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by Sega

BATTLE_3-01.jpg (4120 bytes)If there’s one thing that’s more impressive than Honda’s humanoid robot project, it’s the games that have come out for the Dreamcast this past month. And the barrage hasn’t stopped. But what has stopped is the anticipation of the DC’s star title: Shenmue (pronounced "shen-moo"). Now we all know that Sega wasn’t lying. Yu Suzuki’s 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.

FORKLIF2-01.jpg (3802 bytes)We’ve 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 Shenmue’s 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 wouldn’t require a rigid direction, and the gamer would be satisfied just oozing toward the end, like an amoeba. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Shenmue is a very linear story, and you’ll 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 there’s some variety that will make your experience not exactly like mine, but we’ll both do the same basic things, and we’ll do them in the order we’re supposed to. For example, if Ryo is searching for the answer to a question, he’ll keep asking the question to everyone he meets until he gets it.

CHAI5-01.jpg (3079 bytes)But 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 don’t 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, you’ll also need to talk to just about everybody in town, go just about everywhere, and do it all at the right time.

IWAO_2-01.jpg (3772 bytes)Shenmue operates on what is called "Time Control." Again, it’s 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 they’re supposed to. After work, you might find the store owner in the karaoke bar, or you may just catch up to her while she’s 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 Year’s Eve in Japan, and, if you’re 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.

RYO1-01.jpg (3381 bytes)As with any innovation, there’s a downside to this one. Sometimes, actually often, you’ll 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 it’s hard to not want to just finish. Fortunately, there are plenty of distractions built into Shenmue to help you pass the time.

BATTLE4-01.jpg (3132 bytes)Let’s take a step back and figure out why you’re 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 father’s death. It’s just like a Jet Li movie – Ryo’s 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.

FORKLIF3-01.jpg (4096 bytes)That’s 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 people’s 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 we’ll suspend our disbelief because the super-deformed versions of Virtua Fighter characters are just so dang cute.

ROUKA-01.jpg (3102 bytes)As I said before, the game simulates a realistic passage of time and date, so it’s 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, you’ll 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 you’ll be automatically transported back to his room. And if you’re late, you can expect a stern talking-to from Ine-san in the morning. She’s a harsh caregiver, but we love her.

MOVEINS2-01.jpg (4167 bytes)The 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. You’ll need to master these moves because when you encounter large groups of toughs the game switches into fighting mode, and you’ll need to brawl your little heart out.

QTECHAS2-01.jpg (3741 bytes)The 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 aren’t overdone, so they don’t become tedious, and there’s enough actual fighting in the game that it doesn’t feel like you’re 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.

NOZOMI3-01.jpg (3941 bytes)In addition to all of this stuff, there’s 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 you’ve played the game are staggering. You can find out everything from how many people you asked questions to how many sodas you bought. It’s 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, it’s useful and brings together the individuals experiencing Shenmue.

HANG_ON2-01.jpg (3596 bytes)Everything 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, you’ll then realize how much you missed, and you’ll have to play it at least one more time. And there’s the fact that it’s 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 won’t be a problem for most people who play it, but it’s also the kind of game you wish would never end.

GAMECENT-01.jpg (3832 bytes)Yu 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 you’re living in it. The ad campaign currently running for Shenmue is entirely accurate – you’ll find yourself thinking about Ryo and his search for vengeance constantly, and you’ll wonder about whatever mystery you’re 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 it’s 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.

Shawn Rider

Snapshot

Ups: Incredible story; solid gameplay; great graphics and sound; very addictive; deep, textured world; innovative elements.

Downs: A little short; sometimes the waiting can be tough.

System Reqs:
Sega Dreamcast

 

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