Shenmue Review

Dear J-

I wrote this review a few years ago for — then their server went south and munged all the old files.  I happened to run across it this morning (at work, oops) while going through my files to be backed up.  Read into it what you will, a mid-twenty-something’s rantings vis-a-vis my favorite Dreamcast game.


* * * * *

I’m not going to pretend not a single thing’s wrong with it; nope, Shenmue‘s got its share of problems.  But then again, if you’re like me, you read the reviews after buying and playing the game, to see if other people agree with you.  I probably don’t.  Greatest game ever?  No, but brilliant in parts, and probably not the same parts you liked.

So … if you’ve played it, I’m not going to rehash details like graphics, sound, gameplay, etc.  If you haven’t, the game is too cheap to justify not having tried already.  Go out, buy it, play it, and come back to this review; I’ll wait.

Back already?  Good; let’s start.

I think everyone’s experienced moments of blind panic before in their lives; for me, it always happened (and I managed to do it often enough; you’d think I’d have learned after the first time) when I got lost in the grocery store.  At least I never had to go ask for an overhead page (“Mrs. Liu, please come pick up your son at the customer service window.  He’s too stupid to find you.”), but there was always that dreadful sinking inside when I turned away from the latest Cap’n Crunch giveaway (“New — Wacky Wall-Crawlers”) only to see … no one I recognized (oh sure, there was that wierd kid from school who ate paste, but he sure wasn’t a COMFORTING FACE).

Forty-five minutes into Shenmue had me feeling the same way; I’d spent most of the day dawdling in the house, picking up everything and poking through the cabinets.  I got to Sakuragaoka fairly late, and within moments, the watch alarm goes off; Ryo muses to himself idly that he should get home soon.  I turn around, start heading back, and … enter Dobuita.  After running around Sakuragaoka some more, I soon find myself … in Dobuita.  At this point, I have no idea what happens at eleven; does Ryo disappear like Cinderella’s pumpkin, and the game punt you back to the beginning without saving?  For the first time since Panzer Dragoon Saga, a game had immersed me completely into its world without my knowing it; I was lost again and this time there was no customer service desk to help me.  I was in a lather, trying to make sure that my game didn’t just end on the first day for something so mundane as getting lost before bedtime.

To some extent, Shenmue II doesn’t draw me in as fully, I think because getting the maps doesn’t make it quite as much of a bear to get around in.  Re-entering Yokosuka has become almost as familiar as walking around my neighborhood.  Hattori-san will still be in front of his shop, practicing his swing.  Wang will still be looking puzzled standing in front of the Coke/Jet Cola machine.  Akemi, your lovely Bar Yokosuka *erm* hostess, will be as solicitous as ever.  I know the characters are static and yet you can’t help but be cheered to see them day upon night.  Just as your cranky old neighbor lady will yell at you for no apparent reason, so do Mad Angels Tony and Smith keep showing up hoping they can beat the snot out of Ryo.  Megumi and Nozomi will worry alternately about the kitten and you; Fuku-san will forever be as bumbling as you remember.  That the designers have taken the time to infuse everyone with a distinct, consistent personality speaks volumes for their devotion.

Part of Shenmue‘s charm, then, is how easy it is to adopt Ryo’s corners of Yokosuka for your own.  You feel some apprehension when asking help from the yakuza of Nagai Industries.  You want to beat those bullies picking on kids, or just those who won’t respect your personal space (although I regret that there’s no way to push the inconsiderate pedestrians out of the way, it’s probably for the best; my wife keeps saying I have anger issues, and the opportunity to ‘practice’ on them — not just by yourself in empty lots would likely prove too tempting).  A rainy day will make me draw my shirt around me tighter, a light snow will incite giddiness, and so the weather reminds you of real moods that, should you actually put the controller down and go outside, you might feel.  Here at work, I keep hearing people talk about their vacations overseas in the same wondering, disturbed tones as you might describe things that crawl back up the drain; “It was so wierd,” or “I didn’t know they eat that.”  I never put down the controller from Shenmue and think what a nice little trip it was; I think about the million little familiar scenes and differences between this day and the last.  I feel like I’ve spent time at a favored cousin’s, not halfway around the world with “wierd people.”  Maybe it’s the common and cliched (yet powerful) themes of revenge and anger, but as ever, it’s easy to identify with Ryo and consequently Yokosuka.

Perhaps it’s the protracted development cycle (the clip from the Saturn version shows that had the system lingered on for another year or so, we may have had Shenmue across three consoles (and counting?)), but there’s so much obvious, slavish love lavished on the details of the world that it serves as a litmus test of your personality.  Did you stop to buy Wang the soda when he was thirsty?  Would you have in real life?  Maybe you’d walk on by, maybe you worried that the yen you spent would be better saved, maybe you had to have that last gatcha-gatcha last night, maybe you remembered how you felt sorry for Ryo, making him run in the hot sun, and thought about how much worse it is to deliver food all day … to provoke this much thought and memory is the mark of brilliance, rather than the standard RPG this-is-an-ice-creature-use-fire-spell response.  It’s not perfect; lots of unimportant characters have canned replies, and the ‘love’ scenes with Nozomi are like bad eighth-grade poetry, disjointed and ill-paced:

a million smiles 
                 and   can't see
             the one   want
               again   miss her again

Another clear aspect of the game’s brilliance is the forklift driving.  Not just the racing, but the actual moving of crates throughout the day, as you dodge slow pedestrians, almost-as-slow fellow drivers, and the odd Mad Angel.  Admittedly, I have a bias — my first LEGO set was of a working forklift model, and I was pretty much hooked after that (it didn’t help to hang out in a lot of Seattle International District-area warehouses in my formative years — another story, another time).  When you think of all the different starter jobs they could have used for Ryo, forklift driving was an inspired choice.  Would Shenmue have been the same if he clerked in the Tomato Mart (“Pick … a ticket!”)?  Meeting the quota, taking different routes for variety, eating lunch with the crew …

I’ll conclude with a little plug for perhaps my favorite character in the game; of course you already knew it was Goro, eh?  From witless punk to sycophantic lackey to fiance, the many faces of Goro delight and amaze.  Whoever provided the voices (either in the English dub or the Japanese original) must have had a lot of fun with the character.  CHEESE!


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