An amazing, incomparable experience. Pure genius.
For every clone of Ocarina of Time, there is only one Shenmue. Ocarina of Time was the poor mans adventure, simply a 3D version of a 2D game which is Nintendo's style. It added very little to the established conventions of the series, relying on gimmicks such as time travel (which affected little not pertaining to the plot) to sell units.
While Shigeru Miyamoto was busy scribbling his brain farts onto a notepad and sliding them under the door of whoever would read them Yu Suzuki was working on what would become the most engrossing, cinematic adventure I have ever played.
You play Ryo Hazuki, a young man, burgeoning on manhood. His relationship with his friend Nozomi is a source of much drama throughout the course of his adventure. At the beginning of the game Ryo's father is killed by a mysterious Chinese fellow named Lan Di. Shenmue then chronicles Ryo's day to day exploits as he tracks Lan Di down around his home and neighbouring areas.
The story is heartbreaking at times, the sound
design marrying perfectly with the action on screen to produce a delicate harmony of thematic elements.
In addition to Ryo's search for Lan Di and his awkward relationship with Nozomi minor characters in the game also feature their own developing personal lives that you can check up on from time to time.
One of the best story features I noticed was the inclusion of the telephone. You can call Nozomi occasionally and other people too and have conversations with them. Doing this is a great way of gaining a deeper insight into the characters outside of traditional cut scenes.
Shenmue is different in the sense that everything it does is an effort to differentiate itself. Suzuki San incorporates a flood of ideas into the game and while if others attempted this, the game would seem fragmented, Suzuki San's genius shines through and it all works.
Shenmue is not an open world game, but it does incorporate a world. It is strictly linear, but everything in this linearity seems to exist. Every single person on the street has something to say, with their own distinctive personality. You encounter different people depending on what time of day you go out, some more willing to give you information or directions than others.
While Suzuki San wanted Ryo's world to be perceived
as realistic he still does his best to emphasise that this is a game. While the vending machines have been criticized by some less than reasonable people they play into the collectibles that could be traded with the Shenmue Passport disc when the service was still active.
Elaborating on the living world Ryo inhabits you can pick up nearly everything loose in his house, look at them and put them back down. There is no real practical purpose for them other than to emphasise that Ryo's world is tangible. It's so clever.
The player can also play arcade games like Hang On and Space Harrier, or a game of darts of practice the game's QTE system using QTE Excite. High Scores for these games could then be shared online with other Shenmue players.
The QTE system was one of the most heavily advertised features of Shenmue before its release. These sequences are scripted story sequences that feature quick timed button presses necessary to advance the story. If you miss a button press it doesn't always mean you will fail, but most of the time you will need to restart. Shenmue is by no means the first game to feature QTE's. The concept has been around as long International Track and Field but Shenmue is the first game to incorporate them into the progression of the story.
Shenmue isn't all love stories and Space Harrier. Ryo has a plethora of martial arts move he can execute, learning more from scrolls or helpful NPC's. You can practice these in your father's Dojo or around Yokusaka or Dobuita.
You then utilize these moves in what is dubbed "Free Battle" a system wherein a cutscene will trigger a fight between Ryo and whoever seems to be antagonizing him. The system takes a little getting used to, being a hybrid 2D/3D fighting engine. The moves you end up being able to pull off though make it worth learning the system. It's satisfying being able to successfully shadow step behind an enemy and then paralyze them with a punishing blow to the back of the neck.
Then there are minor incidental details about Shenmue you might even not notice, because they are so well integrated into the core game.
The weather in the game is called "Magic Weather" and in Japan you could dial up your Dreamcast to the internet and Shenmue would download the forecast for your area, changing the weather to match what you could see by looking out of the window. Finishing the game allows you to play with the actual weather from 1986 painstakingly researched for you.
The time I mentioned before adds a degree of strategy to how you play the game. You can head into town, looking for clues but if you spend too much time in one place you might miss someone, so you need to plan accordingly what you are going to do that day. You have no shortage of things to do though to pass the time. You can find and talk to Nozomi, give someone a call, grab a Soda, play a game or simply walk around and soak up the guy walking around with a Santa suit on. Whatever you want to do, is up to you. The game doesn't tell you how to play it, it lets you work out what you want to do in this living world.
While the music is beautiful, cinematic in its own way the voice acting in Shenmue comes off as lacklustre at time. Ryo's voice sometimes lacks emotion however I believe this is primarily because of the way he was raised, his character is very emotional.
Eventually you have to get a job to advance the story. Compared to the previous section of the game you've just played this tends to drag a bit. There are lots of exciting fights though, so it is balanced in that respect.
You can no longer use the awesome internet features of the Passport disc that comes with Shenmue. It's a shame because there is some really cool stuff on it.
The Bottom Line
Shenmue is Yu Suzuki's magnus opum.
It went places that no other game had gone before. It went somewhere different while remaining comfortably familiar. You are engrossed in Ryo's plight as he searches for Lan Di and how his world changes as he matures through this experience.
The music is an amazing, cinematic achievement and the graphics are beautiful.
Ocarina of Time is often quoted as the best game ever made, but if you ask me it was more of the same flushed with gimmicks that appeals to only the most low brow of gamers with a closed mind.
Shenmue is a masterpiece of the highest order, polished to an incandescent sheen and in a place no other game will ever go.