Hello all! Last week, we took a look at an emotional indie game about a fireplace.
This week, I revisit the Dreamcast (which I really don't cover enough) with a well-known title that was supposed to be the killer app for the system. It didn't really turn out that way, though.
Shenmue is, believe it or not, fourteen years old this year (fifteen, actually, going by the Japanese release). In what was a groundbreaking title for its time, Shenmue casts you as Ryo Hazuki, who lives in Yokosuka, Japan. Ryo witnesses his father being murdered by Lan Di, who as of this title is some sort of Bad Guy. Naturally, this won't stand, and so Ryo begins looking for clues and chasing Lan Di, always coming close, but always one step behind. What follows from there is a complex and somewhat nebulous plot involving stone mirrors, biker gangs, and lots and lots of martial arts.
Oh, and all of this takes place in 1986/87, so...cassette tapes and classic arcade games and such.
Notably, Shenmue was known as the most expensive game of it's time. Development costs were estimated at a ridiculous $70 million. Keep in mind, this game was originally meant for the Saturn. That's how long ago this was. Sega never profited from Shenmue as every single Dreamcast owner at the time would've had to buy two copies in order for Sega to turn a profit. But all that lead to a game that was really unlike anything else.
What made Shenmue so unique at the time, and really what makes it unique now, is that Ryo has to also live a normal life while he's searching for Lan Di. You wake up each morning, and from there, you have until bedtime to do your tasks for the day. This includes following the main quest, doing side quests, and, um, buying crap at the convenience store. And hanging at the arcade.
Ryo at the arcade. He is always that stiff, so get used to it.
It's easy to get lost in the various things you can do in the game. You can spend a day wandering the town, talking to random people. See a vending machine? Buy a soda. Capsule toys? You can buy those too. Buying a bag of chips at the store gives you a chance to win a prize (a boom box! Or Sega Saturn games, anachronistically). One of my favorite things to do, back when I first played Shenmue, was to go to the arcade and play Space Harrier, Hang-On, and darts. Later on, you even have to get an honest-to-goodness job as a forklift operator. You work every day. 9 to 5. This is a video game.
In between exploring, forklift operating, and getting a good night's sleep, you also engage in some ass kicking. Shenmue has an entertaining if basic fighting system, with a healthy selection of moves at your disposal. Mostly, you're fighting a small group of dudes at a time, but towards the end, you get to beat up like 70 dudes at once, so. It actually kinda sorta makes sense in context (Ryo is the son of a martial artist and all). Shenmue, as it turns out, is a great example of game-story cohesion, which I mention quite a bit in these articles. Although, on the other hand, Ryo could at least seem a bit more driven to find his father's killer. You spend a lot of time forklifting, playing Hang-On, and shoving 38 bags of chips, 71 candy bars, 14 D batteries, a Walkman, and countless toys into your back pocket.
Also, Ryo is kind of a hard character to relate to. He's stiff as a board, and really has no personality. He doesn't really jump off the screen like most characters do. He in fact spends an alarming amount of time repeating things that were just said to him. In a very wooden tone. He says things like "Lan Di killed my father" with all the urgency of "I should pick up some milk." Much of the voice acting in Shenmue is even worse though. But in a huge achievement for the time, every character, no matter how insignificant (including creepy Santa) is fully voice acted. So maybe it's forgivable to a point.
(Creepy Santa is creepy because he follows you around town)
However, Shenmue is perhaps best known for releasing the beast which we all call the Quick Time Event, or QTE for short.
We all know what QTE's are, right? Press the button onscreen and you win? Well, while Shenmue didn't invent the gameplay method (it dates way back to 1983 with games like Dragon's Lair) Shenmue was the first to use the term "QTE" and thus make extensive use of them. Admittedly, the QTE's in Shenmue make at least some kind of sense (y'know, press right and Ryo dodges right) but still, it's not a fun way to play anything. Maybe sometimes it's fun, if done correctly.
(That article's from waaaaay back)
Shenmue is baffling in this respect, though, because it gave you a perfectly good fighting engine and then had you do QTE's instead. I don't get it.
See, thanks to Shenmue, we have more open, immersive worlds to explore. And we have moments like this, which can be cool and brutal:
Skip to about 1:30
Or phenomenally stupid:
JASONNNNN! ...oh, sorry, I pressed X and...sorry.
Most of them aren't that fun in Shenmue, because like every QTE, you're required to master this particular bit of gameplay until you get it right. Fail it, and you gotta do it again. And it really flies in the face of this concept of Shenmue; a free-roaming game that you can finish at mostly your own pace. Suddenly that freedom is taken away. Suddenly, the game says, "now you play this way." This is just a complaint of QTE's in general, and it's not really fair to judge Shenmue by them alone.
Because, despite my complaints, I love Shenmue. It's a little tough to play now, but thinking back, I don't really remember the QTE's that much. I remember the impressive living world, the interactivity, the graphics (holy hell were they good back then), the music (it's fantastic) and the fact that I could do whatever I wanted. Maybe the characters weren't well-defined, and maybe returning home every night was annoying. But there hadn't been a world like this in games before, one that just felt real, rather than being a carefully arranged video game land.
It's a design philosophy I wish more developers would look into. Immersion goes a long way into how we feel about games. The games we remember so fondly, like Shenmue, are remembered because they're so immersive. We were in Yokosuka for a time; that was us driving that forklift around. That's probably why so many people love Shenmue. Just imagine what this could be like on a console today.
The closest thing we have, though, is the Yakuza series on PS2 and 3. Play those too, they're awesome.
Thanks for reading! Hit the comments! Also, throw some game suggestions my way! And I'm on Twitter, if that's your scene.
Next week, I'm gonna look at one of the most divisive games ever. Love it or hate it. Let's just say if you like this game, you probably like Twin Peaks or something.