"The game that posed the question, "Do you know where I can find sailors?""

Like many silly Americans, I enjoy a good old poorly dubbed martial arts film - so of course I was interesting in Sega’s karate fighting/RPG Shenmue. I thought the title looked very promising, and then at its release my friend bought it. I visited him, tried it out, and loved it. Well folks, I ended up dishing out a wad of cash and buying a Sega Dreamcast with a copy of Shenmue.

Shenmue is like an interactive martial arts film. You take control of Ryo Hazuki, a hot-blooded Japanese high school student and son of a karate master. One day you’re coming home when you notice the gate door is askew and a large black luxury car is parked out in front of your home. When you enter your front yard, you find your live-in maid Ine-san beaten to the ground. She tells you your Father is in trouble. As you slowly walk to the dojo, your Father’s current student Fuku-san is thrown through the doors of the shrine of brute strength. You enter the dojo and are stopped by two men in suits. Your Father begins fighting with a man in a green robe. This unknown man is a master of some unknown martial art - one your Father can’t defend himself against. The man kills your Father and takes a mirror with a dragon design from your home. As you shed tears over your dead Father’s corpse. You hear one of the men in black suits call the murder “Lan Di-sama.” Lan Di. You’ll never forget that name. You’ll reap your revenge one day.

The story slowly develops, but it’s a really good development. Shenmue’s story is excellent, as there are tons of plot twists and even an enormous cast of characters. You’ll soon fall in love with the beautiful Nozomi, the wise Master Chen, the bungling Fuku-san, and, of course, the funky Jamaican Tom.

Now taking control of Ryo’s quest to find and kill Lan Di, you’ll need to ask the local townspeople for clues of his whereabouts. Better get comfy kids; there’s a lot of talking ahead of you for the next two discs. Our protagonist begins by talking to ever-single person he encounters on the street. Ryo always asks the same question - “Did anything unusual happen that day?” - (the day his Father died). About 90% of the people you can talk to will give you no help at all. They’ll say pointless dribble like “It was cold so I stayed inside all day” or “I don’t talk to strange men.” The process becomes frustrating and tiresome because there is only so long that you can wander around a street asking everyone the same question before you just want to throw the disc against the wall. However eventually you’ll acquire a lead on Lan Di, and now Ryo must go back and ask everyone a different question. The first two discs pretty much play out like this - just asking questions, listening, and looking for Lan Di.

Actually getting Ryo to move takes much effort at first, as the controls are rather clunky. It took me several days of gameplay before I could learn the layout on the buttons, and even then I still encountered problems positioning Ryo between objects. For example certain objects have a certain radius in which you can’t approach them. This is most evident during Ryo’s driving the forklift in which you can’t come five inches to a steel barrel without coming to a complete stop and hearing Ryo utter “Yeeah!”.

Sometimes Ryo will need to set up an appointment with certain people to learn more information. This is probably the worst part of Shenmue. The world of Shenmue revolves around time just like our world. Four minutes of real-time equals about one hour of Shenmue time. Now let’s say it’s 2:00 pm Shenmue time and you set up an appointment for noon tomorrow. Trying to be realistic, Sega made it so Ryo can at the earliest only go to bed 8:00 pm. That means you have roughly 24 minutes of real-time to kill.

You have very few choices of what you can do to fill the time. One thing you can do is just leave the game on and do something else. I found this approach to be rather boring. However Shenmue does offer a slew of extra stuff to do when wasting time. For example the You Arcade sports several arcade games for Ryo to try his hand at. Two of these arcade games are full versions of Sega classics Hang On and Space Harrier. The latter is extremely fun, and one game takes about one hour of Shenmue time. Simply put Space Harrier is a fine way to waste time in Shenmue. On the other hand Hang On just plain sucks. It’s nearly impossible to steer that damn bike so you’ll be done with the game in a matter of five Shenmue minutes. There are also two newly made machines for Ryo to use: darts and QTE (quick time event) Challenge. Darts is quite possibly the best way to waste time because it’s such an enjoyable game. Ryo will continually move his hand around while holding a dart. All you need to do is hit A and Ryo will throw a dart. Where the dart lands depends on the angle and height of Ryo’s hand. Darts takes about fifteen minutes a game, but it’s so addictive that I could easily spend five Shenmue hours on that machine. QTE Challenge is simply a boring game that helps you train for Quick Time Events (I’ll get to those eventually). Ryo can also use slot machines to gamble, but it’s nearly impossible to win. Other things include buying useless capsule figures, drinking soda, and playing with a kitten.

Sometimes when Ryo has a lead he’ll need to travel to dank allies and meet shady people in bars. Not everyone is going to be nice to our overly polite hero, so he’s going to have to unleash his fists of fury! One of these fighting scenes is called the Quick Time Event. During these times an image of a Dreamcast button will flash on the screen. You’ll have a matter of seconds to hit that button to avoid attacks or throw one of your own. These scenes aren’t extraordinarily fun, but they are quite interesting to watch (hence the interactive martial arts film). But the real fun begins with the free battle.

Free battles allow to you take control of every one of Ryo’s actions as he dukes it out with the local thugs. These fights are the best part of Shenmue because Ryo has a plethora of moves and they offer a sizable challenge. You can also train in several locations to fine-tune your moves and combos. In addition many scrolls containing devastatingly powerful moves can be found and bought throughout the world of Shenmue. You can also learn skills from other people in the world who will give you step by step instructions on new moves.
After beating the game, you can play the infamous 70 man fight anytime. The 70 man fight is a free battle where Ryo takes on 70 opponents. It’s very challenging but extremely enjoyable to play. However it only teases the gamer because then you’ll yearn to replay all the other free battles, but to do that you’d have to replay the entire game - and that means sitting through hours of talking! That’s right folks, you can’t skip scenes in Shenmue. For the gamer that loves to replay his titles, your worst enemy won’t be Lan Di, but the inability to skip those long scenes! What’s a cheesy martial arts film without a fast forward?

There is a couple of interesting times in which Ryo will operate certain machinery. At one point Ryo will get a job driving a forklift. All you do is move crates all over the harbor. The work is pretty repetitive, yet somehow it’s very fun in the beginning. However by the fifth day of working you’ll go out of your mind with boredom (thankfully it’s also the last day of work). There is also a scene in which you drive a motorcycle. This event is rather short and not all too special, but at least something different to thrown into the gameplay.

Another grand flaw in the game is the fact that there are very few fights in discs one and two. It seems that the first two discs are all development for Shenmue’s amazing finale on disc three. This may discourage some gamers from playing on, but those that stick with Ryo’s adventure will discover a great finish to this tale.

The graphics of this game are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Every character looks amazing with fluid and dazzling animation. In addition everyone has an excellent face that expressions emotion better than any game since Final Fantasy X. The backgrounds and areas are also amazing with jaw dropping complexity and even weather. It can be sunny, cloudy, raining, and even snowing. Also there are even minor touches to the backgrounds such as the slashing of raindrops to the grounds or piles of snow shoveled near the sides of buildings. The fight scene graphics are very impressive with blurring effects are even dust that’s kicked up.

But not all is good with Shenmue’s graphics. Some character’s hair just looks completely phony and unrealistic. For example Tom’s stereotypical Jamaican hair seems to move all around the place and even will stick to his face. Also there are tons of jagged edges in this game. Luckily they aren’t all that noticeable.

The sound effects are excellent. You got your bone crunches and smacking noises along with subtle touches like footsteps, water running or even the rustling of potato chips. The music is amazing. You’ll never grow weary of hearing the same music play while in town because the tune is constantly changing to one of the many tracks on Shenmue’s soundtrack. Much of the music is there for ambiance, and it sets the mood of each scene very well. However the mood is easily thrown off by horrible voice acting.

Every character has a horrible muffled voice. It’s so incredibly frustrating having to hear Ryo’s awful acting throughout the entire game. Ryo’s actor seldom sounds like he’s into his job - more like he just wants to finish as quickly as possible. In addition there are many people with really annoying voices such as the clerks at the Abe Store and Harbor Cafe.

So was Shenmue worth buying a Dreamcast? Although it can be boring at times, the fight scenes are excellent and well worth playing through. However for a three disc game, Shenmue is really way too short, as it took me only about ten hours to complete. I’d say don’t search on ebay for a Dreamcast so you can buy Shenmue, but get a Dreamcast so you can play those wonderful SNK ports!

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 06/21/03, Updated 06/21/03

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