Review by · January 12, 2001

Brace yourselves, everyone. You’re not going to like me for this.

Shenmue, released by Sega on the Dreamcast, is most definitely a benchmark game. Taking the part of Ryo Hazuki, you are thrust into an entire world, quite literally. In your quest to avenge your father’s death, you’ll flick light switches, drink so much Coke your insides rot, and collect Sonic toys. And very possibly beat up some bad guys along the way.

Coming back from – we assume – Christmas break, the protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, reaches the house and dojo he calls home to find the sign torn to the ground. Rushing inside, he is just in time to intercept an unknown evil bad guy (you can tell – his voice is low and he’s standing along with two guys in black suits and sunglasses, in winter) as he demands that Ryo’s father hand over a ‘mirror’ of some kind. As your valiant hero rushes in to try to help, he’s instantly held back by one of the Suited Guys, and forced to watch as his father is killed at the hands of the Evil Bad Guy.

Beaten up, Ryo wakes up after a number of days, determined to avenge his father’s death with your help and by any means possible. You take control, and are instantly plunged into the world of Shenmue and faced with the difficult task of leaving your bedroom. Here the first major stumbling block becomes apparent.

Shenmue is a very valid attempt at creating an entire world, including everything – light bulbs, useless clothing drawers, shopping for anything. As such, you can examine, pick up and mess around with, or open and close practically everything. While it’s great to have such a complex world, it’s also extremely confusing and more than a little galling, especially for those people who like to check everywhere for any items they can – it becomes instantly apparent that there’s really only about 10 items or so that are even mildly useful, most of which are bought from shops as opposed to found around the world, making most searches through drawers and the like pointless. After opening practically every drawer in your home, this sinks in, and you realize that you’ve spent the last five hours (and three game days) quite literally accomplishing nothing.

A little aside on the matter of time – although there’s no time limit in the game, there is a note in the manual saying you’re expected to complete this first chapter of the series by the end of Winter game time. While this isn’t actually an ‘official’ time limit – take a couple of years, if you want (and heaven knows what happens to Ryo’s schooling), there’s at least one point in the game where it’s perfectly possible to burn off about 15 days in as many minutes, a frustrating Metal Gear Solid-type task.

Further peculiarities lie in the length of the days; when learning the game, the days will seem immensely fast, making it hard to progress in the game, but at later points the days will drag past slowly, which gets extremely annoying during one of the many times you’re asked to while away the day doing whatever you want while waiting for the next major plot event. Your choices, when this occurs, are to wander around speaking to people – ultimately pointless, if funny: talking to ‘non-important’ passersby will result in replies such as “Sorry, you look weird, I gotta go.” – going to the arcade, or training. While the collection of games in the arcade isn’t bad (including very passable conversions of Space Harrier and Super Hang-On, amongst others), it gets old quick, and training is repetitive and to an extent necessary, an evil combination.

As you train, your proficiency in a move goes up, doing more damage when it connects. To train the moves up, you first choose the rate of increase of skill – for instance, you can choose to train punch moves, in which case throw and kick moves will accumulate skill points slower, or you can train one specific move, in which case it’ll ‘shoot’ up while the rest crawl – the only odd thing about allocating this increase is that you can only do it at night in your bedroom. Quite why Ryo finds it hard to concentrate when out on the streets, I don’t know.

After setting up your training, head to an empty area – be it a playground, a car park, or the Hazuki dojo. There, you press the button combination for the move you want to train. And then you press it again. And again. And again. And so on. After half an hour game time, it’ll ask whether you want to stop. Here’s the thing – I decided to simply train the normal moves, the straight punch and the straight kick, about halfway into the game. It took me approximately two entire game days – as in, the entire day training. Even with training one specific move, it’s horribly slow to crawl up the bar. Completists are going to be training for a very long time, bored out of their minds doing the same move over and over.

Combat comes in two forms – the QTE (Quick Time Event) system and the normal fights. The Quick Time Event system is essentially a reaction test – the button (or direction) to press flashes on the screen, you have a limited time to press it or you get punched, clotheslined, trip over an apple, whatever. The normal fights are effectively just like the training system – Ryo faces off across bad guys, you’re hemmed into an ‘arena’ by invisible walls, and you perform the button combination for the move you want to do. Again, there’s a problem here – these free battles are fairly rare, so it’s not often you get actual combat experience as opposed to training. This, combined with the large number of enemies you have to fight and the low amount of hit points Ryo has mean you’ll be repeating at least the first few battles many times over.

So then, what of the good points? Well, the story quickly becomes involving and complex, with obsession, intrigue, mysticism, and danger, as Ryo slowly learns of the mirrors, the mysterious girl popping up in his dreams, and the man who killed his father. Trouble is, there’s not actually much of it – with luck and judgment, and knowing the game, it’s possible to go through the entire story in approximately ten hours, with the majority of the time spent searching around trying to find the person who’ll advance the story more by giving you the next snippet of knowledge.

Likewise, the music’s great, but only when it actually appears – for the majority of the game there’s no BGM other than that you provide yourself by putting on Ryo’s walkman, and the batteries on that thing don’t last forever – unless you want to burn precious money on tapes and batteries, you’re stuck listening to the sound of the town and Ryo’s footsteps.

The voice acting’s pretty good, but very fragmented, with long pauses after every sentence, no matter how short. Plus, some of the voices grate on your senses rather too much, the most obvious one being that of the little girl who asks you to take care of a kitten in the early stages of the game. Every “Thank you, Ryo!” and “Look, she’s eating!” squealed in a high-pitched voice caused cringes throughout the living room, even from those not playing.

The control is a good point – generally, it’s nice and simple, with the d-pad moving Ryo around and the analog stick tilting his head this way and that, zooming in with the R button. Once you’re used to the common combinations for fighting, it’s simple, at the very least. And the graphics are very pretty – the processing power, and especially the anti-aliasing, of the Dreamcast are used to their full, providing very realistic models. The only faint problem is that to save some processing time people (and especially passers-by on bicycles and cars) are faded in very near to Ryo, so you can be running along them suddenly stop as a biker appears like magic in front of you.

Overall, I’d love to give this game a nice, high score. I’d love to say, “Shenmue is truly a benchmark game, and everyone should own it,” but the flaws are there, and I can’t ignore them. What I’ll have to say, instead, is this: Shenmue is truly a benchmark game. The world and its complexity is flawless, easily the most impressive, real, and interactive world I’ve ever seen. However, the game itself looks for all the world like a little bit tacked on to test how well the engine works – it’s very hard for me not to think of it that way given 90% of the game is walking around talking to people. It’s a benchmark game… but it’s not worth buying.

Overall Score 68
For information on our scoring systems, see our scoring systems overview. Learn more about our general policies on our ethics & policies page.
Alan Knight

Alan Knight

Alan was part of RPGFan's reviews team from 2000-2007, following a short stint as a reader reviewer before joining the staff in an official capacity. During his tenure, Alan bolstered our review offerings by lending his unique voice and critique of the world of RPGs.