Published on December 12th, 2012 | by Yellow Magpie1
Shenmue Saga: The Ultimate Video Game For The Dreamcast
Shenmue The Title That Changed Video Gaming History
1999 was the year Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue was released on the Dreamcast changing the landscape of video gaming for ever. Mixing elements that had never been combined before with a gripping cinematic storyline and the ability to do whatever the player wanted in a open-world gaming experience, Shenmue will forever be at the pinnacle when it comes to a list of the greatest computer games.
It is late 1986 and 18-year-old Ryo Hazuki arrives home to discover that something is terribly wrong. He approaches the family’s dojo only to see his good friend, Fuku-San, being violently flung through the doors. Inside, he looks on with horror as his father, Iwao, is being beaten up by a mysterious stranger.
In a futile attempt to save Iwao, Ryo is badly injured by the unknown man. In absolute anguish, he watches on helplessly as his father is sadistically murdered before his eyes.
In the aftermath Ryo drops out of his final year of school and goes on a determined quest to find out why Iwao was killed and avenge his death. What follows is a gripping cinematic epic as the young protagonist delves deeply into a world he previously never knew existed. Ryo is inexplicably drawn to a girl in his dreams and he is prepared to abandon everyone to satiate his compulsions.
Meeting literally hundreds of people (each with unique individually modelled faces with every character voiced by different actors) along the way and honing his martial arts abilities, youthful Hazuki gets gripped by revenge. His need for retribution comes at a cost and those closest to him pay the price.
The Geography Of Shenmue
The first steps outside the Hazuki residence place Ryo in the small, quiet residential area of Yamanose, a place populated by an older demographic. Nearby is the larger village of Sakuragoaka which is more modern than Yamanose and closer to down-town Dobuita. Sakuragoaka has much younger inhabitants than Yamanose as well as a convenience store and park. Ryo can also use the payphone located in the central area.
The heart of Shenmue though resides in the larger downtown area of Dobuita. Filled with various shops serving all manner of goods and services, in Dobuita you have the freedom to do almost anything you desire. From playing video games in the arcades, to visiting all types of places – barbers, clothes shops, convenience stores, travel guide agencies, antique shops, restaurants, tattoo parlours and nightclubs in the locale’s red light district.
As large as the domain of Dobuita is, it actually is not the largest vicinity in the game. That honour resides with Yokosuka Harbour with has a bus service running to and from Dobuita. There, massive cranes, huge warehouses and immense open areas interspersed with various buildings are the norm. It was not uncommon for gamers to regularly get lost and seek out a local map to pinpoint their location.
Shenmue’s epic scale, and up to that time, unheard of level of interaction meant it had highly varied gameplay. Very tricky to classify, ultimately the title was a simulation of Japanese life in the 1980’s as the old culture was giving way to modernity. Completely non-linear, the majority of the game was spent in Quest mode where Ryo was free to wander and pretty much do what the gamer wanted.
You could choose to talk to as many people as possible, follow up on your investigations, spend your days practising martial arts, buy collectable toys, enter prize draws, or play video and quick timer event games in Dobuita’s arcade.
Battle mode was a free-form fighting style in which Ryo would fight opponents of varying strengths and numbers. This is where practising and acquiring new martial arts techniques became critical to success.
The final component of the Shenmue game mechanics was quick time events (QTEs). As the name implies, QTEs were all about fast reflexes. During certain sequences buttons would suddenly appear on screen and the player had a very limited period of time to hit the correct key on the game controller. As you progressed further, the degree of difficulty increased and the sequences became longer and more defiant.
Of special mention was the Shenmue Magic Weather System. It was the first game to have detailed and varied weather that altered not only from day-to-day but from hour-to-hour. Changeable weather added greatly to the aesthetic and also altered how the characters went about their daily routines. Wet weather caused people to adopt umbrellas and the streets of Dobuita because a visual cacophony of colour. There was also the choice to use the meteorological patterns that occurred in that region of Japan during the time period the game was set in.
Shenmue II’s Storyline
Shenmue II was set straight after Shenmue with Ryo setting foot in British-occupied Hong Kong. There he is tasked with the mission of finding Master Lishao Tao, a furtive character who apparently knows a good deal about the man who killed Iwao Hazuki. A hostile and colourful world awaits the teenager as he is cast into a large, bustling metropolis with nothing to go on except a name and a compulsion for justice.
In this alien conurbation, Ryo quickly gets outwitted by unscrupulous gangs losing all his money and becoming a pauper in the process. He must then immediately seek employment in order to obtain funds and purchase items. Money plays a much larger role in Shenmue II and there are myriad ways to obtain it from menial jobs, to gambling and prize fighting.
Like the first game, meeting and interacting with people is vital for progressing. Ryo encounters numerous individuals as he undertakes his assignment including several who he befriends. If Shenmue had a cast of hundreds, Shenmue II had a cast of thousands. The same as the original title each character was unique in terms of appearance and clothing as well as having a separate actor providing the voice.
Eventually Ryo would uncover more about the mysterious man and learn surprising details concerning his father going on to eventually meet the young girl consuming his dreams.
The Geography Of Shenmue II
As massive as the world of Shenmue was, Shenmue II was of an even vaster scale. The game was divided into three chapters. The first was set in various parts of Hong Kong and was on a magnitude that was unprecedented even compared to Shenmue.
It consisted of six large quarters; two piers; the dangerous gang-infested Beverly Hills Wharf; Scarlet Hills – home of the famous Man Mo Temple and Queen Street, a relatively upmarket area consisting of a very long road dominated by restaurants.
The second chapter brought with it another intimidatingly gigantic urban environment – Hong Kong’s notorious walled city of Kowloon. A sprawling, dilapidated mix of poverty and criminality, the extreme run-down nature of the place matched the hazards that lay in-wait for Ryo. At the heart of Kowloon was a bright shopping area complete with restaurants, gaming arcades and gambling establishments to provide respite from the darkness and squalor.
The final chapter differed completely from both the rest of the game and Shenmue due to its rural setting. Away from Hong Kong and accessible only by boat lay the small village of Guilin. It is in this remote parish that Ryo awaits his destiny.
Shenmue II’s Gameplay
Like the first title, Shenmue II’s gameplay was a mix of Quest, Battle and QTE’s. Although in the sequel there was more of an emphasis on QTEs which were generally much more difficult than those of the first game. Shenmue II was also less non-linear than its predecessor but the player still had the freedom to partake in a lot of different activities. Essentially, the title conformed to the open-world or FREE (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) of the first game.
The mammoth scale of Hong Kong meant that purchasing maps was compulsory for new players in order to avoid getting continually lost.
An Evolving Series
The first Shenmue placed a greater emphasis on interactivity. Once at home in Ryo’s house the gamer was able to open virtually every single drawer, door and press in his large multi-room home. Such detail was also echoed throughout the game. With Shenmue II a point was made to stress the vast scope of Hong Kong with a slight loss to interactive details.
The PAL and NTSC versions of Shenmue had one weakness compared to the Japanese variant and that was the differing abilities of the voice actors who played Ryo Hazuki. Whereas the Japanese had the rather excellent Masaya Matsukaze the English version was stuck with the flat Corey Marshall. Shenmue II was solely in Japanese with English subtitles for the other regions and gamers were treated to Matsukaze’s fine efforts. Although the Xbox port uses an English cast with Marshall once again reprising his role.
The third part in the Shenmue saga has yet to be released. While Shenmue sold over 1.4 million copies, Shenmue II only managed a paltry 400,000 units. The poor performance was most definitely related to the rampant piracy that destroyed the Dreamcast console. A ported Xbox version by Sega was also unsuccessful as most fans already had the Dreamcast version, legal or otherwise, and they had little reason to purchase the title for a second time.
There have been many stalled attempts to get the concluding Shenmue III off the ground and fans have come to the realisation that this may never happen. Yu Suzuki’s nature and constant need to break through boundaries means that if the title is ever released it will be likely that once again the game will be completely different to anything else available.
In an interview for 1up.com, Suzuki tantalisingly hints at what he has in store for the game:
‘The world of Shenmue 1 and 2 expanded outward. So, for example, in the original games, of all the data used for dialogue in the game, the main characters’ dialogue was about 20%. The remaining 80% was dialogue by characters other than the two main characters. But Shenmue 3 doesn’t expand outward, but inward. A lot of the dialogue is used for the main character and especially dialogue with Shenhua. They talk about a lot of different, deeper things. For example, and I can’t say too much, but here’s an example.
This is not actually in the game, but as an example to give you an idea of what I mean by deeper dialogue, when Shenhua and Ryo are at home, Shenhua will ask Ryo if he would like to drink tea or coffee and the player will select one or the other. Or, Shenhua will ask Ryo a hypothetical question like: “There are four animals; a monkey, cat, dog and bird. You are crossing the river but you need to leave one behind. Which one will you leave behind?” And the player has to choose one. Shenhua will ask lots and lots of questions like these and the answers will get stored in the game and affect the outcome of the player’s relationship with other characters. It’s like a personality test. For example, the person who leaves behind the monkey is the type of person who leaves their wife.’
The Lasting Legacy Of Shenmue
Shenmue left an indelible mark on the video gaming landscape and it will always be remembered as a pioneer of virtual reality long after consoles finally give way to fully immersive, haptic worlds. It was a pioneer in so many worlds, the first to use a changeable weather system, the first to have proper day and night cycles and the first to have individually modelled and voiced non-playing characters.
Told with cinematic flair and full orchestral scores, the Shenmue series brought with them a huge mix of genres from drama to romance, mystery to suspense within the back drop of a blend of unparalleled open-world realism. It was the father and mother of modern gaming.
Read The Disappearance of Yu Suzuki to learn more about the game, its creator and head programmer.
You may also wish to check out Yellow Magpie’s Dreamcast: The Video Games Console That Got Away.
Highly Recommended Playing
You can obtain here Shenmue and Shenmue II for the original Dreamcast console and Shenmue 2 for the Xbox which is also compatible with the Xbox 360 (although there are some technical glitches when playing the game on a 360) from Amazon. Although the Dreamcast should be the preferred choice.