Format: Dreamcast Genre: Adventure/RPG/Fighting Released: 2000 Developer: Sega (AM2)
At the time, I considered Shenmue (pronounced ‘shen-moo’) to be one of the most absorbing and realistic computer games I’d ever played. If you’d spoken to any of my housemates, however, they’d probably be more likely to express disbelief at the saddening amount of time I spent waiting for buses and going to work – in a video game. After all, that kind of stuff is boring enough in real life – why on earth would you want to emulate it on a computer?
It’s a fair point and, to be honest, a fairly accurate one: I’m not about to suggest that becoming a forklift truck driver ranks among my top ten most exciting video game experiences. In fact, parts of Shenmue were incredibly dull, and it would be over-generous to describe the pace of the game as ‘slow’. ‘Glacial’ is probably more accurate.
But the reason that Shenmue appears on this list is that it hinted at the possibilities of what videogames could be like, even if its execution was a trifle rough around the edges.
In creating Shenmue, Yu Suzuki tried, and succeeded, in designing a noticeably different video game experience from those that had gone before it – the kind of varied, free-form gameplay seen in Shenmue is two-a-penny now, but back in 2000 it was virtually unheard of. Yu Suzuki gave this new genre the rather naff moniker ‘Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment’ or ‘FREE’ for short. Needless to say, the name didn’t catch on, but Shenmue was (arguably) the first real ‘open world’ game experience, appearing a year before the landmark Grand Theft Auto III.
Although there was a central plot, which revolved around finding your father’s killer, the real bulk of the game centred around the various sub-plots, characters and entertainments to be found in your Japanese home town. In fact, the main plot is barely referred to for most of the game – Ryo seems to spend more of his time collecting Sega-themed figurines, feeding kittens and playing Space Harrier in the local arcade than actually searching for the murderer Lan-Di.
When Ryo does finally get round to looking for his dad’s killer, his chosen approach is to hang around the docks chatting to sailors.
I’m not saying anything.
Although the developers at Sega either missed the other possible connotation of parleying with barnacle-ridden old sea dogs or they’re all laughing silently into their sleeves right now. Either way, Ryo’s quest for nautical companionship inspired this rather excellent song (wait for the chorus).
Despite his tireless devotion to chatting-up sailors, Ryo barely manages to find out anything about the reason for his father’s death; in fact, the entire plot could be summed up as: ‘A Chinese guy kills your dad, it’s something to do with a magic mirror, now you have to go to Hong Kong.’ Apparently, the game was planned as the first chapter of a 16 chapter series – in reality, this means that barely anything happens.
This is by no means the only criticism that can be levied against the game: I’ve already mentioned the glacial pace and the dubious ‘thrill’ of fork lift truck driving, but Shenmue also had the ‘honour’ of bringing us what Suzuki called QTEs (Quick Time Events). These basically amount to watching a cut scene and pressing a button at the right time (a game technique that had previously been shown to be awful in such ‘classics’ as Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace). Nevertheless, for some reason QTEs seem to crop up in games all the time now – I think the idea is that they bring more interaction to cut scenes. Why they can’t just put in fewer cut scenes is beyond me (after all, Half Life 2 managed just fine without them).
Despite all this, I loved Shenmue. I loved it because it felt like a step into the future – for a start it looked amazing, but it also heralded a new age of free-form gameplay that’s still only in its infancy, and its interactive world offered features, such as dynamic weather and online highscores, that were way ahead of its time. The lines between game genres are becoming increasingly blurred (look at Spore for an example), and back in 2000 Shenmue was on the front line of this trend.
Shenmue was by no means perfect, but there are very few games I’ve played since that have offered such a different and refreshing take on the pre-conceived notions of what a video game should be. As the (rather grandiose) trailer says: ‘It’s not an RPG. It’s not a movie. [It’s] a world that transcends games.’
(Screenshots from http://hg101.classicgaming.gamespy.com/shenmue/shenmue.htm)