Thursday, 21 July 2011

An ode to Shenmue

Ryo Hazuki...all round good guy, fond of hair gel

Firstly, let me start by saying that I'm in no way a Sega fan boy. In fact, during the console wars of the 90's I was a foot soldier of the big N, and would've argued until there was no air left in my lungs that the SNES was superior to the MegaDrive. And whilst I appreciated some Sega games, I never gained true respect for Sega as a company until the release of the Dreamcast...this stance (to me anyways) makes it even more pertinent when I say that Yu Suzuki's Shenmue is one of the finest games ever produced, not just on a Sega machine, but period.

Shenmue is one of those very rare gems and it's very easy to find yourself taking about how it "transcends gaming" and is an "experience like no other". I'll try not to though because it's a bit embarrassing isn't it.

Before we get cracking, there’s the bad stuff. Whilst Shenmue may indeed "transcend gaming" (damn), it is far from perfect, hideously clunky controls (which aren't helped by the controller itself), voice acting that borders on B-movie, and a plodding style of gameplay are all enough to put a lot of people off. However, if you're willing to accept all this and persevere, you'll find brilliance the likes of which is all too rarely seen.

For those who are unfamiliar with the game, here’s a brief summary of what's what.

You play as Ryo Hazuki, an 18 year old Japanese lad (with more than a nod to Virtua Fighter's Akira) who returns home one stormy night to find the family dojo being ransacked by a group of Chinese thugs (called the ChiYouMen) led by the mysterious Lan Di. Ryo arrives just in time to see his father get his arse handed to him in the most comprehensive way. After some talk and much violence the villains make off with the mystical Dragon Mirror. Ryo, with his father left dying in his arms, vows to track Lan Di down and have his revenge no matter what...epic stuff. All these events are viewed through glorious in-game cut scenes (no CG/FMV nonsense here!), which are fully voice acted and beautifully animated.

You’re then thrust into the fabulously constructed world of Yokosuka, Japan in 1986…and when I say world, I mean world, seriously, the depth of detail in this game borders on scary and insane. You’ll find near enough everything in game that you’d expect to see in the real world and what’s more, pretty much everything is interactive…to the point where you can buy a chocolate bar from the local shop and then literally examine the wrapper, right down to the image on it (I know that sounds dull, but try it)! Even the weather is famously accurate and was matched to actual weather conditions experienced in Yokosuka in 1986/87, how detailed is that!!

Throughout the days that follow you're tasked with talking to the residents of the town, completing errands and progressing the story (much like any RPG), but it's the way that Shenmue goes about this that makes it stand out from the crowd. You can speak to almost everyone you encounter and unlike a lot of games, each person looks different, sounds different and has something unique to say. The quests and side quests are set out so they never become monotonous and there's even a time when you're required to get a job(!), unbelievably this is also ace. If you so choose, you can spend days or even weeks of the in game calendar just dicking about and enjoying living another life.

Some totally ace and pointless things you can do in Yokosuka:
  • Spend the day playing (full versions of) Space Harrier and Hang On
  • Spend all your allowance at the vending machines buying awesome toys!!
  • Go and knock at random houses to see who’ll answer the door
  • Visit bars and play tunes on the juke box
  • Go rooting through your house and whip out the Saturn
Another brilliant touch is the (now much copied) Quick Time Event (or QTE). This certainly keeps you on your toes and breaks up the game's sometimes plodding feel. One minute you're walking around the main street and then an incident occurs, you're then tasked with pressing the correct buttons at right time to make it through the event. It can be frustrating if you don't possess quick reactions, but it certainly adds to the gameplay and keeps the game feeling fresh.

For me, the true joy of Shenmue lies in the intricacies that are woven into the do actually feel like you're living Ryo's life, and the ability to do as much or as little with it as you like is truly liberating. I've never played another game where you feel so connected to the people who share your day to day life. And to people not used to or uninterested in this kind of experience, playing a game where you have to hold down a job and need to hone your fighting techniques might sound terrible, but trust me, it's delivered in such a way that it never becomes boring. Each day you have a full and vibrant town to explore and each day there is something different to experience...the only downside really, is that you've only got a set time to finish the game (although that time is a decent number of "game months"). Throughout the adventure, Ryo meets many people and makes a boat load of friends, guaranteed you'll remember each and every one of them.

The game is also not short on humour (though unintentionally), some of the things that Ryo comes out with are gold dust, anyone who's fond of the game will never forget the lines "I'm looking for sailors" and "ah...good" (that one's from when he's just downed a can of fizzy one go). So although the storyline is pretty serious, you'll still chuckle too.

This game is classed as a ‘third person action/adventure game’, but that’s honestly like classing an Aston Martin DB9 as ‘just some car’. It is without doubt (still) a shining beacon of what can be achieved when the producer/developers have a vision and (perhaps more importantly) when they have bosses who take a risk and just let them get on with it. And when compared to the myriad of uninspiring first person shooters on the shelves these days, the depth and originality of the game seem even more stunning.

Now, as is commonly known, Shenmue cost the equivalent of a small country’s GDP to make and never sold very well. As such, it’s now quite rare and can be pricey to buy, however I implore anyone who can, to go and buy a Dreamcast, a VGA cable and a copy of this game and experience first hand one gaming’s most divine moments.

1 comment:

  1. Well said.

    And anyone wishing to see a sequel to conclude the saga, over a decade after the release of Shenmue II and its cliffhanger, is invited to join the Shenmue Tweetathon on the 3rd of every month, plastering Twitter with the hashtag #GiveYuTheShenmueLicense.

    More details on the campaign at - make yourself heard!