An Aging Classic:
When it was first released on the Sega Dreamcast nearly twenty years ago, Shenmue and its sequel were a revalation. The series are two of the most influential and important 3D games ever made, and at the time they blew people away.
It’s unreal it took Sega two decades to rerelease these bona fide classics, but now that they’re finally here what’s the verdict?
In Shenmue you play Ryo Hazuki, a young man who witnessed the death of his father at the hand of the sinister Lan Di. Left for dead, Ryo recovers and sets out on a journey to avenge his father and bring Lan Di to justice.
Whilst this is a fairly run-of-the-mill tale of revenge at first glance, Shenmue slowly opens up into a globe-trotting epic that sends this Japanese teen and unassuming plot to the strangest places imaginable, meeting a curious cast of interesting characters along the way. Whether Ryo is hunting down Chinese criminals, looking for sailors or just exploring Yokosuka and far, far beyond, you’ll likely be surprised at the twists and turns this tale takes you on.
Shenmue astounded the gaming world with its ambitious, open-world story that dealt with the minutiae of Ryo’s day to day life alongside massive seventy-man setpiece battles that I still remember to this day. It’s this fantastic sense of scope – both at micro and macro levels – that helped cement Shenmue as a classic as venerated as the likes of Ocarina of Time.
But, Shenmue couldn’t possibly hold up when compared to how far the industry has come – and perhaps it’s unfair to expect it to do so. Despite being the most expensive videogame ever made at the time of release, Shenmue pales in comparison to most contemporary titles, regardless of budget. Yu Suzuki and his team at Sega trail blazed the very genres that Shenmue now finds itself unable to measure up to, and it’s in a large part down to a fairly lacklustre re-release.
Instead of re-recording the laughably bad voice acting and speeding things up in general, Shenmue is instead doomed to remain a little painful to play – and this extends to the gameplay as well.
Again, Shenmue was a trendsetter when it came to its gameplay. Offering up a fairly rich, feature-full world packed with distractions and collectibles to sway you from your important mission, Shenmue was quite unlike anything the world had seen before, and set in motion mechanics that would be seen in countless titles to follow.
Most of the game is spent walking around the brilliantly realized town of Yokosuka – a sleepy, rural Japanese town that plays host to a boatload of NPCs going about their daily lives. With the help of a time and weather system that was unheard of in 1999, these guys have their own routines they stick to, as do the shops and attractions they run. It’s in Shenmue’s quieter moments that it still manages to charm and engage as it once did – these are endearing games that won people over because of their quirky minute to minute play, rather than their overarching goals.
When you’re not out interrogating the locals about men in black suits, you’re either engaged in action packed QTE sequences (a mechanic that Shenmue introduced) or in multi-men brawls, utilizing the fun martial arts combat system. You can always go to the local arcade to play some classic Sega titles, however, if you’re not feeling like ploughing on with the story, or even dump your yen into capsule machines endlessly to ogle the Sonic and Virtua Fighter figures you win from them.
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