Sega - 2000
Machine: Sega Dreamcast
Where does one start with Shenmue? Should I begin by saying that (at time of writing) Shenmue is the most expensive game ever made at $70,000,000? Perhaps I should start with the epic plot said to span 16 chapters of which Shenmue 1 and 2 only cover the first 4. Maybe the technical achievement of the game with it's unparalleled graphics engine would be the best place to start. No I think I'll start with the weather and the kitten.
Shenmue is an adventure game, in many ways it's an adventure like any other. You play an angry teen out to avenge his fathers death, we've all been there before. The thing that makes Shenmue stand out, the thing that makes it totally revolutionary, is the level of freedom and realism. "So what's this about the weather and a kitten?" I hear you ask. Well the game has weather. No, not just clouds and rain, REAL WEATHER. There is an option in the game to set the weather to match the real weather conditions for Yokosuka where the game is set, in 1987 when the game is set. This gives the most fantastic atmosphere but it doesn't stop there; the characters in the game react to the weather, when it rains the townspeople come out in hoods or umbrellas. The sounds change too, as you run through the snow you hear the unmistakable sound of footsteps crunching fresh snow. If that wasn't enough you can also call up the weather service on the telephone and get a forecast for the next day. This is the level of detail the makers of this game have gone to but wait there's more.
The world of Shenmue doesn't just have real weather, it's a real world. In it real, everyday things happen. The people of Yokosuka are all individuals and they all have a set routine, be it opening up the shop every morning or spending the day in the park. The everyday life doesn't stop with the other characters, you too can do mundane things - and it's never been so much fun. You can waste your money in the capsule toy machines, you can get a can of drink from the drinks machine, and you can even play genuine arcade games like Super Hang-On in the arcade. My favourite of these pointless exercises is feeding the kitten.
If that's not enough for you on the realism front check out The Real Yokosuka, yes the game is set in a pretty good reconstruction of a real Tokyo backwater. I'm already planning my pilgrimage.
Shenmue's detractors point out that the actual game involves little more than talking to people and having the occasional fight, and you know what? They're right, but they're completely missing the point. This is a daring new form of game and you can't judge it the same way as other games. The fun of this game is in the freedom, you don't have to do anything. If you don't want to keep asking people about the Mad Angels, don't, go down to the arcade and blow off some steam instead. This isn't a game that has to be beaten, to rush through as fast as you can is to miss the game itself. The pleasure is in the smaller things, like listening to your walkman while waiting for the bus or ringing up your girlfriend and then not knowing what to say. Enjoy the freedom! Perhaps the most amazing thing about this game is that Sega spent $70 million on making something that is this different, thank you Sega.
I have to stress now that it's not all just wondering around doing real things, there is a plot and a purpose to your adventure but it too is dealt with in a very real way. It's only when you complete the first Shenmue game that you realise how little you've actually achieved in the grand scheme of things, this because the story unravels at a realistic pace. You can spend days running around talking to people following the leads only to discover later that their information is irrelevant. Don't be put of, there's loads of action too, in fact the balance is just right.
Shenmue II sees you on to the next leg of your adventure in Hong Kong and China. The game is much bigger and there's much more to explore. There's also a lot more action and more variety in game play. The size and design of the areas you explore are very impressive and again they're all real places. But I could go on all night; I think it's time to sum up.
Shenmue is one of the best, most original, most involving and rewarding gaming experiences you'll ever have. You only have to search the web to see what a huge following the saga has. It's true, this game isn't for everyone, but if you've read this far in this review it's safe to say that you've got the required attention span and you'll love it. Please go buy it, play it now. In fact buy an X-box and play Shenmue II on that. Shenmue cost a lot of money and due to the bad sales of the Dreamcast it didn't make a lot of money back. We will never see Shenmue III unless it's a viable financial prospect for Sega so we'll have to keep our fingers crossed that people buy it on the X-box or we'll never hear the end of the story. So buy it now; I NEED CLOSURE.
By Jakey on 6 Feb '03
The genius of Shenmue dawned on me during a section of the game when I had to wait until (game time) dark to meet some dodgy characters. What did I do? Leave the game running and go off and make a cup of tea? Curse the fact that the game wasn't structured in an immediate enough fashion? No, I walked Ryo off to the arcade and played darts until the game ran into dusk. It was amazing! While I was playing darts (and Super Hang On) I was getting all nervous for the forth coming meeting, trying to concentrate on passing the time. It was a transcendent moment, just the fact that the game seemed to be so in tune with reality: In real life, I do go to the arcade to pass the time. In real life, I do get nervous before appointments. In Shenmue, the arcade wasn't just a neat touch: it was crucial the immersive qualities of the game. The fact is, you have to play the bits that movies normally cut out, or at least play out the little scenes that show how a character might be dealing with pressure. Video games have traditionally been made up of set-pieces and action. Shenmue is the first game to successfully deal with the bits in between and make them crucial parts of the experience. A lot of people are struggling with this more open ended approach to video games, but the trick is not to become puzzled or angry with it: play it through, everything has to be explored and sensed because, within the game, it's there to be enjoyed.
Shenmue 2 addresses many of the criticisms levelled at the original instalment. There is less time spent waiting around - although you're still welcome to pass time in the arcades. There is also an option to accelerate time, and while I see the value of this, I think it goes against some of the more subtle features on offer. As mentioned above, the game has even more detail packed in than the first game. The Hong Kong location is beautifully realised, terrifically atmospheric. The new characters, especially the good guys, are really interesting and - yes - charismatic. The bond that you create with some of the people in Hong Kong is surprisingly powerful. The gameplay is more focussed, but it still provides enough latitude to enable you to wander off and explore. The puzzles are more varied, some of them being almost zen-like in their conception. There is one part of the game where you have make Ryo catch leaves in between his fingers: it's a magical moment, showing that Shenmue has even more up it's sleeve than you would expect. The game has a more assured feeling about it, and there can be no doubt that the series will improve with every game.
There is a possibility that Sega will start releasing the next instalments in the form of old fashioned mission disc, thus removing the need to continually re-program the engine and release a new game every time a new episode is to be released: this would mean that the designers can focus on the level design and release each instalment as often as every six months... this is speculation, but if Sega go down this road we could look forward to up to two new episodes every year! Imagine that.
Bubbaray 06 Feb '03
ebay - Get a Dreamcast and Shenmue to play on it from ebay or buy an XBox and Shenmue II if you must, just buy it.
Shenmue Dojo - A busy site with loads of video and music.
Shenmue UK - An active UK based fansite.