Review by Disco1960

"A tale of a man’s quest for revenge and every single toy capsule."

Shenmue is a game that captures the feel of “real life” more so than any other game that has come before it.

Granted, nobody else has ever really attempted to do so, mainly due of the lack of technology to make such a project even remotely feasible.

Still, for a first try, Shenmue creates a world that is pretty darn close to being perfect. The environments in the game are certainly a wonder to look at, and you, the player, actually get to explore them. It must be something of a rarity, in gaming, to simply be able to enjoy the mundane; it’s quite easy to just stand back and appreciate the scenery, or relax, and buy yourself a Coke.

The experience can lose its novelty a bit quickly, but there’s also no lack of activity in Shenmue’s environments. Yokosuka is a place full of people, short and tall, young and old, slim and fat. And you get to have a short conversation with each and everyone of them, in which they tell you to go away and find someone else.

Shenmue begins in a powerfully directed cutscene with the protagonist of the story, Ryo Hazuki, witnessing the murder of his father, Iwao Hazuki, in cold blood by a man named Lan Di, right in their very own home. Understandably, Ryo, along with nearly everyone else in the audience, feels the need to embark on a hell-bent quest to avenge his father’s murder. Along the way, you meet Ryo’s family, friends, and acquaintances. Ryo’s interactions with all of them serve to deepen your understanding of what kind of person he is. The fact that you spent the game walking around in the man’s shoes really serves to enhance your sympathy for his plight. Some may complain that the story’s been overdone, but Shenmue is only intended to be the first installment of many. And there are hints throughout the game that the story is going to become something a little more epic.

The gameplay of Shenmue involves a lot of Ryo running around, and looking for clues on the whereabouts of his father’s murderer. You have to figure out where to go, and who to talk to next. And if some guys get in your way, you get to beat the crud out of them using your arsenal of killer karate moves that you’ve learned from various scrolls and people and practiced every day.

The action is quite linear, so when you tire of constantly furthering the plot, you can find plenty of things to pass your time for a while in Yokosuka. Most of them are in the YOU Arcade, which includes but isn’t limited to complete versions of the classics Hang On and Space Harrier, plus a wonderfully addictive dart game. And of course, outside there are the infamous toy capsule machines scattered around the area that threaten to eat up every last yen in your pocket.

An odd thing about Shenmue, however, is how the game is practically impossible to lose. If you can’t figure out where to go, the game tries to gradually make it more obvious for you. When you’re defeated in a battle, the battle simply restarts and you get to try again. Heck, you pretty much have to actively try if you want the bad ending, and even then it’s rather difficult task. The lack of serious challenge in the game might detract from the experience at first, but eventually you get used to it and won’t be that big a deal. Besides, if you are really looking for a challenge, you can just go and play Space Harrier.

As you explore Ryo’s neighborhood, there is always going to be some kind of tune playing in the background. Each of the shops and locations in Shenmue has their very own theme song, and they’re all perfectly designed to complement the mood of the place. For instance, the Antique Shop has this quiet, delicately played music in the background that reminds you not to break anything. The Tomato Convenience Store has a jaunty little tune perpetually playing, and it’s kind of like those songs that they’d play up on the supermarket loudspeaker that somehow serve to reassure you that their products are always fresh.

A lot of these tunes are so good that they have the effect of making you want to stay there a little longer, even if there’s absolutely nothing to do except talk to whoever’s working there. Bob’s Pizzeria is definitely a must-visit, even though Mario the pizza guy has like, two things to say throughout the course of the game.

The entire soundtrack is really diverse, and a genuine pleasure to listen to. You’ve got the sad and wistful songs, upbeat and cheerful ones, some jazz, and a funky beat that goofily attempts to imitate modern hip-hop. And most of them are conveniently available to listen to at your whim on the helpful Shenmue Passport disc. Plus, they’re also sold on audio cassette at each of the Tomato Convenience Store locations, at the low, low price of 500 yen. It’s the kind of record that you could possibly consider putting in your car stereo and playing on the way to work, or on a long road trip.

Ryo does a lot of talking in this game. It’s not always just about his clues or leads; there’s a bit of small talk here and there, so Ryo doesn’t just come off as incredibly rude all the time. Shenmue doesn’t have the greatest voice acting in the world, but in no way is it going to make your ears bleed, either. Ryo’s delivery can sound a bit wooden at times, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to listen to him speak as much as he does. All the voices always clear and intelligible, and there’s only a few cringe-worthy line moments (“Shey shey, Ryo-san!”) that mostly come from those in minor roles and fortunately end quickly.

Shenmue is indeed worth buying, if you have a Dreamcast still lying around, and you’re in the mood for some not-so-heavy gaming. That’s not to say that Shenmue doesn’t have its fair share of action, it’s just that there’s not nearly as much of that blood-pumping frustration that some gamers are so fond of. Out of all the things you can do here, you probably only need to do half of them, so it’s easy to rush through it if you’re the impatient type. Or you can sit back, take your time, and enjoy the ride, if you want it to last longer.

At any rate, it’s definitely worth playing again, and even a few more times after that. Odds are you missed something, be it a scene, an audio cassette, or the elusive last toy capsule. And beating up sailors never gets old.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 03/28/04

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