In Praise of: Shenmue
“Time for our daily warm-up race! You all do your best now…Like always, three laps to the finish; everybody ready…On your mark – almost time to go…”
Mark Kimberly – Shenmue
by Matt Keleher
It was a halcyon year for the home console market with a host of quality titles emerging across all platforms. Yet in November 2000 when Shenmue arrived in British stores (having launched in Japan a year earlier) the bar was raised significantly for graphical realism, atmosphere, depth and scope of gameplay.
While the then pin-sharp visuals of many early Dreamcast titles trounced contenders on the PS1 and N64, Shenmue was arguably the first that truly tapped into the system’s potential. Sega Enterprises’ prolific designer and producer Yu Suzuki spearheaded the project; Suzuki’s backlog of work for some of Sega’s most popular and influential titles, (including Virtua Figher, Daytona USA and Space Harrier) meant the game had some lofty expectations to live up to…
Set in Yokosuka, Japan Shenmue follows 18 year old Ryo Hazuki on his quest to avenge the murder of his father, Iwao who was struck down at the family home before his eyes by the sinister Lan-Di. The player takes control of Ryo days later when, still reeling from the tragedy he begins his search for answers and the whereabouts of his father’s killer; his only clue being the distinctive black car which tore up neighbourhood before the fateful encounter.
The player must first turn detective, asking Ryo’s friends and neighbours the cryptic questions that will allow him to begin to piece the mystery together. Once Ryo steps out the door, the player must turn detective quizzing local residents.
While initially the story progresses at a relaxed pace, Ryo soon finds himself getting into a scrap or two and later in the game we’re introduced to stealth, driving and racing oriented sections, which throw some welcome variety into the mix.
There are three Yokosuka districts to explore (Sakuragaoka, Yamonose and Dobuita) in addition to the larger harbour area that becomes available later in the game. One of the joys of Shenmue is discovering new environments for the first time; every corner, nook and cranny is teeming with detail.
Open a cupboard in the Hazuki kitchen and see a mosquito fly away; stroll through Dobuita at sunset to see shop owners pulling down shutters and frequent a restaurant to see diners chowing down with bowls of piping hot ramen. There are more than 400 characters in the game; each has their own unique voice, appearance and idiosyncratic quirks.
Shenmue was still is a superlative achievement in digital art and design. However, despite the game receiving very positive reviews upon its release it failed to reach projected sales making a considerable loss on its $70m budget. Its brilliant sequel which saw Ryo continue to pursue revenge in Hong Kong proved to be one of the last hurrahs for the ill-fated Dreamcast. Unfortunately, when the third instalment was unduly cancelled (presumably due to the underwhelming sales of its predecessors) fans were left with a cliff-hanger ending.
If you’ve yet to experience Shenmue for yourself and like what you see, it’s easy to track down a used Dreamcast and a copy of the game. Take a chance on this one – I doubt you’ll regret it!
Watch the trailer here:
Have you played Shenmue? Share your thoughts in the comment box…
- Analyzing the Virtual Environments of the Shenmue Series (louisarc.wordpress.com)