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Home Article Big In Japan: The Strange and Compelling World of Shenmue

Big In Japan: The Strange and Compelling World of Shenmue

written by Glyn Davies August 28, 2014

By most objective standards, Sega’s Dreamcast console is one of videogaming’s most noble failures, in that it was the right machine at the wrong time. Released in late 1998, the Dreamcast was universally hailed on its release as a seriously meaty piece of kit and a real signifier of where videogames were heading. This was indeed true, as the Dreamcast was ahead of its time in many ways, not least because it was the first games console to officially support online gaming, having a built in modem, a very big deal at the time, as connectivity would very soon become an essential element of any new games machine.

However, a lack of forward planning by Sega in other areas ultimately doomed the Dreamcast. The console’s main drawback was that it used Sega’s proprietary media format, GD-ROM, a higher capacity version of the then ubiquitous CD-ROM, whereas the Dreamcast’s main rivals opted for the even higher capacity DVD-ROM which, as games became bigger and more ambitious, proved to be a vital advantage. This wouldn’t necessarily have been a fatal flaw in itself if it hadn’t been for the Dreamcast’s biggest handicap: Sony’s all-conquering Playstation 2, released in 2000. The PS2 was by no means the best or most powerful console of its generation, but it nevertheless outsold all of its rivals – the Dreamcast, Microsoft’s original Xbox and the criminally undervalued Nintendo Game Cube – into oblivion, and to this day remains the best-selling games console of all time.

This proved to be the final straw for Sega. Following on from the failure of its previous console, the Saturn, which had been similarly killed off by Sony’s original Playstation, when the Dreamcast was prematurely discontinued in 2001, Sega announced that it was withdrawing permanently from the hardware market to concentrate solely on games development. The Dreamcast became yet another footnote in gaming history, one of the many potentially great gaming systems that fell by the wayside in a viciously competitive marketplace.

However, in the years that followed the Dreamcast’s demise, the machine gained something of a cult following, not least because of its library of games which, although comparatively small, had a significant proportion of very high quality products, including arcade-perfect conversions of Soul Calibur and Crazy Taxi, the online-enabled RPG Phantasy Star and the seminal Metropolis Street Racer, a direct influence on the highly successful Project Gotham Racing series. All these titles helped the Dreamcast, despite its poor sales, make its mark on the industry. But one Dreamcast title stands apart from these as being truly unique, not only as a videogame, but as a work of art: Shenmue.

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Shenmue was conceived and designed by Yu Suzuki – effectively Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto – who was responsible for some of Sega’s most legendary arcade games, including Hang-On, Space Harrier, Out Run and After Burner, a pretty impressive quartet by anyone’s standards, and totally familiar to anyone who frequented amusement arcades during the 1980s. Suzuki originally intended Shenmue to be an RPG spin-off of another of his influential titles, Virtua Fighter, and was initially earmarked for release on the Sega Saturn. But as the scale of the project grew, it was clear that the game as Suzuki had imagined it was beyond the capabilities of the Saturn. However, when Sega announced the Saturn’s successor, the Dreamcast, Suzuki finally had the hardware available to match his vision and the project was resurrected, becoming the most expensive videogame that had ever been produced at that time. Shenmue was eventually released in Japan at the end of 1999, with European and North American releases following in 2000. Its influence cannot be understated.

It’s very difficult to describe Shenmue, as it isn’t so much a videogame as an experience. It is genuinely beautiful to look at, utterly absorbing to play, almost ridiculously detailed, and is widely accepted as the first true “open-world” game, which in the past few years has approached its zenith with the more recent instalments of the Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls franchises, although it is nothing like either of these, expect perhaps in how it looks. It’s by no means a perfect game either. There are significant flaws in its concept and execution that can niggle a bit: the game’s user interface is fiddly, some of the animation is a bit iffy, which can ruin the illusion and atmosphere the gorgeous graphics create, the Western version has some very ropey voice acting, and it can be annoyingly repetitive. But you can only admire its ambition.

Shenmue is essentially an open-world adventure game with an intricate detective story at its heart. Set between November 1986 and April 1987, the game puts you in the role of Ryo Hazuki, a Japanese teenager who sets out to investigate the murder of his father, only to uncover a conspiracy that reaches far beyond his own family. The game is played for the most part at a very sedate pace as Ryo wanders the streets of Yokosuka searching for leads. This often exhaustive detective work is interspersed with animated cut-scenes and plot-driven action set-pieces, such as fighting and driving sequences, along with that bane of all sensible gamers, the dreaded “Quick Time Event” (QTE), which involves pressing a sequence of buttons in a set amount of time, and which repeats itself endlessly until the player gets it right; fortunately, the QTEs in Shenmue are not too difficult to navigate, but they’re still one of the game’s frequent little niggles.

It’s very easy to forgive Shenmue its flaws, however. Even with all the advances made in games over the past 15 years, it remains a unique and truly remarkable playing experience. Right from the outset, you become absorbed in its atmospheric world and its staggering beauty. The game not only has a full day-and-night cycle, but also, gradually, moves through the seasons. The game starts in late autumn, and the landscape and lighting effects reflect this. As autumn turns to winter, the weather changes; mornings become frosty, and there’s even the occasional snowfall. Then spring starts to make its presence felt; the trees begin to bloom and the days become brighter. Weather effects were nothing new in videogames, even in 1999, but nothing that had appeared previously could boast this level of realism.

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 Although it was very ambitious for its time, the playing area in Shenmue isn’t particularly huge. This is hardly noticeable, however, as the game’s attention to detail is such that you will often find yourself wandering away from your quest and just exploring for the sake of it. From the suburbs of Yokosuka, to its main shopping street and red-light district, to the sprawling docks, almost every door can be knocked on, every shop entered, every warehouse explored, every passer-by spoken to. One of the most celebrated features of Shenmue, enthusiastically noted on its release, is that there are a couple of arcade machines in the local café, both of which are playable, allowing the player to experience arcade-perfect renderings of the Sega classics Hang-On and Space Harrier, a fond nod to Yu Suzuki’s illustrious past. This sort of detail is precisely what makes Shenmue such a one-off. There is so much to do in the game, much of it completely unrelated to Ryo’s quest, that the game will occasionally give you subtle reminders that the clock is always ticking, and Ryo has important work to do.

The Japanese work ethic takes centre stage in Shenmue. It almost celebrates the drudgery of day-to-day routine. This is made most apparent when Ryo, needing to earn some money for an airline ticket to Hong Kong (where Shenmue II is set), takes a job as a forklift driver at the docks and – a daily forklift race with his colleagues notwithstanding – spends his days shuttling crates back and forth, limiting his investigations to his lunch hour and the couple of hours after knocking-off time, before taking the bus home. Likewise, in the game’s early stages, the player is rarely allowed to forget that Ryo has to be at certain places at certain times. If he arrives home too late, for example, his mother admonishes him; this is frequently unavoidable, as some of Ryo’s investigations take him to the red-light district, which only comes to life at night.

The game is never dull though, because clues can lurk in the most unlikely places. You quickly get into the habit of searching anything and everything you can, and talking to everyone you encounter; this being Japan, most people are polite, even if they have nothing of value to tell you. Whenever Ryo does come across a lead, he jots it down in his notebook, to which the player can refer at any time, and slowly but surely, Ryo’s quest draws you in as you investigate every little nugget of info. Even Ryo’s family home holds many clues and secrets, and can be thoroughly searched; practically every cupboard or drawer can be opened, and even items that have no relevance to the quest can be examined in detail and pocketed. This is non-linear gameplay in full effect.

Way back when I started playing videogames in the early 1980s, the games that interested me the most were always the ones that allowed you the freedom to explore your surroundings without necessarily achieving anything by doing so. Early text adventures are a good example of this, as well as arcade adventures likeSkool Daze, Jet Set Willy or Pyjamarama, which, although set in very limited environments, at least gave the illusion of freedom and non-linear gameplay. Even though the technology was limited, games that were open-ended, or at least allowed you complete them at your own pace and in your own way, were the ones I continually returned to (and indeed still do). As technology advanced, games like these became increasingly complex and engrossing, morphing into full-blown graphic adventures like the Monkey Island series or rudimentary RPGs like Eye of the Beholder.

Shenmue is precisely this sort of moderately-paced, exploratory gameplay taken to its logical conclusion: an intricately detailed world that you can explore and interact with at your leisure. Of course, even Shenmue has long since been surpassed, as is demonstrated by the massive open worlds in modern titles like GTA Vand Skyrim, games which are not only much bigger, but also give the player more freedom than ever, particularly in their online incarnations. But that doesn’t take anything away from Shenmue. Yu Suzuki’s flawed but irresistible masterpiece is a crucial, hugely influential landmark in gaming history.

Glyn Davies

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