« | Home | »

The magic of Shenmue

posted on October 18th, 2005 by pat
Don't jump!
From the opening movie it was completely apparent this game was to be of epic proportions.

Perhaps no game or series has ever affected me the way the two Shenmue games have. Because Yu Suzuki was the lead designer, the first game received a good amount of hype leading up to its release, but I was initially unable to play it since I didn’t own a Dreamcast. A short while after the release Jason and I got together, and while we were trying to figure out what to play, he mentioned that he had started Shenmue, but had not gotten very far and was not yet sure if he liked it or not. Fortunately, we chose to restart the game, and barely looked back. Barely only because at first there was a brief period where we were a little unsure what we had gotten ourselves into. The game seemed engrossing, but was it fun? I’m still a little unsure about whether or not I can really answer that question, yet I regularly check the internet for news about a possible third installment, so there must have been something there.

For our purposes, I will be discussing the game and its sequel as one. Shenmue II is a true sequel to Shenmue in that the plot of the second game (and hopefully more after it – more on this later) picks up pretty much where the first leaves off. At the end of the first Ryo, the hero, boards a ship, and the opening movie of the second is that ship coming into harbor.

I am a little too far removed from my most recent trip through the game to give it a proper review, but I can briefly sketch out the major pro and cons. The pros consist primarily of the engrossing story, complete with a fully developed world, and well fleshed out characters. The player will actually care what happens to Ryo, and run the gamut of human emotions along with him as he acts awkwardly around girls his age, agonizes over the loss of his father (not a spoiler, this is about the first thing that happens in the game), and sympathizes enough with other characters to defend them from attackers (or help them carry books). The fighting engine is very good. I would go so far as to say the battle system is a little too sophisticated considering how infrequently it is utilized. By the end of the game we had gained experience in moves we never ended up using in the normal course of gameplay.

Cracked building
The scale of Shenmue was amazing for its time.

The cons of this game are pretty serious to most gamers, and (along with the cost of development) are probably the reason the series is presently underwater. It can be slow. Many of the tasks you have to
complete are incredibly mundane, such as the aforementioned book carrying, as well as crate moving, catching falling leaves, and plenty of others. In the first game there are events that take place at a certain time, and Ryo sometimes has to kill time before progressing. Fortunately this time can be spent in a number of ways, such as shopping, talking to people, and training (shadowing boxing in empty areas). There is even a slow, uneventful walk through the woods that takes up almost an entire disk. To me these slowdowns served to continue immersion in the world. Ryo met with relatively boring periods in the game because that is what happens to human beings in real life. I can, however, understand why this would turn off a certain segment of the population. Anyway, the story is really what caused me to continue driving ahead in this game (also I’m pretentious enough to believe I can recognize quality despite its wrapper or shortcomings, that comes into play here).

Also, there are quicktime events, which are minigames wherein the player presses a button which appears onscreen in order to execute a complex action in a cinematic fashion. Think God of War. It is possible this detracts from the reality of the game, but adds enough to the cinematic feel of the game that it is worth the tradeoff.

It goes past 4!
This pic from a Sega meeting still makes me tear up.

Some of my favorite gaming memories revolve around the hours spent playing these games. As mentioned Jay and I started the first one a little skeptically, but were soon hooked. Fortunately the first game came out in the United States. This made our discovery of its charms a little easier.

Not so with the second one. We had to import the game from Europe and play it in Japanese with English subtitles, which I thought actually added to the experience. The timing associated with the second one involved a relatively drawn out debate between the two of us about whether or not we should play it over a winter break (the next time we would see each other) or wait until the following summer (we would have far more time). The terms to discuss were whether we would be able to give it the attention it deserved over the shorter break, and if not whether we would be willing or able to put it aside should we be faced with going back to college with the games incomplete. We chose to forge ahead. Unfortunately there were setbacks. Jay managed to break his thumb at a batting cage on a medium speed softball pitch that snuck up and in on him. This meant I would play the bulk of the game (including QT events) while he would handle the fighting (he was better and could use his fingers Soul Caliber style). This circumstance led to one of our epic moments of gaming together. He fought the final boss as valiantly as one could before the game transitioned to a quicktime event. He deftly tossed me the controller so I could finish off our enemy. Perhaps the drama does not translate too well to the page, but the difficulty of the final boss, along with the injury means that event belongs in the annals of gaming history.

Father, no!
Lan Di, I swear I will have my revenge, but I will not become like you.

The game did not end with the final boss however. Remember that disc of walking through the woods? It follows this fight. It may sound anticlimactic, but it really is not. The facts revealed to Ryo on that walk
are riveting. Of course Jay’s entire family (parents, sister, sister’s fiancé) were not riveted by the story at all, and did not appreciate the fact that we commandeered the TV to play (we were both returning to college the next morning). Not only were we playing a video game that did not interest them, all we were doing was walking through the woods. Must have made a great impression on them. So we endured injury, ridicule, and a lack of sunlight to make it through the game. Not to mention the hassle of import (we began the steps to make our save carry-over-able, but realized how depressing it would be to lose a two game old character in the third game, and chose to deal with the heartache after the first), coupled with the looming prospect of never seeing a third. Of course it was completely worth it.

The problem I am left with today is the fact that we may never see the series completed. Jay and I have argued about the best way to end the series. Should they cram the final chapters into one final game? Should they go ahead as planned and perhaps never finish the series? Unfortunately, if it is ever finished at all, it will most likely be a compromise of Suzuki’s vision. Of course that does not stop me from regularly checking websites for any possible information. When one website reports some vaguely positive sounding news, I scan message boards to see what others think it could possibly mean. When some one else dashes those hopes with too much reality, my optimism is strained, but ultimately remains in place. In other words, I will never stop pining for another one of these games.

It seems I’ve gone on too long, but when it comes to Shenmue I can not help but gush a little…


More from Jay –

Pat is right to be in love with Shenmue. If everyone were we wouldn’t have to write about how hard our lives are because the third game hasn’t been released. One thing Pat didn’t mention, perhaps because he doesn’t sit alone in his room listening to video game music in the dark, is that the soundtrack to the first Shenmue is excellent. It was done by none other than Yuzo Koshiro (see my Y’s 6 review for more of me sucking up to him). For your listening pleasure I’ve uploaded three of the best pieces. Enjoy.

Piece 1
Piece 2
Piece 3

2 Comments

  1. Cyril Mae said on October 22, 2008:

    Hi there, I was thinking if you might be interested with coloring online. i want to introduce to you of the site I love to use, http://thecolor.com. Hope you’ll find this useful and interesting too.

  2. christian said on October 22, 2008:

    Will it allow me to color outside the lines? And color people with blue faces and green hands?

Leave a Reply