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Role-Playing video game by Sega for the Dreamcast

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Let Me Hit Something! Anything! (Weekend of Pain Part 2 W/O)

  • Apr 5, 2003
Pros: A great doorstop, paperweight and other things

Cons: In a just world, everyone responsible for this lousy game

The Bottom Line: When the old-school arcade games buried within are better than the actual game, RED FLAG.

I see the term “cinematic game” get tossed around a lot these days, many times at games that more or less deserved the title. Critics of the Metal Gear Solid games often cite the long cinematics overshadow the gameplay. Being a veteran of both Metal Gear Solids, I will say that I don’t think that’s true. Granted some of the cinema scenes are longer than need be, but the actual games themselves are very involving and ultimately rewarding. Critics of Final Fantasy 8 also fire that insult at the game, blatantly disregarding the fact that Final Fantasy 9 was more cinematic. Final Fantasy 8 may have had quite a few cutscenes, but the game mostly revolved around the terrible “junction” system and, as much as I hate to admit it, was undeserving of the criticism.

The horrible truth is that there aren’t all that many games that could be called “cinematic”. A “cinematic” game, to me, is nothing but a lovely picture show with interactivity thrown in as an afterthought. Myst and its sequel, Riven, both had this quality. D had this quality. And Shenmue had this quality, despite Yu Suzuki’s efforts to trick people into thinking it didn’t.

Yu Suzuki, you ask? Space Harrier, Hang-On and Virtua Fighter Yu Suzuki? Yeah, probably, although after the novelty of Shenmue wears off you’ll strongly wish it was Yu’s evil twin brother Carl, having chewed his way out of the closet after ten miserable years and now acting in Yu’s place. Shenmue was clearly meant to be some kind of innovative magnum opus for Suzuki, but now the game merely shows us why legendary arcade programmers should stick to programming legendary arcade games.

I tried to like Shenmue, tried to get into the story, tried to harbor some fun out of the meaningless wandering of the streets talking to people who’ve never met the main character. Which is where my first beef with the game comes in. I understand the need to be innovative in the world of video games, but the innovation of Shenmue lies in the realistic world that Shenmue succeeds in creating. The success comes at a price; mainly, the reminder of the fact that you can experience this very same kind of reality walking down to the corner store. It’s probably more boring, in some respects. The people in Shenmue are always so respectful, nice and amnesiac. Many people in America are also like that, but you’re just as likely to find a bad seed who will tell you to go #^@& yourself. They’ll probably remember you, too, instead of just answering the same old question that you already asked with the same old answer they already gave.

In that way, the “real” world of Shenmue is a little off. After experiencing the quick passing of the time, you’ll begin to feel ripped. Minutes aren’t actually minutes, they’re breaks of a few seconds. This causes a bit of a problem sometimes. For example, I have never in my life taken 15 minutes to dial a phone number.

But the bottom line with Shenmue is not how far off the game’s sense of realism is. The bottom line is how Shenmue’s realism, its main innovation and selling point, is simultaneously its crippling weakness. Think about that. Who has ever wanted to play a video game grounded in reality when the whole purpose of video games is to escape reality? Face it, you have to have SOME imagination when it comes to programming a good video game (the imaginative flaws I pointed out in the last two paragraphs aside). Given the choice between the ordinary martial arts student and the flying, fire-throwing, dino-riding plumber, I’d rather take the plumber.

Shenmue’s setup scenario is perfectly realistic. The opening cinema introduces our protagonist, Ryo, as he runs into his father’s dojo just in time to see pop get slaughtered by a ruthless man named Lan Di over a mirror. A very nice mirror, but still a mirror. So we have a perfectly innocent guy getting killed because some other guy is so vain that he feels no other mirror is good enough for him. Sounds like an everyday happening. Ryo is understandably upset and moves in to avenge his father’s death, only to recieve a pounding at the hands of Lan Di’s thugs. Now Ryo is even more upset and feels he has to go gunning for Lan Di. But having no clue who or where Lan Di is, he can’t just rush out of the house and into Lan’s place while randomly throwing his fists around like a stereotypical nerd. So he picks up his notebook and hits the streets, asking everyone around him if they saw anything that might lead him to Lan Di’s whereabouts.

Here is where the problem begins. In most other video games, the detective clues leading Ryo to Lan Di would come in the forms of oddly named, palette-swapped, poorly dressed street thugs who would attempt to rearrange Ryo’s face. The old Streets of Rage formula would have made this game a lot more exciting, but Shenmue is grounded in reality. So when Ryo walks out of his house in the morning, he encounters... Nothing. No street gangs, no enemies waiting in the bushes to make an ambush, just the regular working Joes going about their normal daily routines, not a care in the world.

Lacking those living clues, Ryo walks around the city asking people what they saw on “the day it snowed”. As he gathers more clues, he’s able to narrow the information down. He asks about black cars, strange men and the like and is sometimes given the helpful information he needs to begin seeking out the next piece of the puzzle.

This may not sound so bad. But some of your needed information is kept by people who work in shops, which is where Shenmue’s attempt at realism falls flat on its face. Real shops are run by real people, you see, and real people need rest in order to effectively run their shops. So these real people have a bad habit of closing and opening up shop at given times every day. While you pittle around waiting for the shops to open up, you’ll quickly learn that there are only so many things you can do to pass the time. You can walk up to a soda machine and drink a soda. You can walk around making some of the most mundane conversation on the planet with total strangers. If you’re lucky and the arcade happens to be open, you can walk in and waste your allowance money on a few games of Hang-On and Space Harrier, both of which have arcade-perfect translations. You can run down to the park and practice some of Ryo’s funky Kung-Fu moves. Oddly enough, for all the realism involved in waiting for a place to open up, Ryo still can’t do things most normal people would to to pass the time. He can’t watch TV or play his Sega Saturn (yet another bit of fantasy here. Shenmue takes place in 1986. The Saturn didn’t grace the console market until almost ten years later. Shoot, cds were barely in their infancy back then).

This format could have been taken very easily if the game would actually let you hit something every now and then. Since Ryo is a nice guy and not the guy from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the game doesn’t allow you to just walk around smacking any old innocent bystander trying to start a fight. So to get into a real fight, you just have to wait the hours on end in between fights in order to get into them. The good news is that since Ryo’s father was the owner of a locally renowned dojo, Ryo has a move list with a lot of depth that has to slowly be learned over time. Now on to the (yet even more) bad news. Despite the hand of the Virtua Fighter creator in the making of Shenmue, the fights don’t exactly require a massive learning curve. Although the list of moves is pulled off with little or no trouble, there’s really no need to use them. You can see the list of complaints everywhere: Button-masher. Game of Rock Paper Scissors. That crappy boxing mini-game from Final Fantasy 7. Shenmue ain’t Virtua Fighter 4 and Ryo is no Jacky Bryant.

At least the characters (the few I met in the months I kept this game) aren’t really the unlikeable lot of pricks that exist in so many RPGs these days. Ryo is a nice guy, but you know the old saying. Do unto others, you know? Perhaps Ryo hates most people and he’s just acting nice in order to gather his needed info. Ryo’s girl friend (girl and friend, not girlfriend) is of course genuinely concerned about Ryo. And as for Mom-well, anybody who leaves free money on a table every day is just fine in my book.

The point of this review, a participant in 32 Footsteps’ Weekend of Pain write off, was to review something that had absolutely no redeeming qualities. I don’t even consider the masterful graphics to be a redeeming quality. And these graphics are masterful. Anybody who tries to tell you anything different is nothing more than a fanboy biased against the Dreamcast. The polygon count in Shenmue probably went through the roof, because the game is full of textures that are just as beautiful as they are realistic. Ryo moves very smoothly, but little details like clothes and hair are mostly lifeless. Trees and bushes don’t blow in the wind. Watching the characters, detail suckers would be very aware of the fact that the characters never seem to blink. But if these little details had to be sacrificed in order to keep the slowdown out of the game, then details begone! I’ll take reasonable speed over graphic details any day. But the graphics still don’t redeem the horrible, excrutiatingly slow gameplay.

In a game grounded in reality, you would of course need characters to speak. And so they speak, and they speak pretty well for the most part. Especially considering that the speaking in Shenmue is actually a translation of the Japanese game’s spoken dialogue. You should give the voice actors some kind of credit keeping in mind the massive task of bringing Shenmue to life, but in the post Metal Gear Solid era, the quality of the voice-overs is just below the par. A mighty wallop that got caught in the backfield. The actors performing the voices never manage to become their characters, but they do a great job of pretending to be interested. I never got far enough to hear what kind of tunes Shenmue has going for it, and the ones I did hear never caused my ears to blossom and sing. The main music you hear on the streets is a composition of about eight notes being played in a four-second space. It fits the game’s boring mood very nicely. Keep in mind that the audio attraction in Shenmue is the dialogue, though, not the music. So when you put money into the jukebox in the arcade, don’t expect some groundbreaking piece to come out. And although this game takes place in the 80’s, don’t expect to hear the Beastie Boys, Culture Club, Michael Jackson or Motley Crue.

The controls in Shenmue are so poor that they actually help drag the game’s rating down. I have no complaints about the fight layouts. Ryo snaps out every move on command and gets back into stance quick as you’d expect from a Martial Arts practitioner. It’s the regular field controls that will make you want to shoot the Dreamcast. The regular layout is one of those annoying survival horror numbers that was popularized by Resident Evil. God knows how much I love Capcom, but there are times I wish they never existed. The survival horror layout, in case you’ve been on Mars, involves using the left and right directions to spin. Once your character is looking in the direction you want him to go, you press up to make him go forward. It was a horrible layout in Resident Evil, and nothing’s changed even years after its become more common. The action buttons were all about menus, and the triggers about speed. The analog stick, master of the most erratic camera I’ve ever had the displeasure of controlling, simply exists to decorate the controller this time around.

Yu Suzuki’s grand masterpiece? Yeah, his overambitious lab rat of a masterpiece. Just to say something good, Shenmue is actually a stinker of wasted potential. If there was less waiting and more action (a LOT more), the Dreamcast might have lived on to at least see a Stateside release of Shenmue’s Xbox-exclusive sequel. As it is, though, Shenmue is just a possibly good movie trying to disguise itself as a video game. Sega’s biggest mistake regarding Shenmue wasn’t even related to the programming. It was their lousy marketing department that tried to set Shenmue up to be the big holiday cash cow for 2000. Want to know what game they passed up as the cash cow? Jet Grind Radio. If ever there was an injustice. And yet while Jet Grind Radio is one of the rarer finds for the Dreamcast these days, Shenmue sits untouched on the tops of store shelves. What does that tell you? Get Jet Grind Radio. Or Soul Caliber if it’s fighting you want. Forget Shenmue. How did Yu Suzuki sleep at night after creating this atrocity?



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More Shenmue reviews
review by . November 22, 2000
posted in The Gaming Hub
There is only one word to describe this game: Awesome!!! This game has everything from a highly detailed 3D world unlike anything I've seen in a game!!! Ever! An awsome plot that makes you WANT to keep playing as much as you can so you can unlock the the rest of the story AS SOON AS YOU CAN!!!!! "Magic Weather" and "Time Control" make this game even more life-like than most RPG's (Even though this game has RPG element's in it)!!! And the QTE is something we've NEVER seen in a video game before! …
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About this video game


The first chapter of Yu Suzuki's epic saga is at hand. Shenmue is an adventure game that transports you to Japan, circa 1986. You are Ryo, a young man trying to solve the mystery of his father's death. Along the way, you'll be treated to the most richly-detailed game world ever conceived. Shenmue offers a true living world, where characters exist on their own timelines and almost all objects can be manipulated and used. Over the course of the adventure, you will learn new hand-to-hand fighting techniques, presented in breathtaking motion-captured animations. You'll also interact with literally hundreds of characters and solve a myriad of puzzles. It's epic storytelling at its best, and it's only on Dreamcast.
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ESRB: T - (Teen)
Number of Players: 1
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 15 November, 2000

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