Shenmue is a game of epic proportions. Created by the innovative genius of Yi Suzuki at Sega's AM2 game development branch in 1999, the game follows the spiritual and physical quest of Ryo Hazuki, who after returning home one fateful evening to witness his beloved father, Iowa's murder by the hands of a mysterious and deadly man named Lan Di, pledges an oath to himself to get revenge for his father's death. Tormented by dreams and the memory of the killer who's only distinguishing features were his long silk clothes with an ornate dragon motif and his evil penetrating stare, Ryo attempts to find Lan Di despite the protestations by his friends. Thus begins a journey for Ryo that will take him beyond his native Japan hometown, which will destroy him or realise his will. This game was written by Suzuki way back in 1994 when it was intended to be for the Sega Saturn, until it was decided that new hardware, namely the stylish Dreamcast (DC) would be the perfect home for it. The game contains Chapter 1 of Ryo's journey, with 16 other chapters reportedly fulfilling the saga. With Shenmue 2 on DC already available (for Europe at least, if you can find it), and continuing with chapters 2-6, there may very well be another three Shenmue games to come. The Saga...BEGINS!
Graphics: 10/10
When this game was released in 1999/2000, it was arguably the most graphically accomplished game available on the market. It was revolutionary, and never had a role playing game (RPG) been crafted and presented in such a way. For me, it was the antithesis of Final Fantasy and Zelda, an RPG where finally realism was its core concept. It pushed the DC hardware quite far considering the console's relatively young life. As a gamer, you are presented with a fully realized world to explore. The town's are beautifully constructed, and the textures used in the game are highly detailed and quite remarkable. Meeting the civilians of Yamanose or Dobuita is a fascinating experience, and their facial features move when talking in a very realistic manner, or in the case of a town drunk at night, his body sways to and fro in a hysterical manner. Every person has their own face and mannerisms as it should be and which is reflective of real life. You can study an old lady's tired face and note the wrinkly skin whereas a child has those beaming eye's of curiosity and youth. The places to explore in the town are very varied, each with their own look and feel. The bars are worth noting for the dingy and close atmosphere they present you with as you walk in at night, sometimes with the neon lights beckoning. The lighting and shadow must also be highly complimented, particularly the day/night time system which is integral to the game's progression in that some events only take place at a certain time or place. This adds great variety to the game and in a sense offers two place's to explore, the easy going and lively daytime of the town or the more mysterious and menacing nightlife. The FMV cut scenes are of the highest standard, particularly the epic beginning film which shows the gamer the event that would forever change Ryo's life. Other highlights include the motorcycle ride with a childhood girl friend and the climatic end to the game. The lighting in the game is excellent, and this too is demonstrated by a brief cut scene which occurs at 7.00pm to show the night taking over and the shadows invading the streets or harbor as the street lamps automatically click on in the sun's absence. The weather effects are very well done and in real time, meaning one minute it may be snowing and later it may change to rain.
Sound: 10/10
While Shenmue is perhaps not as varied as Akira's Yamaoka Silent Hill Series for music (the main theme is reused/remixed too much), it nevertheless has excellent music which at times is very emotive. Indeed, it is one rare example of the best music and classical/oriental music that a game has possessed in my opinion. It enhances the gamer's play and the situations that Ryo finds himself in, whether it be the epic orchestral Shenmue main theme, the haunting dream sequences or the smooth Linda's Bar theme which sets the atmosphere. The game music responds as such, exploration is greeted by slow and subtle music, whereas you immediately know when Ryo has a fight on his hands when the tempo and beat suddenly kick in to raise a gamer's pulse for what's about to happen. This is essential for the QTE moments, as it informs the player that they must be ready to react quickly and at anytime. It is so good that I even possess the OST! Every new area and shop/establishment has their own signature tune which makes them instantly recognisable. Other sound in the game is brilliant. Hearing the hum and bustle of people in the town of Dobuita carrying on with their day to day lives is very enchanting, and also serves to bring life to the town even though, in reality there aren't that many citizens around in certain areas because of graphical limitations. This is in complete contrast of course to Yokosuka and Ryo's home which is tranquil except for the sound of a stray cat and Ryo's echoing footsteps as he walks down the street. In the Harbor there are the flutter of pigeons and the hammering of steel work and the motored movement of forklifts driving past you. Arguably, the Harbor is the best environment that really shows off the sound, from the different tones and voices of the workers (no one character has the same voice in the game and rarely the same dialogue meaning more fun for exploring and meeting new people). There's the swish of the open sea and at night motorcycles race around. Ryo's martial arts moves all have satisfying sounds, like the elbow assault's loud thud as he brings it forward in offence. Even better, cassette tapes of various in game music and more can be bought or found and played on Ryo's personal cassette player or tape deck. The only slight downside is that the spoken dialogue, translated from Japanese into American may be a little poor at times for some. Some of the recorded dialogue is rather bland and ill read, but on the whole it is very convincing (Ryo does tend to say "I see." a lot, but you'll get used to it and think it his trademark!).
Gameplay: 9/10
This is arguably the most innovative part of the Shenmue experience. Nearly everything is interactive, able to be explored and looked at in close detail. The real beauty of the game is that this appears to be the most realistic RPG ever created. It is set in the December month of 1986, and even the actual weather during this period has been researched and placed in the game. You are in fact witnessing an accurate simulation of Japan in 1986 and the weather, and can even use the phone in Ryo's house or on the street to get a forecast for the next day! Generally the weather ranges from snow and rain, and later on some sun. The gamer can continue into the Spring (March) but you should be finished with the game by then, otherwise you will have jeopardised Ryo's quest. A great feature of the weather and day/night system is that every gamer will start on the same day (after the incident) but will go about the search for Lan Di in their own way and time, meaning that by the time you get to the Harbor it may be sunny whereas for other gamers who were quicker getting there, it may still be covered in winter's snow. No in game event is witnessed in quite the same manner by every gamer. The greatness of this game is that Ryo still has responsibilities to people, he must return home before it gets too dark unless he wants his remaining family to worry, or to get home early for some rest before work the next day. You'll also love the way Ryo carefully works his way around the ones he loves so as not to get them too deeply involved with his plans to find Lan Di. You can also go about and purchase goods from shops, and although not all are as 'interactive' as we might wish, it certainly offers a kind of realism never before seen in a game. Almost everything can be picked up and examined, drawers and refrigerator doors can be opened, items found picked up and kept. This is a good way of discovering new moves that Ryo can learn through scrolls, which can also be bought in town for a sum of money. Some more technical ones or even more written in a different language to Japanese require outside translation if you have the time. Other characters you meet within the game will also teach you new moves, some coming from the most unlikely of people! The main core of the game is played through the Free Quest perspective where Ryo can explore his surroundings and talk to people to gain information. View Mode occurs in specific scenes to highlight automated events or tips. Free Battle works on the same principle as the Virtua Fighter series controls, where Ryo finds himself pitted against many computer controlled opponents in real time and must use his learned martial art skills to beat them and progress with his quest. Finally, there are QTE moments which are shown during event cut scenes where the gamer must input the various commands that relate to the Dreamcast controller buttons before the symbols disappear. Pressing them in time will result in a successful execution of Ryo succeeding (e.g. blocking a punch, dodging an obstacle etc). These four modes are excellent and add a lot of variety, always keeping the gamer on his toes. The QTE's are not overused and inject much pulse raising excitement and break up the slower free quest and interrogation of town folk. Game play is further broken up by Ryo's later job at the Harbor and the driving of a forklift which has to be learned and mastered for the delivery of crates. The more crates delivered during a working day gives Ryo more money to spend, while after work, he you can check out the Harbor at night and continue with his investigations into Lan Di's associates. There is also a motorcycle chase later on, which like Final Fantasy VII and the arcade game you could play within the game, playing SEGA's 1980's Hang On game at Ryo's local arcade will help with getting to grips with the mini-event and being ready for it later on. One unfortunate addition by SEGA in the game is the last boss fight of disc 2, which is right at the end involving one of Lan Di's associates. Although it's not integral to beat him for the quest to continue, as a gamer you nevertheless will want to for the sake of pride amongst other things. However, the boss is so difficult to beat even when a couple of Ryo's moves have progressed to advance levels because he blocks and counters them so well, and there is no energy bar dictating how the boss is weakening. This leads to great frustration and much replaying of the last save. While it may be a good test for the Shenmue experts, the sheer jump in skill level is too sudden. Getting Ryo's moves into the advanced level is also a little too difficult, simply due to the amount of time and repetition it requires, meaning only your most well-used and favourite moves may reach that level. The camera angle can also occasionally obscure your view of an opponent in a Free Battle, although this is not a big problem. There is real satisfaction in learning and finding new moves, and then using them in battle later on. A great touch when first learning a new move from another character is that the controller button presses are shown on the VMU memory card screen so that you won't get too confused. Of course, it is integral that you listen to the character as he explains it in language that relates to the movement of your limbs and not "press button A for kick etc". This is very refreshing. You may also train in the Hazuki home dojo or empty parks or car parks when you find yourself undisturbed, and even better later on, spar with a family friend who lives with you. Just before going to sleep, the gamer may set out the schedule for the next day's training, such as focussing on hand or leg moves instead of throws, or training all of them equally which is the default and arguably the best option to start with. It's nice to have real time battles and a fighting system instead of a turn based affair. Be warned though, the game doesn't throw everything in your face at once and requires hours of exploration, which also means that you will be totally immersed by Ryo's predicament by that time and striving for him to overcome his obstacles although the game at times can be a little slow for some. You control the character's movement not with the analogue stick but the d-pad. This feels heavy and odd at first, but you soon get used to it.
Lifespan: 9/10
There are three discs which contain the game, whereas the fourth disc possesses the Shenmue Passport which offers music/fmv/tips depending on how far with your game save you have reached and become unlocked. Unfortunately now, the online features of the Passport have been closed as of 2001. However, the passport's non-online features are still very good, including game tips being spoken by Shenmue's characters whilst also allowing you to zoom in on their faces to see the fantastic detail and lighting. The game can be completed quickly or slowly, and this is the great feature about the game. Everyone starts on the same day, after that fateful incident but how you go about it and pace yourself is up to you. It may take you longer to search for the right person who can give you the information you want, or you may find it instantly by chance and logic, or you may just decide to use all your time and money hanging out at Game You, the arcade, and play darts or a selection of old SEGA games like Space Harrier. These games, which are actual retro games from the 1980's by SEGA, are their own games and require skill and time just to master them. It's not integral to your quest, but to fully get everything from the game it's a good idea to have a go. They make for an interesting diversion. Training is also required for maintaining Ryo's martial arts moves and any new ones he discovers, and the more time you put in to train the stronger and more efficient the moves become and progression a little easier in Free Battle moments. There are also many secret cut scene’s to be seen although some may be missed first time through, meaning that there is a lot of replay value to see the adventure in a slightly different manner. With all said, 10-15 hrs should see the main quest game finished for Ryo.
Overall: 10/10
For a brief moment I considered giving the game a 9/10. Not because it has a bad element but because this game is technically amazing but at the same time flawed in places. Yet I cannot really mark it down for this as Yu Sukuki has created a new RPG genre (FREE) that has never been accomplished before, achieves amazing things that are revolutionary for games but are at the same time need that little bit of refinement that only sequels can bring. It is however the most fully realised RPG and interactive gaming experience that I have ever played, with an engrossing story of love and revenge, the exploration of the limits of humanity and morality, beautiful music scores and lovable characters. The great thing is that behind the main story of revenge, it appears that Ryo's actions go even deeper and are even foretold by an ancient prophecy. How far this is true or how deep it is still remains a partial mystery. This game is certainly an epic for the modern day, and it's a shame not as many have embraced this new genre with other games, as it surely will. Grand Theft Auto Vice City and Final Fantasy X have certainly been inspired by elements. If you want a gaming experience that will suck you in, and will forever be remembered with fondness, Shenmue IS that game. The Dreamcast's best game next to it's sequel and Resident Evil Code Veronica, though this is certainly the most original.
Many Thanks to contributor 'TheHellboundheart' for this Fantastic review.