Some days I’m still more than happy just to play on my Dreamcast. While I know that systems and game design have moved on in so many ways, Sega’s last console remains a highlight in my gaming life. From Phantasy Star Online and Soul Calibur through to Crazy Taxi, its then-exclusive games are amongst my most-played titles of all time.
Many Dreamcast owners would place Shenmue at the peak of those exclusives. At the time the most expensive game ever produced, and indeed one that never made that money back, it’s still considered one the best games of all time, while its pioneering mechanics laid the groundwork for all open-world games that followed it.
Produced by legendary game developer Yu Suzuki, the game follows teenager Ryo Hazuki and his tale of revenge following the murder of his father at the hands of Lan Di. As you explore Yokosuka, interviewing the townspeople, you’re drawn into the life of Ryo, with the game utilising a realistic day and night system where people will only appear at certain times, operating to their own schedule.
One of my favourite elements was the combat. Yu Suzuki’s work on Virtua Fighter translated across to Shenmue’s fighting system, and indeed early in its production it was touted as Virtua Fighter RPG. You actually have to practice your moves to unlock them, and certainly at the time the depth of the combat was something I hadn’t experienced outside of a one on one fighting game.
Adding to the immersion are actually a number of distractions. You’re given pocket money each day, and later can earn a wage, much of which I personally spent on collecting figurines from vending machines and playing titles like Hang-On and Space Harrier in the in-game arcade. You live Ryo’s life, and that includes the more mundane elements such as being home for bed, but no other title has drawn me in in quite the same way.
The voice-acting remains one of the only low-rent features, though its varying levels of delivery, from monotone to, er, monotone, are now simply part and parcel of the overall game, and returning to it now you can’t help but smile at some of the lines. Critics also focussed on the slow pace, though considering the game’s overarching realism it makes sense that its not a frantic action-adventure.
Of course, Shenmue’s legacy can be felt in any number of modern titles, including the 3D Grand Theft Auto games, and the Yakuza series, and it also has the questionable honour as the progenitor of the Quick Time Event. Sadly, despite selling 1.2 million copies the game was a commerical failure, in part due to its host console’s own poor sales, and in part due to its huge budget. Despite its sequel appearing on both the Dreamcast and the original Xbox the series never gained enough ground for Sega to continue with it.
Somewhat amazingly though, after years of lobbying from fans, the Shenmue series will return with Shenmue III, following an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign and support from Sony. It sees Yu Suzuki return to the story of Ryo, and is set for release on PC and PlayStation 4 in 2017, some eighteen years after the first entry.
Now it’s your turn to have a say, and weigh in on whether Shenmue really deserves all the accolades or whether you found it a dull jog through a sleepy Japanese town where you talk to kittens. Our new Retro WeView rating system is Must Play, Should Play, Watch a Let’s Play, or Don’t Play so please don’t forget to include that with your comments.