To many Sega fans, Shenmue is a sacred text, representing everything about Sega that delights and frustrates; hugely ambitious, completely original and, sadly, a flop. With a budget reportedly around the $100m mark – the most expensive game ever, until Grand Theft Auto IV – it was always going to struggle to make its money back, even at £40 a time. Those that did buy into Yu Suzuki’s paean to 1980s small-town Japan found a game as beautiful as any ever constructed.
From the very first scene, Shenmue drips the production standards and level of detail you would expect from a big budget AM2 project; a broken dojo sign has visible splinters, each character has eyelashes and the detail of Lan-Di’s dragon design is absolutely breathtaking. Through judicious use of cinematic conventions – lightning, the mysterious intruder, Ryo’s harrowing cry of “no!” – the scene makes a strong impression extremely efficiently, ditching lengthy exposition for a quick hit of action to act as a catalyst for the whole saga. It’s quite a brave decision, but the whole scene has a visual impact countless video games would kill for even now, and is such a strong start that no matter how many times I see it I never fail to get drawn in.
The detail level rarely drops from here on. Famous for its “go anywhere, do anything” doctrine at the time, Shenmue offers a hugely interactive world unlike anything before it, with working drawers, light switches, arcade machines and hundreds of other objects. After finishing the game you can even play through again with the weather as it was in real life on those days, which is so exciting I find it quite frightening. Such detail goes a long way to creating a realistic picture of 1986 Japan, and perhaps explains why it wasn’t quite so well received in the West. It may seem at odds for a game dealing with patricide, but it’s precisely this depth that forms a huge part of Shenmue’s appeal, crafting a believable world for the player to explore. With a slow pace and relatively small game area it’s crucial that you can’t see the cracks, and it’s here that Shenmue excels.
In order to stay strong you have to train your skills every day, a sometimes tedious exercise that sees you repeating moves for fifteen minutes a time. The rewards are real though, as moves increase in potency and even take on different forms, with follow-up attacks or greater speed other benefits. For a game that doesn’t use experience points or equipment there has to be some way to develop your fighting skills, particularly with the game’s later emphasis on combat, and as you play through you begin to pick up a training routine. You can learn new moves by translating move scrolls, or even by befriending certain characters and being in the right place at the right time. Even Tom, the world’s worst Jamaican, has a new move to teach you. Like a lot of Shenmue, many of these elements are completely optional, but go far in maximising your experience.
Friendships are more than just a means for learning new moves, though. Regularly buying coffee for a friendly (if twitchy) Chinese chef befriends him, meaning later in the game you can bring him Chinese scrolls to translate, but by far the most important friends to have are Fukuhara and Nozomi. Far from presenting friendship as straightforward, Ryo’s relationships with these two are more complex than your average game. Fuku-san is a student at Ryo’s late father’s dojo, a well-meaning if somewhat clumsy teenager who has always felt his skills are second best compared to Ryo’s. Fuku-san pleads with Ryo not to pursue Lan-Di, but when he realises he can’t stop him he breaks open his piggy bank to help pay for a ticket to Hong Kong. It’s a wonderful gesture of childlike warmth that even gets through to the oft-stony Ryo, and a genuinely touching moment in their friendship; Fuku-san is so often the doting little brother it’s only fitting he raids his loose change to help in any way he can.
The real crux of the relationships, and the game’s heart in many ways, is the interaction between Ryo and flower shop girl Nozomi Harasaki, probably the most problematic friendship in all of games history. The two are (quite literally) made for each other, yet Ryo maintains his distance for the same reason as any comic book hero would: protection. It’s clear that Nozomi resents this, but no matter how many cut-short telephone conversations and words of advice they share, she finds it almost impossible to break through his guard. Towards the game’s end there is a (completely optional) scene on a park bench that stands out as one of the most heartbreakingly romantic moments in any game or film I can remember, filled with the sort of restrained desperation you’d expect from a literary classic, not a Dreamcast game. Theirs is a kind of doomed relationship – she knows he has to leave and he knows he can’t risk taking her with him – and so they suppress every emotion imaginable to keep each other at arm’s length. You can imagine the therapy their children would need.
There are so many memorable moments in Shenmue I could spend another 1,000 words and still only get halfway through them. The often-maligned Quick Time Events give rise to some of the most cinematic and incredible fight scenes ever witnessed, my particular favourite being the bar room fight that’s as exciting as any traditional fighting game with twice the impact. The real-time fighting is essentially Virtua Fighter with more moves (and movement), and knowing you’re strong enough to conquer the game’s huge final brawl because you trained every day is an extremely satisfying pay-off.
Shenmue deserves enormous praise for setting its sights so high, and even higher praise for getting so damned close. It’s not a perfect game by any means – some of the voice acting is a particular bone of contention of mine – but it is still a unique and endlessly fascinating adventure that stays with you long after the boat to Hong Kong has set sail.