In all my years of gaming I have yet to come across a more unique and satisfying feeling that Shenmue provides. It is something hard to truly comprehend in words. This title by Yu Suzuki has brought forth a level of immersion gaming has yet to experience; Yes, for a title released back in 1999 it was certainly ahead of its time. The primary reason for the mixed review scores this title received was mostly due to the nature of this title, the slow pacing of the story and the uncertainty of what they thought they would get out of this experience.
So what is Shenmue and its significance? Is it an action game, adventure game, or just another RPG? Apparently it is a mixture of all the above and more. Game designer Yu Suzuki set out to design a game on a whole new level – a new genre known as Fully Reactive Eyes Entertainment (FREE). To be fair since this game is based in Japan you must have some level of cultural interest in this setting as the series takes place in Asia and the main protagonist is a young Japanese man. Furthermore, don’t go in expecting all out action as I initially did. Going in with the expectations of immediate gratification in terms of stereotypical beat ’em up will leave you sorely disappointed as Shenmue is more about immersion and exploration.
The game’s graphics and mechanics allow you to feel as if you are actually roaming the streets of Yokosuka in 1980s Japan – where the series initially starts off. The reason being is the subtle details that were put into the creation of this title such as the camera actually panning around the characters as you converse with them; the fact that every NPC is fully voiced; and how you can interact with almost every object you see. Also, I shalt not forget to add the music played throughout this title, which further adds to the depth of this title. Failure to truly admire these finer details could lead to a strong dislike of this game. It is well known that it is a love or hate title, after all. The game itself is slow-paced and full of poor quality english dubbing – especially for the NPCs. Furthermore, the action is few and far in between in the beginning so beware.
The story doesn’t progress much as it does in the second title of this series so don’t expect much as I feel the first title is more of an introduction to the series and the new-style gameplay, which was more than enough to captivate me. Usually I would write 2 separate reviews for the games, but I feel I can convey my appreciate of the series in 1. To quickly sum up what you’re to expect out of this computer-generated world is a revenge story. This is what fuels the main protagonist Ryo to go forth on his complicated quest. In the beginning you will seek out aid from both friends and random associates, which will lead you to your next destination in Shenmue 2 (for spoiler purposes I will not mention where exactly).
Shenmue 2 is where the action will pick up for the most part and also contains and enhanced fighting engine. My only complaint about Shenmue 2 is the lack domestic treatment you receive in your new location as opposed to Ryo’s hometown in Yokosuka. I know it can’t be helped, but it really added to what made Shenmue 1 so special on how everyone knew each other. Shenmue 2 is no quintessential sequel, mind, as it has not suffered from the common downfalls most gaming sequels face – ie. being too similar to the first. The story progresses at a much more acceptable pace and supporting characters you meet play a much more prominent role.
Unfortunately, the series concludes leaving many more questions than answers as there were plans for more titles in this series. Fans have been waiting for a conclusion for over 10 years now and still hope Yu Suzuki wil one day achieve the budget and licence in order to fulfill his ambition and the desire of fans. Many developers from the early 90s were successfully able to achieve their dreams of making the games they wanted to again through the now popular crowd-funding method known as kickstarter. My hopes are to one day be able to finally be able to complete Yu Suzuki’s masterpiece as this is the only gaming series I play through on an annual basis. To this day I have yet to find an experience quite like this one, which shows how special this title really is. If I had the financial ability to do so I can honestly say I would do whatever I could to fund the budget for the 3rd game.
I personally believe it is only a matter of time before it comes to fruition. In the mean time, it would be nice for Sega to finally produce an HD remastering of this series for old fans and a new audience alike. After all these years of keeping fans in the dark it is the least they could do.