Review by shenmuer2001
"Shenmue has heart"
In a world pre-Grand Theft Auto III, Shenmue was a bold, innovative concept. Yu Suzuki, director of this and many popular arcade titles such as OutRun and Hang-On (both titles that I have just noticed are ridiculously Engrish), wanted both to tell a story and immerse the player in his story's world completely. But while he succeeded to some degree, there are also many areas that the modern gamer will look at, scratch his or her head, and wonder "why didn't they try to go further?"
The story of Shenmue focuses on one Ryo Hazuki, a high-school aged student and martial artist whose world comes crashing down when a mysterious Chinese man known as Lan Di comes to his family's dojo and demands Ryo's father to give him a mirror. After threatening to kill Ryo, Ryo's father tells Lan Di where the mirror is and is subsequently killed by Lan Di. Thus begins Ryo's quest: find out who Lan Di is, find where his location is, and kill him in an act of revenge. In order to do this, Ryo must become a detective and talk to everyone to find out all sorts of details. For example, Ryo starts by asking people if they saw the black car Lan Di drove away in, which will lead him into the heart of the city where he'll learn that he should ask other Chinese people about Chinese people, and so on.
The only problem with this type of story-telling is the narrator himself, Ryo Hazuki. Ryo is a horrible character because he is so pathetically one-dimensional. The player is unable to fathom what Ryo's life could have been like before the game started. He constantly blows off his friends, he barely gives his "girlfriend" the time of day, he constantly makes his family worried, and he has no social skills whatsoever. He exists simply as a person to advance the story. I'm not sure if this was because of the translation or if he is that hollow, but he lacks a real personality.
His lack of personality, when combined with some of the freedoms the game gives you, combine to form a strange character. For example, my Ryo Hazuki went to two different convenience stores every day to buy a bag of chips and a chocolate bar in order to enter a raffle and win Sega prizes. He is a teenager who is obsessed with buying capsule toys, yet he cannot change his outfit. He can purchase and drink a soda, but he is unable to eat all of those bags of potato chips and chocolate bars that he buys every single day.
That brings up my major complaint with this game: having some degree of freedom makes me wonder why I can't have more. Why couldn't someone have created an animation of Ryo eating chocolate or crisps or burgers or anything? Why can't I have Ryo call up his friends and have them hang out for a few hours at the arcade or the local burger shop? There are multiple phones found throughout the game, but any non plot-centric phone call just sounds awkward. He owns a portable cassette player, but he can't actually walk around and listen to music. How many people do you know that just stand in the middle of the road and listen to music? He can go to an arcade and waste the day playing Sega games, but he can't enter anyone's house. Doesn't Ryo have any friends that he can visit? I can understand that he's consumed by revenge and wants to avoid people, but why can he waste a full day standing in front of a capsule machine trying to buy a Sega Saturn lookalike? He should be able to eat pizza or ramen because that would make him seem more real and more human.
Another questionable part of this game is the weather. One of the features that developers talked about is the "Magic Weather" system. Essentially it means that the weather occurs randomly: on November 26, one person might have a clear day and another person might see rain or snow. You can even choose the actual weather patterns of Yokosuka, Japan in 1986. I can see that being a nice or poignant moment for some people. Maybe Hiroshi Watanabe see the snow fall on a certain day and will remember when he was dumped by his first love, or Mina Kanagawa will delight when it's snowing on the day she was born, just like it was in real life. But for the rest of us, those born around or after 1986 or players of the West, we question why they even bothered. Maybe it's a nice feature, but it seems to be largely forgettable.
But maybe it's in details like that that give this game its heart. You are able to see subtle changes in the weather and the surroundings. Santa will parade around Yokosuka on Christmas, and all of the girls wear kimonos for the New Year. All of the characters also have spoken dialogue. Yes, every insignificant person, from small children to the elderly, speak every single line that they have. Granted, half of the time they say "I'm busy" or "I'm not allowed to talk to strangers," but the feeling is there. Plus, if you purchase a player's guide, you can read the backstory for every single character in the game. The amount of detail found in this game shows that you someone working on it loved it.
My advice to anyone playing this game for the first time is that you yourself play it, i.e. don't be a spectator, and that you allow yourself to be immersed in the game. Explore every room, every street corner. Talk to every person and avoid looking at a walkthrough. Waste a game day just buying junk to win your personal copy of Space Harrier. With Shenmue, the final destination isn't as important as how you get there, so take your time and enjoy yourself.
In conclusion, Shenmue is a bold effort that unfortunately fell flat. The amount of freedom that the game gives you makes you yearn for even more. That, and the fact that your protagonist is dull and the game play can be tedious detracts from the experience. Still, I would recommend this to people who want to experience a bold attempt by Sega. Still, it won't be for everyone, but for certain people it will be a treat.
*As an afterthought I have to mention how annoying the Quick Timer Events are, not only because they don't add any enjoyment to the game, but because they have been poorly implemented into many games afterwords. Curse QTE events!
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 05/05/09
Game Release: Shenmue (US, 11/08/00)
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