Category Archives: Sega

#14: Shenmue

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?

shenmue-cover-art

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.

Forklift racing - slightly more interesting than stacking boxes

Forklift racing - slightly more interesting than stacking boxes

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.

"I LOVE these!"

"I LOVE these!"

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.

Ahem.

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).

No-one seemed to question why Ryo spent so much time hanging around the docks talking to strangers...

No-one seemed to question why Ryo spent so much time hanging around the docks talking to sailors...

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).

The birth of the Quick Time Event - for good or ill

The birth of the Quick Time Event - for good or ill

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.’

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://hg101.classicgaming.gamespy.com/shenmue/shenmue.htm)

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Filed under 2000, Adventure, Dreamcast, Fighting, RPG, Sega

#2: Phantasy Star Online

Format:Dreamcast Genre:RPG Released: 2001 Developer: Sonic Team (Sega)

I obviously play a lot of video games (I can’t think of too many other people I know who have a blog dedicated to reminiscing about old games), but there aren’t that many games I would say I’ve been truly addicted to. Phantasy Star Online, however, is one of them.

I must have been addicted to it – how else can you explain the fact that I spent nigh on 80 hours hacking and slashing through repetitive enemies, all for the dubious glory of occasionally finding a ‘rare’ weapon – which was usually the same as the normal weapons, albeit with slightly higher numbers attached to it. Let’s face it, PSO has got to be one of the thinnest RPGs out there – no extravagant plot lines, no branching skill trees, no complicated levelling system, no option to do anything but hack, slash, hack, slash, ad inifinitum.

Ah, those Sega-blue skies...

But it was brilliant, and perhaps its simplicity was the reason why. It was the first MMORPG for consoles, and as such it was designed for the masses. Compare it to something like EverQuest or Ultima, the PC equivalents at the time, and you can see what a breath of fresh air it is: with no fiddly navigation through reams of meaningless menus it was an RPG that anyone could pick up and play. What’s more, it looked fantastic (and, in my opinion, still does today). For a start it was set in space, which makes a change to the usual parade of orc-filled dungeons and castles, and the whole thing was awash in classic Sega-blue skies and crisp green meadows. Lovely.

I have three stand-out memories of PSO. The first is the (almost) brilliant translation system, the idea being that anything you typed in was instantly translated into the other users’ language. I remember the first time I went online and ended up hanging around with some Spanish guys – I thought it was absolutely amazing that I could be having a conversation with someone who spoke a different language and who lived hundreds of miles away… It was at that point that I first glimpsed what Sega was attempting to create – an online community of Dreamcast gamers, unseparated by language or country. Of course, it wasn’t perfect – I remember having some amusingly unintelligible conversations with a few Japanese gamers (although whether or not that was because I’d just got back from a night out in the pub is open to debate), but overall it worked pretty well, and the implications were huge. I suppose the technology has now been surpassed to some extent by headsets, but it’s a shame that the translation ability has been lost.

There were millions of these gits all over the place - and they just kept coming. Well, respawning.

The second memory is the worm-type boss thing on the second level – which took FORTY-FIVE MINUTES TO KILL. No joke. I suspect that it took so long because my character wasn’t sufficiently levelled-up to fight the boss at the time, but even so it ranks as one of the most simultaneously intense and frustrating gaming moments of my life (punctuated by shouts of disapproval from my house mates, who had wandered into the lounge to watch The Simpsons and were instead treated to watching me club a giant slug to death).

The worm boss thingy

My third memory isn’t so rosy. PSO was notoriously easy to hack, and this caused several problems when playing online. I remember one bizarre episode where another player ‘lost’ a weapon and accused me of stealing it. Of course, I’d done nothing of the sort, and I’ve no idea what happened to said weapon, but he didn’t believe me and soon the situation escalated to the point where I was surrounded by several players who were threatening to ‘wipe the save game from my memory card’ (I’m not even sure if that’s possible, but after all the other dodgy hacks I saw in PSO it wouldn’t surprise me if it was). It was a pretty nasty episode – it felt a bit like I was being mugged. However, unlike a real mugging, the problem was easily solved by simply switching off the console. If only real life was that simple.

It was partly because of several incidents like that and partly because of the repetition that I eventually stopped playing the game, but Phantasy Star certainly ranks up there as not only one of my favourite gaming experiences but also a game that was way ahead of its time.

Lewis

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Filed under 2001, Dreamcast, MMORPG, RPG, Sega