Even with the ridiculous and almost unprecedented hype that surrounded the release of SEGA’s mega-budget Dreamcast title Shenmue, it’s tough to imagine that gamers first diving into the series back then would have any idea how legendary (or infamous) Ryo’s adventure would become. Who could have guessed that even nearly 15 years later, fans would be still be begging for more?
Love it or hate it, the still-unfinished saga that is Shenmue has become a legend in its own right: a mystery etched into the fabric of gaming that may never be solved. But it’s a game very much worthy of that legendary status. It may not have been for everyone, but for those who “got” Shenmue, there was simply nothing else like it.
The game begins, of course, on a snowy afternoon in the quiet neighborhood of Yamanose. Ryo Hazuki returns home to find his father being confronted by a man, one who ultimately takes his life, along with an object known as the Dragon Mirror, before vanishing into the darkness.
Ryo’s journey to find the one known as Lan Di and avenge his father’s murder is one truly brought to life by an incredible presentation. The story on its own isn’t particularly remarkable, and it’s a plot that can be found at the center of countless kung fu movies. Similarly, the character of Ryo is known just as much for his bland personality as he is for his fighting abilities. But Shenmue is a game that works against its limitations so well that they become almost entirely irrelevant.
Shenmue makes itself feel unquestionably like your own experience
The story on the surface may not be much, but it has so much depth waiting to be discovered and it’s presented so beautifully that any comparisons you can think of to similar story lines just melt away. You have little real control over its outcome, and you’re allowed such limited customization that you can’t even change your main character’s outfit or buy him a hot dog. Yet Shenmue makes itself feel unquestionably like your own experience, so much so that never once did I feel that Ryo’s adventure wasn’t my own.
A big factor in this is how “at home” you’re made to feel in this world. You can wander through town or through your house and interact with almost anything. You can talk to anyone, you can venture to the arcade to waste some time playing classic SEGA games, or you can jump right into the quest; for most people, playing Shenmue involved a constant combination of all of the above, and that’s what made the game so incredible.
Its living, breathing world was so far ahead of its time that even those featured in most modern games don’t match it
Its living, breathing world was so far ahead of its time that even those featured in most modern games don’t match it, and you were set free into it to do what felt like anything you wanted. Any conversation or discovery that leads to a clue to advance the story is instantly recorded in your notebook, giving off a feeling of true satisfaction whenever you get a bit of info that leads you further into the mystery. It’s an addicting way to keep the story unfolding and constantly at the forefront even in such an open world setting, and again, it’s a balance that few open world games of today seem able to achieve.
When the action does occur, it’s handled incredibly well with a simple and yet undeniably fun fighting system. Events like chases and bar brawls take the form of QTEs, and though games since have become very much dependent on them, I don’t think any game’s ever used them as well as the Shenmue series did.
By keeping the action to a minimum, not only does it become a real treat when it does arrive, but it prevents the fighting system and QTEs from wearing out their welcome, something they may have done otherwise had they been the game’s primary focus. The real heart of Shenmue is in taking control of Ryo and exploring this world, of being a part of it, and pulling from it the clues needed to bring him closer to Lan Di. The best features of the game, including an amazing soundtrack that I feel has never been topped by that of any game except by that of its sequel, gorgeous graphics and audio that fully immerse you into the experience, and a day and night system and convincing weather conditions, all serve to let the gamer lose themselves in Shenmue‘s amazing world. And of course, they succeed.
The voice acting’s rough in places, the one aspect of the game’s presentation that feels cheap and unrefined.
That’s of course not to say that Shenmue’s perfect, and certainly some flaws that were noticeable back then are even more noticeable today. The voice acting’s rough in places, the one aspect of the game’s presentation that feels cheap and unrefined. The lack of ability to ask the locals specific questions, (an issue remedied in the sequel) can make asking around for clues at times more frustrating than it has to be, and a good deal of freedom is lost on Disc 3, when you become more or less imprisoned in the New Yokosuka harbor and locked into a rigid day-to-day work schedule.
If you were someone who “got it,” though, there simply was, and never will be, anything else like it.
But while it’s flawed, it’s also, in countless other ways, perfect. Shenmue is a strange game in so many ways, and definitely not a game that’s for everyone. If you were someone who “got it,” though, there simply was, and never will be, anything else like it. And if Shenmue and Shenmue II wind up going down in my gaming history as the two favorite games I’ve ever played, well…that’s definitely something I’d be okay with.
- An incredibly immersive world that feels truly alive
- A beautifully presented story
- Strong fighting mechanics and fun action scenes
- One of the best soundtracks in the history of gaming
- Not the greatest voice acting
- Some pacing issues
- Those elusive sailors…
“Simply put, Shenmue is a masterpiece. It’s a game series whose accomplishments are unparalleled, and it remains a true gem from the glorious Dreamcast era. ”