SHENMUE / Sega / Dreamcast

I had quite a debate with myself over how to rate Shenmue. There is certainly a noticable list of flaws to it, which really can't be glossed over or chalked up to personal preference. It's certainly not for the FPS/sports game/"LOLOLOLO U FAG" 13 year old boy Xbox crowd. People who prefer simple games with a quick pace and a lot of action will have a legitimate gripe with it.

Not everyone will enjoy it, but I think it's an important and worthwhile experience, even if it winds up not being to your taste. And I think it was tremendously important to the medium, in ways that are only just beginning to really be understood.

Despite the biggest budget in gaming history - $70 million, a record that stood until Grand Theft Auto IV came out ten years later - Shenmue wasn't really marketed all that heavily to Dreamcast owners, let alone those that owned other consoles. It's commonly called a "major sales flop", but that's only true relative to the massive amount of money laid out on it. It actually sold about 1.2 million units worldwide, with half of those sold in the first two weeks, which was pretty close to a speed record for reaching 500,000 sales. By comparison, with only the exception of freak runaway successes like Tetris and Nintendogs, the best-selling games for each platform tend to be at around 6 to 8 million worldwide, and that's for platforms like the NES and Playstation that had a much larger user base than the Dreamcast. Shenmue's million-topping sales was good enough for the sixth best selling game overall on the Dreamcast and would be at around #10 to #15 on pretty much any other major platform. The problem, of course, was that it needed to sell about 2 million copies to turn a profit. It actually sold well, but selling well wasn't good enough, Sega was gambling on it being one of the biggest hits of all time, and that didn't quite happen.

In short, it's not that people weren't interested in the game or that it didn't develop a following, as evidenced by no shortage of rabid fans who still hold out hope that the story will be completed someday in spite of seeming complete abandonment by Sega and creator Yu Suzuki. It was just bridled with ridiculous expectations that it didn't live up to, and was further tethered by Sega's usual bad marketing and distribution decisions.

Shenmue conceptually began life as a Virtua Fighter RPG. Eventually it morphed into Project Berkley, which was basically an attempt to do Shenmue on the Sega Saturn and in a more traditional RPG style. Eventually Suzuki and Sega decided the Saturn wasn't powerful enough, and the game was more suited to an adventure game style, and this is what eventually came out the other end for the Dreamcast in 2000. Set in a fairly realistic recreation of parts of Yokosuka in 1986, young martial artist Ryo Hazuki hunts for the killer of his father - a mysterious robed man named Lan Di who just busted up into the Hazuki dojo one day, offed Ryo's dad, and stole a mirror that was buried out in the backyard.

The first thing to understand about Shenmue is that the whole story - or at least a good deal of it, from what the community outside Sega knows - was planned out from the beginning. Yu Suzuki intended for the game to span 16 chapters, and his initial plan was to release 16 separate games, but someone at Sega apparently managed to shout loud enough over the roar of money flooding out of their coffers to convince him that maybe condensing was a better idea. So the first Shenmue game actually encompasses what would have originally been the first 3 chapters (one for each game disc), then there's a chapter on a boat between this and the next game that was cut and turned into a brief comic instead, then Shenmue 2 covers the next four chapters. And someday, we pray, we'll find out how the remaining eight chapters are distributed.

The reason this is important is that, despite its cinematic quality and story focus, Shenmue is not your standard "introduce everything, build a climax then wrap it all up neatly in two hours" narrative style. Instead, it's more like the first episode of a graphic novel series. Ryo begins the game a hothead who is pushing away everyone in his life in his single-minded quest for revenge, and in spite of constant hints and nudges by other characters in the game not to throw his life away, at the end of Shenmue 2 he's still pretty much that same single-minded hothead. Everyone in the world except for Ryo knows he'll be killed really quickly if he takes on Lan Di; though he gets stronger in the process of chasing Lan Di, he doesn't do so with any kind of a methodical plan, he just wants to fight as soon as possible. Then there's the matter of a mystical Chinese girl named Shenhua who appears in Ryo's dreams (and on chocolate and potato chip packages), who figures into all this as part of some sort of prophecy of which excruciatingly little has still been revealed even at the end of the second game. And you don't even get a sniff of Lan Di in the first game, eventually finding out he already took off for Hong Kong long before and having to settle for tuning up on some local thugs as the climactic final encounter. Shenmue was taking its leisurely, confident time building itself through its narrative arc, and that's reflected in the self-determined, exploration-focused pace of the game.

Which is where the game really becomes a hit-or-miss proposition. The game presents a lavishly detailed world, but unfortunately it seems even a $70 million budget isn't enough to ensure a director can do absolutely everything they want with it. Thus, you can interact with the world in a lot of little ways, but there's actually relatively few that are meaningful.

Still, there's a lot to take in, and the game world feels more "real" than anything else I've ever played. The quality that should be most universally appreciable about the game is the level of graphical detail, since that was the primary focus. This game looks better than a lot of the PS2 and Xbox library, games that were coming out five or six years later. Every drawer in Ryo's house is filled with different items, many of which you can pick up and turn over to examine, even though they are completely and totally useless. There's a koi pond outside, which I'm sure many players never even bothered to stop and look at, but which contains all different types of highly detailed fish with multiple smooth swimming animations. There's a randomized weather system that brings light and heavy rain and snow that gradually come on and taper off, and when it gets wet, most of the game's NPCs who are outside pop out with umbrellas. And speaking of NPCs, there's literally something like 200 of them. And down to the most useless ones, they all have a daily routine they can be observed following - my favorite is the butcher, who knocks off early from his shop to go sing karaoke, and late at night can be seen drunkenly stumbling and weaving back home. Some of them even appear to take days off, and have stand-ins at their places of work on those days. There's all sorts of little businesses, complete with lovingly detailed interiors and proprietors and patrons that you can have different conversations with throughout the game, that are completely and totally unnecessary to the main game. And yet there they are. Graphically, the game is like an intricate handcraft or quilt that takes years to put together - every little corner has been paid the utmost regard.

This level of care and quality extends to the soundtrack. An ensemble cast headed up by industry vets Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage, Actraiser, Ys) and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi (Virtua Fighter and most of Sega's 3D arcade games) delivers a massive score that blends Western symphonic elements, traditional Japanese and electronica in a way that doesn't quite sound like anything else I've encountered. It's memorable, and frequently beautiful. The sound work, outside of the voice acting, is equally good. The one misstep here is the English casting. From what I understand, the Japanese voice work was decent, but Yu Suzuki insisted on having English actors who lived in Japan do the voices for the Western localizations, and they ended up really scraping the bottom of the barrel for talent there rather than sending it to someplace like L.A. where it would have been much better served. I'm guessing whoever directed the localization and acting also wasn't a native English speaker, given the incredibly wooden and halting line delivery from most characters. Still, each one of those 200-odd NPCs gets their own unique voice, which is unheard of. Fans have long wanted a version that has the Japanese voice acting with English subtitles, but unlike Shenmue 2, such a version does not exist.

There actually is quite a bit to keep you busy around Yokosuka, though admittedly a lot of it can get monotonous fast. The highlight for most players is the You Arcade, which actually features fully emulated versions of Suzuki's earliest arcade hits Hang On and  Space Harrier (in addition to some less exciting darts and timing mini-games.) There's a lot of little gambling sequences for prizes, generally Capsule Toys (gashapon), of which building up a collection (which can be viewed in close detail at any time) is a major optional side undertaking. The toys are neat for fans of retrogaming and those that grew up with Sega games, but the process of getting them is time-consuming and frustrating, and it's uncomfortably a bit too "Virtual Life" for me. There was much better functionality for this in the game's heyday from 2000 to 2002, when one could connect to Sega's servers to view everyone else's collections and trade figurines, but that's long since been discontinued.

And isn't this supposed to be a martial arts opera? Yeah, and fighting is strangely pretty central to the game, but it's also largely absent from the first disc. I think your worst enemy for about the first two hours of playtime is an errant soccer ball. Eventually there's some cheap punks to tune up on, but most of your training comes in the form of sparring with hapless partner Fuku-san in the Hazuki dojo, or performing moves by yourself in an empty park or parking lot (which is actually way more effective for training everything but throws.) Moves only become more powerful, and unlock extra steps or a faster attack time, by repeating them over and over - more repetitious grinding. Fortunately, it's not required - you can easily complete the game without ever once training. Unfortunately, that means that most of the game's fights are basically gimmes. More challenging are the "QTE" (Quick Time Event) sequences, quick button-press sequences largely inspired by Dragon's Lair and all that sort of game. A lot of people hate these. They tend to be hard, and the sound effect that accompanies the appearance of a button press cue is also jarring and kind of annoying. As someone who loves rhythm games, I enjoy QTE sequences, and do pretty well at them. But you really don't even have to have an aptitude for them here, as the game is super gentle on you - fail one, and you get to do it again, with the only punishment being you might have to watch a two-minute cinema over again.

This brings up another central issue - if the only way to die is to fail a QTE or fight scene, but you just get to try again infinitely anyway, where's the challenge? Is this just a big movie in which you press buttons once in a while? And the honest answer is, yeah, sort of. You're free to take things at your own pace and explore the game world at your heart's content, but in the end, it's an almost entirely linear experience that you will eventually see your way through if you perservere. And I'm not against this. Some of the mandatory gameplay sequences are actually a pain in the balls - there's a motorcycle race-against-the-clock late in the game that's pretty unforgiving, followed by the famous "70-man free battle", which is capped off by a pretty tough boss and is rendered even tougher if you haven't been bothering to train your moves all game. But you get as many chances as you like. The game doesn't ever force you to repeat some huge death-trap-filled level over and over, or force you into an unwinnable situation. The QTEs and fights provide a consistent level of action-based challenge without putting you in a gameplay framework that's overly frustrating, and while the adventure portion never throws any really hard puzzles at you, it does throw some lateral thinking at you here and there in terms of logical sequences of people to talk to to find something out that will at least put your brain into warm-up mode. It's definitely more cinematic than interactive on the whole, but I would not even begin to try and label it a passive experience, or anywhere near the same level as an FMV game or a Japanese "visual novel." And if you want hard twitch gaming, try completing Space Harrier on one credit, or just scoring 300,000 points on the brutal Excite QTE 2 at You Arcade - two challenges that give you bonus items you can't get any other way.

In a sense, that illustrates the chief point about this game - cliche as it may sound, it's what you make of it. It's about story - which is strong enough to overcome a clumsy localization and terrible voice acting - and cinematic presentation. It's a game for people who really enjoy the medium, and the idea of a 3D world that encapsulates a place in time that we can never really go to, and will be happy just poking around and finding all the little details and surprises left for them to find. It's for gamers who don't want or need non-stop twitch action. And even if it's not your bag, everyone should be able to at least appreciate the stunning graphics, animation and music, and the experience is worthwhile just for that alone.

It's a game with heart, and soul. It's also a game that had no business ever being made in a bean-counting, commercial-product, Marketroid-and-focus-group world, and I think that a lot of the love in the fan community for it is due to the fact that it put vision first and money second and still somehow managed to slip through the corporate gates. We wish more games would include intricately detailed soba joints and pizza shops with their own theme song that have absolutely no purpose whatsoever. That creators and artists can have a support mechanism by which to fully realize their vision, and the time and space to develop them properly, without having to worry about "what's trending right now in the 13-21 year old male demographic" or "this has gotta be out by E3" or "lol why am i playing with kittens where is ninjer sword." This isn't to advocate flushing money down the toilet - after all, if Sega had reined in their initial spending a bit more with this one, there probably wouldn't be a whole fanbase waiting eight years for even a sliver of hope of the story being completed. However, I do think the game touches on something deeper of that nature that hasn't been fully expressed in the mainstream yet. And basically every "immersive 3D world", from Second Life to Metal Gear to Grand Theft Auto, owes this game a massive debt of gratitude for blazing trails and upping the bar.

Enough with all that Serious Business, though. What you get with this one is basically an interactive Hong Kong action flick, but with better characters and a better moral compass than usual. You get amazing visuals, wonderful music, and a lot of laughs from over-the-top bad voice acting. And you get some pretty neat action sequences and a solid fighting engine that compares favorably to that of Virtua Fighter 3. It's a journey worth taking, and the sequel does the whole formula even better.

Links :

* A glimmer of hope for Shenmue 3?
* Shenmue sales figures
* The Making Of Shenmue - Retrogamer June 2010 article scans
* Fascinating article about the messed-up voice casting process for Shenmue

Videos :

* "What's Shenmue" Japanese demo disc
* oooah
* Great video retrospective/summary of the series

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