Retro Review: Shenmue
Back in 1999 Sega spent $47 million making Shenmue, and looking back this was arguably money well spent. It’s a shame we don’t currently see that amount of cash being funnelled into games that are equally ambitious and innovative, but Shenmue walks a dangerous line and I can see why others have been unwilling to follow. It’s too advanced for it’s own good, and because of this remains an utterly unique and compelling experience today.
In an odd way Shenmue reminds me of an indie game; it’s slow paced, has a genuine story to tell, and is unflinchingly bold. But unlike an indie game, Shenmue does this with no sense of irony or self-awareness. It’s incredibly difficult, brutally complicated, and will happily let you walk around aimlessly without a clue what to do next. If you do work out where you need to go then there’s a good chance you’ll have to wait a real amount of time before you can progress at the correct in-game time. I’m not saying this wouldn’t happen in a game today, but if it did, it would kinda be the point. It would be a Dark Souls style gimmick, the box would scream ‘it’s fun because it’s hard and you’ll feel a great sense of achievement for doing absolutely anything at all’. This may be true for Shenmue, but it never acknowledges it. It never patronises you, it never tells you what it is, and it never shows off.
And for the most part, it’s dangerous balance of absurd detail and open ended gameplay actually works quite well. When you explore the town of Yokusuka you explore it in a way other games don’t allow for, and this is thanks to increased interactivity and immersion. The world may be small, but it’s beautiful, atmospheric, and engaging. You don’t even have a map, but you’ll learn the streets off by heart, and the whole game feels handcrafted with great precision, and because of this it achieves immense levels of simulation. You’ve also got variable weather, a meaningful day and night system, and other elements of real life that are mimicked with such dedication and focus that the end result is undeniably pedantic in the most exciting way possible.
Of course when a game presents a handful of good ideas, pretty much all of them are copied and inevitably improved upon by future titles. Oddly it’s the Quick Time Events that seem to have caught on, although many of Shenmue’s genuinely great elements have also worked their way into countless games, and because of this they are less impressive (or noticeable) than they originally were. Having all characters fully voiced was originally a huge achievement, yet is nothing special by today’s standards. In fact, the voices are all pretty creepy, and whilst this does kind of add to the game’s atmosphere, it’s hard to deny that the voice acting is wooden and of a fairly low standard.
Likewise the day and night system is no longer revolutionary, and the inability to speed up the passing of time can make things feel tedious on occasion. Yet in a strange way the game’s bad bits, and its borderline insane bits, actually add to the fun. You have an awful control scheme, an incredibly slow paced story that’s pretty much impossible to play without a guide, and about four hours (in real life time) worth of actual labour down at the docks in the game’s final third. All of this is what makes Shenmue so great. It commits to all it’s ideas, especially the bad ones, and never apologises for anything it does. At times it’s incredibly advanced, and at others it’s unbelievably dumb. But this contrast makes for an emotionally riveting and completely compelling experience. This is a game that a score doesn’t do justice to; Shenmue is a landmark game that everyone should experience.