I’ve had this title downloaded on my Playstation 4 for well over six months. I never seemed to be able to find the time to get stuck into it. My brother and I owned a Dreamcast back in the day (we were quite literally the only people we knew that had one) but we never owned Shenmue, so we didn’t get the chance to play it. I’d heard that it had an incredible, in-depth story and the game’s style was nothing short of revolutionary. For the longest time, I had always wondered what was so compelling about the narrative of Shenmue. I was even more intrigued after the franchise spawned its third instalment at the back end of last year. Having recently dusted through Doom (2016) for the umpteenth time, I decided I needed a break from the high adrenaline, breakneck pace of this outstanding FSP and booted up Shenmue. Oh me, oh my, what a fucking mistake.
You play as Ryo Hazuki, after he witnesses his father’s murder. His father was the highly regarded owner of Hazuki Dojo and has taught Ryo martial arts most of his life. Hell-bent on revenge, Ryo goes around playing detective, trying to find information on the man who killed his father for a mirror. During his search, Ryo can participate in some little side quest, such as; feeding an orphaned kitten, playing some arcade games, collecting figurines of some of Sega’s most beloved characters, sharing some fucking tragic dialogue with the town’s residents and that is about your lot.
Now the limited things there are to do outside of the game’s main plotline isn’t the issue, this was originally on the Dreamcast so you can’t expect the side quests to be in bulk like a Bethesda game. The problem is the “real-world time” that the world runs in. The day begins at 8:30 am and cannot be concluded until 8 pm, giving you plenty of time to crack on, collect some bits and progress the main storyline. The additional bits to do aren’t that exciting or time-consuming so this wears thin pretty sharpish. The stinker is that the player can’t make the time elapse any other way apart from sleeping, which you can only do after 8 pm. What do you do if you don’t want to collect figures anymore, if you’ve exhausted badly translated speech to your heart’s content or if the poor kitten has had enough to eat? Fuck all. Nada. Just wait until 8 pm so you can start the next day. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Waiting around for the time to pass so you can fucking sleep? Sounds like a few days in lockdown during this pandemic, which is exactly what I was trying to escape from!
During the long stretches of nothing, I listened to various podcasts and Metallica’s entire back catalogue so I wasn’t completely wasting my time. I am very stubborn and was determined to discover the reason why this game has such a loyal fanbase, so I continued the story. Again, fucking mistake. I can forgive bad graphics and poor controls as I can appreciate that when Shenmue was originally released in 1999, it was probably top of the line mechanics and visuals. Fine, fair enough as eventually God of War (2018) will be considered to look and handle badly. What I cannot forgive is playing an action-adventure game for 20+ hours and finding neither action or adventure within the main plot. It’s all just very basic; go to this person at this time, shoddy cutscene, wait until the specified time the next day, play with a cat, get a job, move crates with a forklift, fight bikers, get on a boat, game finished. The fuck? There’s about two and a half key beats in the story, all of which are a long, drawn-out haze of not a lot. Ryo is supposed to have some sort of connection with a female called Nozomi. No fucking idea when this relationship is supposedly built as it’s never properly explained or developed during gameplay.
At a certain point in the game, Ryo will start to dream about a female that we haven’t encountered yet but she is indicated as being crucial because she is one of three characters to appear on the front of the box. At no other point does she appear. Perhaps this could be considered a red herring of sorts, but as she kind of appears right at the game’s climax. I think she is there to lure you to the sequel. If that is the case then Sega can suck a fart out of my arse. It’s an arrogant and stupid move to use a character that the audience has no emotional ties to as the carrot on a stick for the next game. Why would anyone care? The story never really kicks off. The whole thing is set around Ryo tracking down his father’s killer. And all the way through the game you only find out that you just missed him and he’s on a boat heading to China. Nothing has a satisfying conclusion as this game is just one long prologue to the second one. And somehow people thought enough of that game for Shenmue to warrant a fucking third part! Madness. I have paid actual money for the first and second game as a bundle and at no point will I ever have the urge to load up Shenmue II.
It was released in 2001 on the Dreamcast so I can imagine it uses the same engine and mechanics as the first instalment. If the developers only included a function where you can skip ahead in time a few hours, then this game becomes a completely different experience. The story would still be a nonstarter and the gameplay would still be a shithouse but there’s more chance of people ploughing ahead to the sequel. The game would take at least half the amount of time to complete and just about make more sense than making the player wander around a very limited area for hours on end. At one point, my much better half asked me what I was doing. Physically, I was waiting for time to pass. In-game, I was waiting for time to pass. So I responded with “waiting for time to pass”. And that was the point I should have stopped playing the game and deleted it from the console. Instead, I completed the game, got the platinum trophy and have an intense bitter taste in my mouth.