“Keep friends… those you love… close to you…” were the final words of Iwao Hazuki on that fateful day in 1986, when the snow turned to rain.
The Shenmue saga has yet to be concluded after many years suspended on a paradigm shift of a cliffhanger, and the true meaning of those words is still to be unraveled Perhaps it was just a hammy denouement and why the hell should you care anyway? But I like to think otherwise.
Shenmue often hints at grander, more fantastical heights than even itself – the most expensive game of the millennium – and has you chasing for this grandeur until Sega could do no more.
This is a revenge story, and one that is intertwined with the the philosophy of martial arts. On eighteen year old Jiu Jitsu practitioner Ryo Hazuki’s journey to exact revenge on his father’s killer, he encounters benefactors that will teach him new fighting techniques. These masters often display a sober Mr Miyagi-like outlook that diametrically conflicts with Ryo’s fiery resolve, and a sentiment begins to emerge that could have equated to one of the greatest videogame stories of all time, if development team AM2 pulled it off.
Harsh reality stymied such lofty intentions, however. It is said that every Dreamcast owner in the world needed to buy two copies of Shenmue to recoup the costs of producing such an experience. Only two games were ever released in a series originally planned to extend to at least five.
Shenmue defies the constraints of genre; part RPG, part fighting game, part life simulation. It was a pioneer in its uncompromising focus on realism and innovative systems. It is said that without Shenmue GTA III wouldn’t have existed in the same form, and countless other titles have borrowed from its bedrock of game-changing ideas, but Shenmue was hard to define which made for a hard sell.
When you look at Shenmue today, you may cringe at the sometimes awkward, poorly localised voice-acting, the unfortunate gay innuendos in Ryo’s prowl for sailors in one section and some stiff animation by today’s standards, but for what Yu Suzuki and his team ultimately achieved Shenmue demands your respect.
The game allows you to explore painstakingly crafted areas of Japan in the pursuit of the disquietingly purposeful killer Lan Di. The player is free to approach objectives how they see fit and at their own pace. Progress is often hinged on talking to the locals and asking for any information on Lan Di’s whereabouts that can be gleaned.
Mechanically, Shenmue is a segmented game. Control when roaming around is initially a cack-handed affair. Weighty d-pad movement steers Ryo as if he were a vessel, not a man, while the analogue stick is used to look around. So to move and look at the same time requires you to clutch both the d-pad and analogue with your left hand like a claw, but the idiosyncratic controls are soon gotten used to.
Press the button to not die!
And of course there are the perennial quick time events. Cut-scenes that demand the player to press a button in reaction of something was a notion popularised by Shenmue, for better or for worse.
I still rate Shenmue’s execution of the QTE the most accomplished to date, and the most tolerable. Set pieces are often engaging, whether you are chasing a man through a crowded street and jumping over naturally placed boxes while slipping past confused bystanders, or hip throwing a guy over a bar surface shattering bottles of booze every which way.
Ryo is allowed to fail some prompts in which he can improvise from as he takes a blow to the stomach rather than intercepting the attacker’s arm. Fail completely and the story continues on regardless in many cases and you may have to find an alternate route to progress. It’s a gleaming example of how to get QTEs right because they tend to empower the player in their narrative rather than subvert.
Immersion is built on the mundane
The experience as a whole can be vaguely expressed as like a virtual vacation to Japan, but one through the eyes of a resident. The locals know your name and are eager to help out, and you have a wonderful home to go back to every night that is equipped with a handsome traditional dojo. It’s a fascinating culture study, especially for those with a particular interest in Asian culture.
Where Shenmue succeeds most in its unprecedented ambition for realism is the manner that your environment appears to live all by itself. NPCs have daily routines, where they can be doing anything from shopping to walking home after clocking out from work. A middle aged woman sweeps the entrance to her home before turning in for the night; a middle-aged man delivers the mail from his moped every morning. Follow people through town – it’s OK to do this in a game I think – and they never break out of character. The architect of the Truman Show would be proud.
It’s 10pm, and Ryo is walking home, crunching through the freshly laid snow after taking the bus back to town from work. An unintelligible drunk in a garish jumper staggers by while dynamic shadows flicker across the cracked walkway in every direction from the dimmed street lights. A barking dog shatters the deathly silence. I don’t know why but this is my most powerful memory from first playing this game at thirteen years old. I’d never felt so involved in a game.
The ‘magic weather’ system in transitioning weather conditions dynamically had never been achieved before in this detail. AM2 even referenced 1986 weather reports for Shenmue’s real life locations to add to the uncommon authenticity. The day to night changes also have dramatic effects – when the small time business’ drop their shutters following their unique closing hours, as night settles the bars and clubs open their doors and the lowlifes and work weary come out to play, and are hardly compliant in giving Ryo answers in his search.
The fight scenes take cues (and most of the engine) directly from AM2’s very own Virtua Fighter series. Fights break out sporadically throughout the game and are generally wrapped up quicker than you may have hoped. Flurrys of punches and kicks in no consistent order will be normally adequate, but Ryo can learn a staggering array of moves that are individually improved with frequent practice, and flooring a car park of thugs with palm strikes, dodges and dislocating throws without a scuff on your leather jacket can be an immensely satisfying spectacle. Ryo often makes you feel like a badass.
If there is something still to be learned from Shenmue, it’s that meticulous interactivity goes a long way. Inspired places like Bioshock’s Rapture and Uncharted’s exotic vistas are mere window dressing compared to Shenmue’s tactile solidity.
Ryo can open drawers and cupboards to find clothes and sundries out of simple curiosity, use the quaintly retro phones where it is even possible to contact the police and fire services, which serve no purpose other than to hear Ryo groan, “I’m too old for prank calls”. There is a Buddhist shrine at his home that Ryo will pray to if interacted with – none of these actions are necessary to progress or gain any materialistic reward, but only serve to define the often reckless, but taciturn and dignified Ryo’s character and the tangible world he lives in.
Yu Suzuki’s creation has countless distractions that seem to have little or no relevance to Ryo’s plight. Ryo can buy collectable capsule toys that span Sega’s illustrious history and discover martial arts scrolls for new techniques, but the main reason to get sidetracked in Shenmue is simply that you want to see more, and the game world is so rich it’s understandable to want to live in it.
There is a nauseating, adorable girl named Megumi you meet in the opening moments, with a voice-over so twee that her voice begs to be accompanied by Cradle of Filth to restore balance. She is nursing a scabby lil’ stray kitten to health in a cardboard box after its mother was plowed over by the fleeing killers of Ryo’s dad. Look to the fridge in Ryo’s kitchen and there will be a fresh bottle of milk to take to it, and there’s plenty of food for it to buy at the local store in Sakuragaoka – the one crowded with rambunctious children around the capsule toy vendors out front, owned by a dizzy old woman in a beanie who treats local boy Ryo like he’s still a troublemaking kid, with the greatest amount of affection.
You could even check out how the kid is holding up on the long defunct online-only Shenmue Passport and see how many pounds she has put on from all the tuna you’ve been stuffing her out of your own pocket. Incidentally, there are no immediate benefits in doing this, so why bother?
People often do good deeds where the only benefit is an egotistical one, but isn’t that often enough? Why aid a short-sighted elderly woman in finding a house she can’t see in an optional event early in the game? The designers are always testing the player’s motivations. This isn’t a case of finding the missile attachment at the end of a maze like, say, Metroid. It is very much a precursor to games like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire in that it is a string of emotional pay-offs.
Staggering care and attention had been taken to tell a heavily involving story. You will likely walk past comely love interest Nozomi’s florist in the centre of town every day on the hunt for clues. She’ll often show alarm in Ryo’s absence at school and his impetus for danger, but she’ll remain a reliable though fragile confidant. If you call her often enough she’ll open up completely to Ryo, though he struggles to return her affections. While I found this hair-pullingly frustrating, ironically this emotion means the game has succeeded where many others have failed.
Shenmue is realistic. Emotional attachment to the characters isn’t often hinged on life and death situations or ultimatums, but often in small gestures, consideration and good will. Every morning the house caretaker Ine-san will leave an envelope with Ryo’s allowance on top of the shoe cabinet. Every morning Ryo will verbally and earnestly thank Ine-san when he receives the envelope. If you return much too late after playing (the maddeningly addictive) darts in the local arcade Ine-San will intercept you at the entrance and tell you that she was worried sick. It’s not just Ryo, but me that hangs my head in shame when this happens.
Home is where the heart of this often misunderstood game resides. Ryo can always regroup there and indulge in creature comforts after a rough day, he’ll have his friends and Nozomi to look out for him and a close-knit community besides, and a sense of familiarity. So when Ryo decides to depart for the sprawling, savage garden of Hong Kong, as a player living through Ryo’s experiences through the mundane and the extraordinary, you will never feel further from home.