Review by Showtime1080

"Shenmue is great."

Shenmue is the greatest adventure game in the history of videogames. A gripping tale of a man forced into manhood after witnessing his father's death, Shenmue chronicles the life of Ryo in such a logical manner, every twist and turn fits into place seamlessly. In fact, all of the narrative elements are so smooth, the gamer falls immersed into the world of Shenmue, and the player becomes Ryo. Ryo exemplifies an American hero. Ryo is bold, brave, unpretentious, and charming enough gamers feel honored to live out Ryo's life; and do so with pride.

How cool is Ryo? When his father dies, Ryo doesn't go into a long period of mourning. His father's death is gruesome; a fight between two expert martial artists, (though one was far more experienced), the final deathblow was a straight armed palm-strike squarely landing in the apex of Ryo's fathers chest. It froze his heart on impact. Certainly Ryo is hurt, but he simply gathers his bearing and vows to seek revenge on Lan Di. Ryo doesn't even outwardly show his emotions to all the townspeople, the nosy people know of his plight and when they express their condolences to him, he only replies “Thanks”. Ryo's stoic reaction to such a traumatic event creates an intimacy with Ryo and the world of Shenmue.

The collection of family also forms the intimacy of Shenmue. The characters that associate with Ryo are memorable and their names rattle off the mouth due to the relationships gamers will build. Fuku-san is a foreign exchange student, who's living at the house to study martial arts from Ryo's father. One of the most memorable characters, Fuku-san is a gullible, dim-witted kid with the heart of pure gold who feels so sorry for Ryo, he's willing to do anything. Its actually quite depressing when Fuku-san is eager to depart with his entire life savings to fund Ryo, it feels like Ryo is taking advantage of the happy, wide-eyed kid. Ine-san, is Ryo's frail caregiver, who mopes around the house still mourning the loss and becomes an over-protective mother figure who constantly advises Ryo not to continue his journey. She is a Japanese worker in every subservient sense, who bows with every instruction given and speaks very softly. Though annoying, she provides Ryo an invaluable daily allowance. Nozumi is a beautiful schoolmate of Ryo who has a crush on Ryo. Ryo certainly appreciates her but he has a bigger agenda and cannot be tied down to her. She seems the perfect fit for Ryo; she isn't outgoing, isn't concerned about material things, and seems genuine. Her pain from Ryo's supposed disinterest seeps through the screen. Each of these characters has their own personality, forcing the gamer to feel an emotional attachment to them.

At its core, Shenmue is an investigation adventure game that uses interrogation as a tool to learn new clues.
Ryo's house serves as the main hub and starting point between the other towns. Ryo will travel to many areas such as Dobuita, Sakuragaoka, and each town has people to help with the quest to find Lan Di. That is essentially the only means of finding Lan Di, traveling to areas and asking questions to find his location. For instance, after Ryo's father dies a townsperson recalls a black car recklessly driving away nearly running over a few people. Ryo, having learned of this, proceeds to ask people whether they saw a black car and in which direction it was traveling. Many people don't know, but some advise to ask a particular person and Ryo will seek that person. Playing detective is not a glamorous job and gamers may feel weary of the exhaustive task of asking people, but Shenmue's world is an involving one, with many side-tasks and distractions to keep Ryo's startled and alert.

Everything from Arcades to a 9-5 employment where Ryo literally clocks in every day to perform factory work subtly pushes the gamer further and further in. On top of that, mischievous people may inadvertently challenge Ryo, and he'll have to quickly defend himself using an event termed QTE, or Quick Time Event. A boy is playing soccer with another girl and as Ryo walks by, he notices the boy kicks the ball too hard and it is heading straight for Ryo's head. On the screen, the “a” button will flash and the gamer will have to quickly press the “a” button to catch the ball. Its pure reflex, but that's how it would be in real life. The system works brilliantly; it forms a bridge between the gamer and the unpredictable fashions of everyday life. Better yet, Ryo happens to be the son of an expert martial artist, so Ryo knows a few karate moves. The fighting system is complex enough to require a steady does of lonesome practice. Fortunately, Fuku-san being the nice guy, lends his body as a sparring partner. Thugs litter Shenmue's world, even if they're not related to the mission, and they pack a mean punch. The system resembles Virtua Fighter's, so blocking, dodging, coupled with impressive offensive attacks produces a workable engine good enough to stand on its own. The controls are smooth and responsive, and all the moves animate immediately after the button is pressed. It's a good thing because Ryo relishes in a good fight. Ryo is every bit the gentleman, but if push comes to shove he'll use his strength to beat info out of opponents, whether it's a non-stop barrage of punches to a face or a simple chokehold. Japan is a country of respect and traditionalism and the fighting mirrors this aspect. While Ryo will bash a common thug, he'll resort to finesses and skill when fighting enemies of his own stature who can block and evade as well as Ryo can. Some fighting scenes become epic battles straight out of a movie with fast-paced martial art expertise.

Shenmue takes place in the 1980's. Japan is a country of many dirths and faces; while historically the 1980's were a budding technological time, many areas of Japan maintained a respect to traditional ways. Ryo's house looks old and traditional, with a large cherry tree in the backyard, bamboo sticks, a garden with a mixture of flowers, even the fish swim with delicacy. Inside the house feels like a home with many modern amenities, including a Sega Saturn! Every single building is beautifully rendered using realistic looking textures. The amount of objects placed into each setting reaches an incredible state, resembling a virtual reality session on Japan. Gamers will find themselves walking around just to view the small Japanese text signs, apartment numbers, road signs, caution signs, advertisements, vending machines, telephone booths, telephone poles; hundreds of stuff. Walk into the Tomato grocery store and gamers will find all kinds of purchasable food; like tuna to feed the young kitten, or a cassette tape. Character animations are spot on, though they have an annoying tendency to pop-up. Shenmue's non-playable, non-investigatable characters who serve mainly as decoration emerge in mid-air---sometimes directly in front of Ryo. Accompanying each town, is musical simplicity reaching gaming genius. Gamers will feel a tingling sensation when the four-note “music” plays when at Ryo's house. The “music” sounds as if an old, wise, wizard is sitting in a temple playing an ancient instrument wishing good fortune on the gamer. The music is so basic it really is just ambience, and each town contains a different ambience and all are equally mesmerizing. Each object listens well too; whether it's the footsteps of Ryo, or the sound of a door closing or wind swirling around in the boatyard. The dialogue spoken with some characters can be robotic and lazy but most of it fits and remains believable. Especially Nozumi's whose sexy Asian voice and her gorgeous body tempts gamer to forget Lan Di. The coziness of Shenmue's world is unparalleled; the 1980's, modern/traditional Japan setting is executed to perfection.

Although the ultimate goal is to find and kill Lan Di, playing through Shenmue never focuses on it. Amazingly, Lan Di's name is mentioned just a few times---the purpose of the game becomes etched into the gamer's subconscious, but gamers do many, many things in Shenmue. Spending hours in the Arcade perfecting the high-score in Darts is common, thus the game moves along leisurely. In fact, when Yu Suzuki laid down the mechanics of the story, it was supposed to last over 10 chapters! This is just the 1st chapter in the long process to get Lan Di, and if all the chapters feature such outstanding gameplay, such outstanding graphics, such outstanding audio, such outstanding characters, such emotion, then the series is worth waiting for.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 05/12/04


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