up on a farm in rural Australia, but seeing all that grey, lifeless cement over and over I found rather dreary.
For a game that seems to have a reputation for being something of a fighter, there really isn’t that much fighting in it. Perhaps it’s because of the game’s DNA in Virtua Fighter (it was going to be a Virtua Fighter RPG originally,) or the fact that its fighting system is as deep as the aforementioned game. Whatever the reason, anyone coming to Shenmue looking for a fighter might be disappointed. In the first third of the game there are only really two fighting sections.
The combat in Shenmue was another mixed bag for me. I’ve never been very good at fighting games. All the button combos and such are a little too much for me so for the majority of Shenmue battles saw me just button bashing and hoping for the best. However, during the last third of the game something clicked and I was finally able to find my rhythm. From then on I really enjoyed he battles, especially the 70 man epic toward the end. It was just a shame it took so long to get the hang of it. If there had been more fights in the earlier parts of the game I don’t think it would have taken me so long.
Now, to the (arguably) most controversial part of the game – work. Yes, you actually have to WORK during Shenmue. This involves you driving a forklife moving crates from one warehouse to another. Sound fun, right…
Like everything else in Shenmue, for me this was a double edged sword. I didn’t actually mind hooning around on my forklift all that much, and the forklift races you have at the beginning of each work day are fun. However, it was frustrating at times when I had a new lead that I’d want to follow up, or I was going to meet up with another character but I’d be forced to get through the day’s work first. And, honestly, the time spent doing it doesn’t add anything to the overall game.
I can totally understand the arguments from people who hate this portion of the game. It can feel like padding and, really, there isn’t any actual need for the gamer to physically play out the work day. But it is an interesting concept and you can see what Yu Suzuki was going for. He wanted to create a real world, and in the real world you need to work. If I had to choose though, I’d happily go without this portion of Shenmue.
At its heart Shenmue is an exploration/ detective game. You wander around looking for clues on who killed your dad (the game’s plot focuses on the main character’s quest for revenge at his father’s murder,) and finding out info on the various ne’er-do-wells that may have been involved. You need to examine everything and talk to everyone, but you can do it at your own pace. Yes, there are spercific times some of those meetings have to take place at and if you miss that time you miss the meeting, but for the most part Shenmue is a self-paced game that is more relaxing than it is taxing.
The game has some wonderful set pieces, such as a motorbike chase through the harbour and the aforementioned 70 man battle. But it’s just as much fun to collect gatcha toys and waste a day in the arcade playing Space Harrier. Which, given this is a game that was designed in giving the player (almost) ultimate freedom, you can do.
With Shenmue, Yu Suzuki was certainly trying to create something that had never before been seen and in most respects he succeeded. While it’s been surpassed by other open world games since it can not be denied just how important to video game development Shenmue is. Without it some of the biggest games of recent times may not be around.
By today’s standards Shenmue may not be a perfect game, and it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is still very enjoyable and I’m really glad this re-release has finally given me the chance to experience it fully.
Now, on to Shenmue II…