I can’t help but feel a little anxious when trying a beloved video game franchise for the first time, often uncertain about whether I’m approaching it with the right mindset, or if I’m playing the game “the right way”. Normally, these feelings subside as soon as I boot it up, and all hype or anticipation leave my mind.
I’m a firm believer of “play how you wanna play”, but that usually just involves me deciding whether or not I want to play with a guide, or try to snatch up all the PlayStation trophies I can in one playthrough. However, with Shenmue, I was far more concerned with the in-game clock, dictating every action, ensuring I made the maximum amount of progress each day.
The game began rather jarringly, with the player character, Ryo, being witness to his father’s murder at the hands of a man named Lan-Di. I wasn’t sure what to make of this scenario, I have no connection to any of these characters, so why should I care? The dramatic opening is immediately juxtaposed with a short scene of Ryo climbing out of bed – presumedly – the next morning. After this scene, the game starts and you’re free to explore the world without restriction.
So what do I expect?
I was anticipating something along the lines of Yakuza or a Quantic Dream game: I’ll explore a confined scene or set piece, go grab some spicy ramen and experience a hefty dose of melodrama…
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This might be where I lose some people; Shenmue isn’t a game about exploring a large open world or intense street shootouts. No, this Japanese classic is a game that excels in the mundane, whether that be walking down the street and treating yourself to a soft-drink, or digging through kitchen cupboards and reminiscing on the times Ryo spent with his deceased father. Before I even left the Hazuki house, I was gripped by exploring this foreign household, rustling through the kind of accumulated junk everyone has laying around their home, and piecing together the day-to-day life of its inhabitants.
From the get-go, the player is left to piece together the lifestyle of Ryo. Does he go straight to the Hazuki family Dojo and polish up on the skills his father taught him? Maybe he’ll wander around the family home and reminisce on the happy times he spent there? Or he might just head down to the arcade and play some 80’s arcade classics all day. It’s only when Ryo begins interacting with the townspeople he’s known his entire life that his motivations are made clear: to avenge his father’s murder by any means necessary.
There are no missions to pick off systematically in Shenmue, rather, the game takes a more grounded approach to progression that doesn’t include waypoints and objectives. This is a modest game about small everyday interactions, piecing together rumours, and inching ever closer to avenging your father’s murder. There’s no mini-map, and navigation is handled in a way that feels natural, with maps placed contextually much like the real world.
Just in case you’re ever left wondering why Ryo is searching for a burly sailor, a journal is available wherein he records pieces of information gleaned from the townsfolk. However, I often found the journal lacking in details that I thought were necessary for me to progress. This is where I’m a little ashamed to admit that I began keeping my own list of rumours and errands to progress, and the game really started to click with me.
Beyond it being helpful when juggling different plot threads, I noticed myself interacting with the townspeople more thoughtfully, and I became more perceptive of the character’s movements throughout the day. They were no longer simply a means to an end or another barrier to progression. I became genuinely interested in their lifestyles, their routines and their idiosyncrasies. I found a sense of respect for characters who withheld certain pieces of information out of fear for Ryo’s safety. It even felt justified that these people, friends who had watched him grow into a young man, would want to protect him from the shadier parts of society.
Bolstering the illusion of a living and breathing world is the ability to interact with much of the environment from a more intimate first-person perspective. By being thorough and making use of this feature, Ryo is able to investigate seemingly useless objects to obtain helpful items or glean new moves for use in the game’s few brawling segments. It’s a mechanic that was obviously used to showcase the rendering power of the Dreamcast, but it is effective in making the world feel like more than simple textures painted over the environment.
With all that gushing out of the way, Shenmue is still a difficult game for me to recommend to everyone, and even with the recent re-release, it’s certainly still a Dreamcast game and carries all the shortcomings that label entails. Controls are reminiscent of early Resident Evil “tank controls”, English voice acting is more hit than miss with noticeable compression, and character models remind me a lot of early PS2 titles (ahem, Final Fantasy X).
It’s a relic from a different time, a game that impressed its players with the ability to manipulate useless kitchenware or purchase a can of Coke. It’s quirky, unapologetically Japanese, and if you can look past the dated technology, then I think you can find a wonderfully grounded gem that’s unlike anything you’ve played before.