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In 1999, Sega gave gamers one last console launching the Sega Dreamcast on September 9th. The console would ultimately cease production just a few years later but it did come with some unique experiences that would shape the landscape of video games. Shenmue is one of the most unique games ever created as it combines a life-simulator with quick-time events, and beat ”’em-up action to give gamers a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Developed and published by Sega, Shenmue was released on December 29th, 1999. Let’s look for some Chinese sailors in this Shenmue review!
Shenmue is a story of revenge and mystery. Our hero, Ryo finds himself thrown into an intricate plot filled with twists and turns and plenty of questions. Where do I begin in explaining the first Shenmue plot? Let’s start with Ryo Hazuki, a young martial artist living in Yokosuka, Japan in 1986. Ryo’s father, Iwao Hazuki, is murdered by a mysterious Chinese man named Lan Di, who is searching for an ancient artifact called the Dragon Mirror in the opening scene.
Determined to avenge his father’s death and uncover the truth about Lan Di and the Dragon Mirror, Ryo sets out on a journey to find the killer. He begins by questioning people in his neighborhood and investigating the local area. To help him along the way, Ryo lives with the housekeeper, Ine Hayata, and Masayuki Fukahara, a student of Iwao who gives him emotional and financial support.
As Ryo’s search progresses, he discovers that Lan Di is a member of the Chi You Men, a powerful criminal organization with ties to the Chinese underworld. Ryo also learns that the Dragon Mirror is part of a larger artifact known as the Phoenix and Dragon Mirrors, which are said to have immense power.
Throughout the game, Ryo faces many challenges and obstacles as he tries to uncover the truth about his father’s murder and the Dragon Mirror. He meets a variety of characters, most of which try and help the headstrong Ryo. Let’s briefly discuss some of these characters and their relationships with Ryo.
Ine-San: She’s the housekeeper who helps Ryo out by giving him money each day. This comes in very handy as Ryo can spend it on items to help him on his quest or blow it on little toy vending machines. I did both.
Fuka-San: He’s a student of Iwao but lives with Ryo. He can help spar with Ryo to sharpen his skills but doesn’t offer much more. At times he wants to tag along with Ryo but Ryo turns him down.
Tom: This reggae Asian with dreadlocks runs a food truck in the town. He is really friendly with Ryo and gives him advice or information on quests or items. Tom ends up leaving Japan and flying away in a surprisingly heartfelt moment as Ryo wishes him well and hopes to see him again in this lifetime. There are some emotional moments throughout my Shenmue Review that left me impressed.
Nozomi: She’s a close friend and classmate of Ryo and has a crush on him. Ryo might be a little too daft to realize it and puts his father’s revenge as a priority over Nozomi. Throughout the game, there are some touching moments between Ryo and Nozomi although Ryo clearly has bigger things on his mind with the need to avenge his father.
Chai: He reminds me a lot of Golem from Lord of the Rings in his mannerisms, voice, and dialogue. Chai sneaks around and is a formidable foe who attacks Ryo throughout the game. He is spying for Ryo’s enemies.
Yaowen Chen: He’s a wealthy man in the trading business originally from China. He helps assist Ryo in putting together information and moving forward in the investigation.
Guizhang Chen: He’s the son of Yaowen Chen and an expert martial artist. He tests Ryo from time to time in a friendly rivalry. There are some missions that Ryo and Guizhang take on together and they generally make a good team when beating up thugs. Guizhang was originally supposed to depart with Ryo to China but is critically injured in the final duel. Needing rest, he stays behind as Ryo takes off.
Lan Di – A master of a powerful form of martial art that was supposed to have disappeared long ago, Lan Di’s chilling stare alone is enough to intimidate most opponents. But those brave enough to ignore his state usually forfeit without a fight once they see his deadly moves. Evil to the core, he is capable of showing no mercy and will stop at nothing to bury anyone who dares to cross him.
These characters along with many others help shape the plot of Shenmue. In a series of investigations, Ryo begins to search for Chinese sailors and begins working at the docks as a forklift operator as he discovers the Mad Angels, a local gang that has their hand in many illegal activities. As Ryo continues to try and dig up information on Lan Di, he discovers that Lan Di is soon planning on traveling to China. With time running out, Ryo and Guizhang head to the ship docks in hopes of finding Lan Di.
Ryo and Guizhang pursue Lan Di but are confronted by Chai in a final battle. In the end, Ryo is able to defeat Chai but is left with many unanswered questions about the Phoenix Mirror, the Chi You Men, and his father’s true past. Guizhang is wounded and is left unable to travel at the moment to China. The game ends with Ryo vowing to continue his search for the truth and to avenge his father’s death, setting the stage for the sequel, Shenmue II as he hops on a boat and heads to China.
Shenmue is an experience like no other, something I had no previous resemblance to in my gaming history. It was a journey that was immersive, casual, and at times comical as you search for Lan Di. The small details are everywhere and it’s hard to fathom this came out in 1999. Shenmue combines many genres to make one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in gaming.
The opening movie was beautiful and set the stage for Shenmue to captivate me for the three weeks I played it. While the animation is smooth and the environment detailed, the voice acting is absolutely atrocious to go along with the comical facial features. Usually, I would knock a score down because of this, but it was “It’s so bad, it’s good” with Shenmue. Every character is voiced whether they are main, side, or NPCs. You can strike up a conversation with anyone and the results are hilarious. Some people just want to be left alone, while others will give you clues or hints.
There is so much to do in Shenmue aside from finding Lan Di. This could be considered a life-simulator as you live a virtual life walking and wandering around the town and streets visiting people, conversing, and shopping. Almost everything you come into contact with is interactable. If you see a dresser, you can open up all the drawers and search for things. There’s a Sega Saturn you can plug in and play and later on earn games for it. The majority of the game is played in the third-person view, but you can use a first-person view and search for more detailed items in a room. You could play Shenmue ten times and discover something new each time. I wish I had time to experience and write more Shenmue reviews, but alas, I only have so much time.
As somewhat of a life simulator, you’re free to do whatever you please. Lan Di can wait as you visit the local arcade and play real Sega games preserved perfectly. I can’t express enough, how real it felt to me that I was in 1986, Japan. It was a feeling that I rarely experience in my gaming, but I felt so immersed in this game. It felt like I was there, saying hello to the neighborhood kids, feeding the orphan kitten, watching shopkeepers open up, and bumping into citizens living their lives. There’s a time cycle that starts each day you wake up and continues to bedtime. People will live their days. Shops open and close at certain times. Events happen during specific times and the days will pass on by. When the holidays come, the town puts up decorations and lights. I saw men dressed as Santa Claus walking down the street, one of them was drunk. It was incredible.
During your investigation to get information on Lan Di, Ryo will be involved in different quests. Sometimes, you’ll be waiting a little too long for events to happen but to pass the time, you can find music to listen to in your walkman, play at the local arcade, or just explore! One segment of Shenmue has you becoming a forklift operator, a real 8 to 5 job where you move boxes from warehouse to warehouse. I got into a groove and was an expert after a few days. It sounds stupid and maybe boring but it was just so different from other games, I didn’t mind doing it for a few days. When you aren’t working jobs in Shenmue, you’ll be asking a lot of questions to people. Searching for clues is a huge part of the gameplay and you can ask different subjects. It feels like one big cat-and-mouse game as Lan Di or whoever you’re searching for is one step ahead.
My Shenmue review featured plenty of other gameplay elements including quick-time events that were somewhat groundbreaking at the time. There will be cutscenes in that you will be an active participant in pushing buttons when they come up as Ryo chases someone or fights off thugs. They aren’t too difficult, and if you fail you can repeat them in a quick manner.
Aside from quick-time events, there’s a portion of the game that has you brawling with martial arts moves you’ve learned in the game. Button combinations pull various moves and combos. Ryo can kick, punch, throw and dodge during fighting segments. It all combines for fun action and there were only a few times when I would have to retry a fight during my Shenmue Review. One of my favorite parts of the game was when I had to make my way through the Mad Angels in a massive gang brawl where I beat up well over 50 thugs.
Shenmue is part life-simulator, part brawler, part investigation, part quick-time events, and part cinematic experience. It sounds silly but it blends together and works. During one segment of the game in which the love interest of Ryo, Nozomi gets kidnapped you’ll find yourself rescuing her at the gang’s hideout. Nozomi and Ryo didn’t get much screen time together but you could tell they cared for each other. One of the single most powerful cinematic experiences I’ve had in gaming was the rescue of Nozomi. I thought to myself, now would be a perfect time to have some type of cinematic experience as Ryo and Nozomi ride off on a motorcycle under the city lights at night. Sure enough, I was treated to a beautiful scene of the two of them riding the motorcycle on the highway as a love song played as Nozomi held Ryo tight as the city lights glowed. It was powerful and touching. One of my favorite moments in video games.
The cinematic experience didn’t stop there but continued as Ryo got on the boat to China. It felt like an end to a chapter in a huge story. Very rarely, do emotions stir in me for characters, but I felt for Ryo as he boarded the boat, unaware of what would happen next to him but cheering him on silently.
Shenmue Review Score:
It’s hard to describe Shenmue. The combination of so many genres blends together to make an incredible experience that I wish everyone could have. I felt like I was living in 1986, Japan. The voice acting is terrible, but it has its own charm. Truly, Shenmue has some type of gameplay that everyone would love and a world full of characters to move along the plot. One of the greatest gifts Sega gave us before dying was Shenmue, and I couldn’t be more thankful.
Shenmue scores a 9.7 out of 10.
What would you write in your Shenmue review? Who was your favorite character in Shenmue? Which type of gameplay did you enjoy the most? What secrets did you discover during your Shenmue playthrough? Let me know your thoughts and comments on Shenmue, I’d love to read them.