If theres one thing
thats more impressive than Hondas humanoid robot project,
its the games that have come out for the Dreamcast this past month. And the barrage
hasnt stopped. But what has stopped is the anticipation of the DCs star title:
Shenmue (pronounced "shen-moo"). Now we all know that Sega wasnt lying. Yu
Suzukis epic masterpiece, at least the first chapter of it, is just as phenomenal as
we expected. With a completely unique take on the RPG/Action genre, Shenmue does, indeed,
redefine gaming one more time.
Weve said this a lot
about Sega recently. After Seaman and Shenmue we wonder how many gaming barriers are left
to be broken? There are plenty, and we plan to go into more detail on that here at GF!,
but suffice it to say that Shenmues sense of FREE Play is pretty incredible. The
"FREE" part stands for "Fully Reactive Eyes Entertainment." During all
the promotion for Shenmue, I always imagined FREE Play to be, well, more free. I expected
that you would be able to go anywhere, do anything, and pursue a completely non-linear
storyline. Somehow, the world of Shenmue was to be so incredibly interesting that it
wouldnt require a rigid direction, and the gamer would be satisfied just oozing
toward the end, like an amoeba. Unfortunately, that isnt the case. Shenmue is a very
linear story, and youll move through the game basically just like everybody else who
plays it. Still, because of the shifting date and time, how fast you go through the game
matters, and events can be triggered differently depending on when you get to them. So
theres some variety that will make your experience not exactly like mine, but
well both do the same basic things, and well do them in the order were
supposed to. For example, if Ryo is searching for the answer to a question, hell
keep asking the question to everyone he meets until he gets it.
the FREE acronym is still very fitting, and still innovative. You do have to use your eyes
in this game. You can look at everything, from the cupboards and drawers of your home to
the shelves of the local Tomato convenience store. This kind of close observation is
necessary, and dont expect any spotlights from heaven to help you find what you
need. Your success depends entirely on your patience and ability to look at everything
around you. Of course, youll also need to talk to just about everybody in town, go
just about everywhere, and do it all at the right time.
operates on what is called "Time Control." Again, its a fairly misleading
term. At no point in time do you control time. Rather, the game has a clock (which runs
faster than real time), and things in the game happen according to what time it is. For
example, stores open at the posted time, and they close when theyre supposed to.
After work, you might find the store owner in the karaoke bar, or you may just catch up to
her while shes walking home. The delivery guy usually takes a break around
lunchtime, so you can catch him at his favorite soda machine on most days. Along with
simple hour-by-hour time control, Shenmue is dated. You begin your quest at the end of
November, and you have until Spring to get to the end of the game. That means you get to
check out Christmas and New Years Eve in Japan, and, if youre lucky, the
cherry blossoms of Spring. And it only makes sense that the weather will change as the
days go by, sometimes raining or snowing for a week.
any innovation, theres a downside to this one. Sometimes, actually often,
youll find yourself having to waste time until a store opens, your appointment to
meet somebody, or the next day. This can be frustrating for folks who want to just blast
through it, and since the story is so compelling its hard to not want to just
finish. Fortunately, there are plenty of distractions built into Shenmue to help you pass
take a step back and figure out why youre playing this game in the first place. You
play Ryo Hazuki, the teenage son of Iwao Hazuki, who is the expert instructor of the
Hazuki style of martial arts. In the opening Ryo returns home to find a strange Chinese
man named Lan Di assaulting his family. Lan Di demands a mirror, which Iwao eventually
coughs up, and then Lan Di kills him. Ryo witnesses all of this, and vows to avenge his
fathers death. Its just like a Jet Li movie Ryos father was a
hero, and the boy cannot stop himself from seeking revenge. Of course, the search for Lan
Di and the mystery of the mirror takes Ryo all over the place.
kind of a lie. The game takes place in Yokosuka, a city located in the Tokyo metropolitan
area. You mainly go all over Yokosuke, including a couple of neighborhoods, the commercial
district, and the harbor. You can find peoples addresses and visit their houses,
check out the florist, arcade, tobacco shop, or visit any one of the bars and nightclubs.
You can play Hang On, Space Harrier, Darts, and a couple of QTE games in the YOU Arcade.
Scattered around the area are machines that you can use to purchase little collectible
figurines from Virtua Fighter or Sonic games, as well as vehicles from Shenmue. The game
takes place in 1986, which causes a little confusion about whether these kinds of things
belong in it, but well suspend our disbelief because the super-deformed versions of
Virtua Fighter characters are just so dang cute.
said before, the game simulates a realistic passage of time and date, so its only
fitting that it is somewhat cyclical. Each day Ryo wakes up at home. He lives with
Ine-san, his long term housekeeper and mother figure, and Fuku-san, a martial arts student
taken in by Iwao. Each day you must train to build his martial arts skills, and
maintaining a good regimen of practice is essential to winning the game. Then, youll
go about his business for the day, which will change all the time. Ine-san is very strict
about wanting Ryo home by 11:00 pm, and at 11:30 pm youll be automatically
transported back to his room. And if youre late, you can expect a stern talking-to
from Ine-san in the morning. Shes a harsh caregiver, but we love her.
aforementioned practice comes in two forms: individual and sparring. The goal is to build
up your martial arts moves. You begin knowing some moves, stumble onto some more, read
scrolls to learn still more, and then some of your friends will teach you even more. The
moves work like a basic fighting game scheme: combos of forward and back and either hand,
foot, dodge, or throw buttons. Some are quite simple, others are much more difficult.
Youll need to master these moves because when you encounter large groups of toughs
the game switches into fighting mode, and youll need to brawl your little heart out.
other way conflicts are resolved is through the Quick Timer Events (QTE). QTEs require you
to quickly hit a button (left, right, up, down, A, B, X, Y) in order to avoid something,
parry a blow, deliver a blow, steer your motorcyle, etc. These are used for extended
action scenes and are actually a lot of fun. The QTEs arent overdone, so they
dont become tedious, and theres enough actual fighting in the game that it
doesnt feel like youre cheated when you encounter a QTE. QTEs also make
possible some insane chase scenes and really cool events that would otherwise be difficult
to pull off.
addition to all of this stuff, theres a Passport disc that allows you to connect to
the Internet, check your progress, get hints, investigate characters, and post your scores
for the various video games you can play within Shenmue. From the looks of things, lots of
people are checking out this feature, and with good reason. The statistics that are
recorded about how youve played the game are staggering. You can find out everything
from how many people you asked questions to how many sodas you bought. Its
incredible. The characters sketches fill in some holes left in the story, too, and overall
the Passport is a nice touch. While I doubt anybody will spend most of their time on the
Passport disc, its useful and brings together the individuals experiencing Shenmue.
about Shenmue is incredibly solid. The story, while a classic revenge plot, is conveyed
beautifully. No punches are pulled, and everything from the ultra-politeness of Ine-san, a
very traditional Japanese woman, to the swarthy dockworker lingo of the harbor is
represented realistically. The graphics are very nice, although there is some noticeable
"fry" in some areas, and the camera is amazing. Much of Shenmue looks like a
film, further enhancing different aspects of the game like the QTEs. The voice acting is
very good, and the writing is top notch, especially in the video game genre. About the
only negative thing we can really say about Shenmue is that it is too short. Twenty hours
or so will get you through it the first time. Of course, youll then realize how much
you missed, and youll have to play it at least one more time. And theres the
fact that its the first chapter of a four chapter series, so resolution is a bit
fleeting. When considering how much there is to Shenmue, the brevity probably wont
be a problem for most people who play it, but its also the kind of game you wish
would never end.
Suzuki, the creator of Shenmue as well as lots of classic arcade games like Space Harrier
and Hang On, has created a masterpiece. His world does make you feel like youre
living in it. The ad campaign currently running for Shenmue is entirely accurate
youll find yourself thinking about Ryo and his search for vengeance constantly, and
youll wonder about whatever mystery youre in the process of solving all day
long until you can get back to your DC. Shenmue is not only a bold leap into the future of
gaming, but its also a good hint of what the future of narrative and entertainment
could hold. We can only hope that somewhere, somehow, some game developer lives up to the
challenge of Shenmue.