When Shenmue came out on December 29, 1999, you bet I was ready to play it. Who didn’t see the trailer as a kid and say “I want to experience a F.R.E.E. game?!”. If you don’t know the history of all this. The Director of the game, Yu Suzuki, created a brand new genre that he called “Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment”. It basically meant that you were supposed to be playing a game so realistic that you’d basically think it’s a movie, and it has quicktime events.
When you get down to what Shenmue is, it’s the seed in which not only a Shenmue sequel grow from, but a series of Yakuza games did as well. I haven’t played through Shenmue in a number of years, but I remembered so much of it. The launch of Shenmue meant a lot to me when it came out, from both a personal level and that of a gamer. It fostered a love for Japan and it’s culture as well as the types of games being developed there. They were attempting to push the medium of video games into scripted stories with “fully interactive” worlds to explore. It was on a completely different level from anything else being released, or that’s how it felt at the time.
Replaying this game on my PlayStation 5 and on a 4k OLED TV really brings everything into a sharp focus. You realize that there were severe limitations to the Dreamcast hardware at the time. Even though this is considered to be the most expensive game ever made at the time of release, it’s almost comical at the level of detail on display compared to any modern title released today. That doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of it, it’s just examining what it is in the social context of today.
The game really feels like the first arc in a modern game or story. Time moves in the game as it does in the real world, just at a slightly faster pace. I was able to complete the story in about two weeks of game time. If you stretch out the game and take too long to complete it you’ll be given a bad ending on April 15th. I finished the game with about four months to spare, so you have plenty of time to get every little collectible if you happen to have all the time in the world.
The story is just bare bones to be completely honest. You set out on a journey to find your fathers murderer, Lan Di. This is done by talking to people in town, investigating and trying to get more and more clues to where Lan Di is. Ryo will hit a roadblock here and there, eventually landing a job moving crates at the docks and finding passage on a ship. This is where the game ultimately ends and the next game picks up, simple as that really. Apparently, in Japan, they even took all the cutscenes in this game and made them into a movie that they played at certain theaters after the game came out. What a simpler time.
I’m not really knocking the game any for it’s brevity, I have so much love and fondness for this game that nothing can really spoil it for me. The simple fact that Ryo goes around asking people where sailors hang out is worth the price of admission. What surprised me in this playthrough was just the shear amount of downtime you have.
The story in this game cannot be rushed. You will be told to come back at 7PM to meet a character and have nothing to do for the whole afternoon. This is why you’re allowed to explore, shop, buy capsule toys, and visit the arcade. You’re meant to be enamored by the depth of the world to keep you occupied. I, however, have played this game before and have played the arcade games many times in the past. I only wanted to get enough capsule toys for the associated trophies. So I just ended up leaving the game sitting idle as I did other stuff non gaming related. When the time came I’d pick up the controller, make a save, and trigger the next cutscene.
Let’s now talk about work. Ryo will eventually head down to the docks and start working a forklift to make some extra cash and learn about the Mad Angels. You have to spend a few days going to work, starting with a race around the docks where you can earn little capsule toys for winning. You then get instructions on where to pick up boxes and where you need to drop them off. So you just drive around on your forklift until you get a lunch break where you can buy some more toys, work again and clock out at 5pm. Going back to this game and playing it now, this part of the game really felt like a bit of a slog. Compare that to playing this back when it launched on the Dreamcast, this part of the game was an opportunity for my brother and I to slow down the story and earn some money while buying all the toys, music tapes, and items in the store. The reality of it all, you come to find out, is that you don’t need any of that crap (besides 50 unique toys for the trophies).
When looking back at this game, the interesting aspect is the fighting mechanics. Shenmue was originally meant to be an offshoot of Virtua Fighter, but it doesn’t feel like it translated that well. I absolutely hated the combat in the game this time around. The controls in combat just felt so slow and unresponsive. You have no way to effectively counter or control your opponent. Instead you just try to do some sort of move and hope it lands. Sometimes you’ll win your fight the first round, sometimes you die and have to replay it, it all feels like luck whether you win or lose. You get to the point where you just want to try and cheese all the enemies by spamming some moves you think will land. I tried training in some of my downtime, but it just ends up feeling pointless after a while. You go into a parking lot and just do the same moves over and over, hitting the air. What’s the point? If you’re coming from some of the Yakuza or Judgment games and are expecting a fun arcady style beat ’em up, this is not that.
Final Score – 7.0 (biased opinion)
I have a soft spot for this game so it’s hard for me to recommend it to others that are coming in new. I’m not sure if I could honestly make that call. Part of what makes this game so special is knowing all the history behind it and knowing the state of video games when it was released. You see the seed of the Yakuza franchise here. You understand that people who worked on this game went on to create the Yakuza games. I would have loved if this title was remastered by the Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio like they did the first two Yakuza games. Until that time, this version allows a wider group of people to experience this classic and historical game, whether you have the same connection to it as I do is a different matter. I do find it hard to dismiss the historical context of this game and what it was attempting to accomplish at the time. My score would have been higher if I reviewed it when it originally came out, and I still feel like this score is a tad high for what it is, but it would hurt me too much to bump it down even further.