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Martial Arts, Forklifts and Adventure: How Shenmue Remains Special

One of the biggest budgeted games, while also being one of the biggest flops, while also being one of the most fondly remembered games of its console, generation, and publisher, influential to game design to this day, can be used to describe Shenmue. But none of these phrases that have been said a million times for a million games can truly be used to describe what makes Shenmue radiate so strongly in the hearts of players to draw these reactions from the opening notes of the theme alone.

I played through the first Shenmue recently and I’m definitely able to see why, so I’d like to take a stab at explaining it.

The most intense sequence is arguably at the very beginning of its plot, where Ryo Hazuki’s home is raided by mystical martial artist Lan Di for a valuable artifact. Lan Di stands out from the first moment you see him in all his mannerisms, from clothing, to voice, to even posture, that he’s immediately memorable. He’s one of many Shenmue characters who is, which is doubly helped by both his lack of appearances in the rest of the game, and the fact that he murders Ryo’s father without so much as a thought against it.

With the intro out of the way, you’re left with nothing but questions. The most you have to go on is a black car. So begins the most important part of Shenmue; talking to people. Shenmue plays akin to a modern day revival of the adventure title; the main thing usually preventing you from proceeding to the next part of the game is information, or a lack thereof, so talking to people is always the way forward. Shenmue impresses in this way by having every NPC able to talk; even in the limited capacity where a handful of NPCs will say “please leave me alone” and nothing else of consequence, many will actually answer your question, even with a bit of discussion.

The city is populated by a large set of characters with names, routines, and jobs. As much as Oblivion’s Radiant AI remains the most popular implementation of this concept, Shenmue does the same thing of real people with real schedules miles ahead of Oblivion, and it’s easy to tell just by watching the NPCs during the day.

This effect is multiplied by many characters being town staples, each having different dialog in every stage of the plot, being able to help out at certain points, and knowing little bits about Ryo that you, the player, don’t. Ryo grew up in this town, so they often have little discussions with you that help you figure out Ryo’s character and way of thinking while helping to fill in his story. It goes so far to making Sakuragaoka, Dobuita, and Yamanose feel lived in by actual people.

Speaking of, the three sections of the city that are lived in are arguably some of the most detailed environments to date. While the overall range of interaction is limited (somewhat understandably, considering this came out two days before the new millennium), the amount of small details is legitimately unbelievable for this era, with lots of places to visit and more buildings to enter than games a generation ahead. The most unusual thing in comparison to modern day video games is this: while most games on modern consoles limit you to a small 3D model view of preset collectibles, Ryo is capable of picking up and examining a ridiculous amount of objects, from random erasers in a drawer in his home, to dozens of gacha vending machine toys. If you see something on a shelf, wall or even a map, you can zoom on it, take it, and examine it from every angle.

It’s a thoroughly bizarre amount of detail that I appreciate to the ends of the Earth. (I made a hobby out of collecting music tapes from the local Tomato convenience store, just because I could.)

There are a good handful of businesses, shops, and activities you can visit, even if they serve no purpose to you personally. Inside some of these businesses are everything from unique minigames and arcade ports, to even just slight easter eggs (and I am starting the theory that the only difference between our universe and Shenmue’s is that Yu Suzuki become a songwriter instead of a Sega game designer). You get plenty of time to explore the place; there is an in-game time limit, but it’s so lenient that unless you are seriously dragging your feet or you have a hilarious string of failures at one point in the game, you’ll be able to go over the entirety of Yokosuka with a magnifying glass three times over. And in a few cases, you’ll want to; there are some events reliant on the calendar, like Christmas. Shenmue is filled with the sort of detail that Hideo Kojima would thoroughly appreciate.

This also gives you tons of time to take the plot at your own pace; you can run like a bat out of hell, asking for information from everyone you run across in the street and eventually be pushed the right way, or just relax, gamble, and game a little, then sling a question at the girl at the counter. It somehow remains satisfying to put together enough information from random people on the street throughout the course of the game, and it’s all logged thoroughly for you via Ryo’s diary, which manages to also pull well balanced double duty as a “where the bloomin’ ‘eck do I go next” assist when you haven’t played in a while.

Said story is also presented in a thoroughly polished, entertaining, film-like presentation. The cutscenes are well directed, presented and consistently interesting. Even the (brand new mechanic at the time) quick time events are well implemented technically and not insultingly easy or overused, with no punishment for failing them harsher than a negligibly worse ending or a repeat. There are even tons of scenes you can miss scattered throughout the game; good luck seeing them all in one go-through.

Of course, everyone is going to talk about the voice acting at this point, and while the phrase “so bad it’s good” is thrown around like grenades during wartime, it goes a bit deeper than that in Shenmue.

Most of the voice actors in the English version are clearly inexperienced and the sound quality is horrible, but not one voice feels like it had no effort or intent thrown behind it. Even if it swings for the bleachers but misses and breaks grandma’s nose, so to speak, the effort put in elevates the characters behind the voices beyond “so bad it’s good” to “they’re trying so hard and it’s adorable,” and Ryo himself, despite being monotone, and some would say lifeless, through a fair portion of the game, has it where it really counts, and it’s hard to imagine him without his trademark voice.

One last point before we get onto the actual gameplay though; while the spiritual side of things is definitely more pronounced in Shenmue II, the first Shenmue is happy to tease it. Everything from learning kung fu from the elderly master, to visiting the shrine next to Ryo’s home, has an atmosphere around it that’s barely present even in other Japanese titles of its kind, and it gives the game that slight bit of extra flavor.

So the majority of Shenmue is exploration; walking, talking and examining. The majority of these actions are…stiff, but thoroughly acceptable. Ryo is a bit tanky to control, and tight corners / small gaps are enough to get him stuck every once in a while, but it’s easy to get used to. Talking to people, using objects, and other such things are easily communicated via an onscreen display, and outside of battle you’ll usually never need to hit more than two buttons at once.

Speaking of battle, it’s impressive just how polished it feels. Ryo’s moves are plentiful, easy to execute, and combos flow naturally (it’s worth noting that the game is based on the Virtua Fighter engine; Ryo was originally supposed to be Akira, and other characters share fighting styles with VF fighters), with fast but forgiving fists, kicks, throws and dodges. There’s even plenty to learn – your moves become stronger as you use them, Elder Scrolls style, and there are multiple extra moves hidden throughout the world and at the antique shop. In an interesting and really memorable twist, some moves aren’t learned by just giving you the button combination, but characters teaching you with flowery language, in which you need to decrypt the actual inputs. It’s great fun when you’re let loose, which is why it’s almost disappointing that it’s barely used.

As well put together as the combat system is, the amount of fights you actually need to get into throughout the game can be counted on both hands. There are plenty of arguments for and against this approach (and Shenmue II is definitely more combat-happy) but for Shenmue, it works. Fights feel genuine and not tacked on for “more gameplay,” with some of the harder conflicts really testing your skill (if you think you’re good but you really aren’t, the arcade fight will put you in your place). Heck, if you don’t train, your first fight won’t be for a handful of hours into the game. It’s impressive that they’re willing to put so much into the combat, and yet hold back just as aggressively. I will absolutely agree that it might be a bit much for some people, so if you absolutely require consistent combat in your game, Shenmue is not for you.

The game also rounds out the adventuring with a handful of unique segments; everything from working a part time job driving around a forklift to one-time events like riding a motorbike through the streets of Japan or sneaking through a warehouse district during the night. These segments are usually good at changing up the formula to keep your mind off the adventuring, even if only for a little bit. The only trouble is when they start to repeat themselves.

See, while Shenmue is a very, very good game, it does have faults, the majority of which are in the latter half. This involves Ryo getting a part time job, after which every in-game day turns into “go to job”, “do race”, “do job” until a certain point, which absolutely does grate before long. Forklift racing has a smile on your face at first, but on the fifth day with your fourth consecutive win, my eyes were lolling in my head. The warehouse loses a part of the magic that makes the earlier half special; it doesn’t contain the same amount of exploratory charm as the city segments, and there aren’t as many interesting people to meet (although they aren’t nonexistent, as Goro can speak to). It will still be enjoyable, but it does wane over time as you accelerate towards the ending.

With that said though, even at the end of my run of Shenmue, I couldn’t help but feel I was leaving something behind. Over the course of a dozen hours it did feel like I learnt the town well enough to walk around it by memory, all its weird folks and little-of-note shops and streets. Everyone in the plot has grown alongside you in some way, and it’s hard to not become attached to a lot of them – the idea that you might not hear from any of them again after this point rings home rather painfully. (It’s worth noting that the music that triggered the reactions in that video in the first paragraph is also the song playing during this final scene, so yeah, that’s why they were able to lock onto it like Stinger missile launchers.)

I should spare a word for the high-definition ports of Shenmue as well, which are, to put it in a word, excellent. After a couple of patches, they run 99.9% fine, with the multiple enhancements including improved controls, almost complete lack of load times, dual audio, save anywhere, and widescreen gameplay sections absolutely making these versions the best to play. There’s even an “always 4:3” mode and resolution scaling to help you feel like you’re playing on the Dreamcast…adorable, guys.

Shenmue isn’t fondly remembered for any of the buzzword cut-and-pastes thrown out again and again. It’s remembered for being a fully-realised world with interesting people to meet and help, an intriguing investigation that helps you see every last corner of said world, skillful fights with ample depth, more minor details than you can shake a Metal Gear Solid game at, and a level of passion for the excitement of adventure that a lot of games can’t match up to even today, while remaining a humble story about simple revenge. It’s thoroughly unique even today, and I can’t help but urge you all to pick up the HD collection and give it a shot.

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