Shenmue Retrospective

The Sega Dreamcast: quite possibly the most underrated, misunderstood console of all time. A labour of love and the company’s last bastion in the home console wars. Has it really been over a decade since this gem’s light extinguished? It doesn’t feel like it and if you ask any ‘Cast owning individual the white box’s influence is still being felt today (Microsoft has only just upgraded the ‘360 to include Internet Explorer a few years ago). Luckless and ahead of its time, the Dreamcast boasted an array of superb games; titles such as Sonic Adventure and Virtua Tennis got the ball rolling whilst others such as Metropolis Street Racer and Resident Evil: Code Veronica kept things interesting for its brief two or so year lifespan. However every console needs a point of focus; a ‘killer app’ that could bring in the naysayers and, if required sell the system all on its own. Sega had that just that; an epically told and even more epically budgeted piece of software that heralded both the apex and the rock bottom of the console’s existence. Some called it brilliant, others called it overvalued. I called it Shenmue.

To start off with we must go back, prior to the Dreamcast and the Nintendo 64; the generation just preceding. As I have stated before Sega hold a dear place in my heart, like an ex-girlfriend who took you for granted but you were willing to forgive none-the-less. I see the Capcom’s and the Namco’s of this world still doing so well and it breaks me to think that industry stalwarts such Yuji Naka have been ripped away from the company for one reason or another. My absolute idol though, the gentleman who’s on my ‘who I would like to meet’ list if ever I had the chance (along side Warren Spector) is the uber-gifted and simply virtuoso Yu Suzuki. Responsible for arcade classics such as Afterburner, Outrun and Virtua Cop (man that game was cool) Suzuki pretty much shaped my childhood in one single breath, his titles sometimes giving Sega credibility when it needed it most. Towards the end of the Saturn’s reign AM2 had a new project on the horizon. I’m not sure if it started out as a direct sequel to Virtua Fighter 2 or if elements were just borrowed from it but things looked striking similar to the flagship fighting series. There was of course one major difference; this wasn’t a fighting game. It was a 3D, free-roaming adventure that allowed the player to go where they wanted, when they wanted, and should a fight erupt things would then have a depth akin to Virtua’s fighting style. The trailers showed a remarkable amount of promise (I’ve just reminded myself with a quick trip to YouTube – it actually looks better than I remember). I recall games like Tomb Raider having both style and substance but this…this looked like we would have something to really rub in the faces of any long-standing PlayStation advocate. As is always the case Sega have an ability to build us up just before knocking us down and due to a multitude of reasons the Saturn eventually retired along with the VF-inspired title (or so we thought). Sega also have an uncanny ability to come back from the dead and just when things looked lost out came the Dreamcast (or ‘Katana’ if you followed development through its infancy). A modest-sized platform sporting four controller ports, an internet connection and a dangerously comfortable official control pad, the DC was a haven for Sega fans; a chance to jump straight to next gen whilst others still floundered somewhere playing Perfect Dark (although, playing one of the best FPS’ of all time? Probably precious little floundering took place).

As always I was late to this (a continuing trend if you’ve read any of my other articles) suffering for ten or so months whilst my best friend had the luxury of zooming around Toy Commander in fits and giggles. I remember him calling me the Christmas morning he received it and me having a go at him- I was such a jealous idiot that day. Indeed the jealousy continued into the new year, but months later, on my fifteenth birthday, that had all but surpassed. There we were; mum, dad and myself on a Tuesday evening huddled around a gift wrapped box awaiting for my delight to manifest. (This is genuine; at the point I finished unwrapping I stayed down on the floor and began praying to it- my dad had to tell me to ‘stop being an idiot’- the term silly springs to mind).  And with that the 128-bit era had arrived (and not a moment too soon). As previously mentioned Sega’s baby was hardly short on quality; Soul Calibur, Crazy Taxi, Sega Rally 2, Jet Set/Grind Radio, House of the Dead and a slew of first/third party games meant that no matter what your preference, there would be something for everyone (there was even this Pro Skater-esque hover board game where you’d race and do tricks around a futuristic city but the name escapes me). The console was also -‘Trickstyle’! The name of the game was ‘Trickstyle’- just visited Google to find it. (Sorry about that). Where were we? Ah yes, the console was renowned for top-drawer RPG’s; Sky’s of Arcadia, Grandia II, Phantasy Star Online, Silver- the list goes on, the only thing missing was Final Fantasy (a sort of elephant in the room as Sony had Squaresoft locked down in terms of exclusive rights). However in November 2000 that would no longer to be a problem. The build up to the release of Shenmue was incredible; I remember sitting there close to the 28” 4:3 television watching a weekly magazine show (Game Over I think it was called) and there, right at the end of the show it was, the image of Ryo running around Yokosuka in all his next-gen glory- It was so cool. Graphically things were stunning; never before had I seen a game world realized so believably. Ryo rocked a tanned, emblazoned jacket with retro stone-washed jeans. The game just smacked of brilliance, and, as soon as I had the money (and as soon as my dad had time to travel to the nearest Electronics Boutique or Special Reserve) Shenmue was purchased.

Yu Suzuki’s vision of a 1980’s Japan had all the makings of a hallmark movie; a power-mad antagonist on some quest to fulfill his destiny; a broken son looking to avenge this father (it could so easily have been the weekly movie on Channel 5). There was a bucket load of melodrama and embarrassing dialogue (‘where can I find some sailors?’) but there was also heart. The feeling of actually wanting to take revenge on Lan Di for his actions, countless hours spent in the arcade happily playing darts and the free versions of Afterburner et al; you can’t force that, it has to come from within, come from being utterly immersed and completely in love with the presented material. The forklift sections, the save points being when you slept at night, the ability to practice your moves in the dojo and in the parks; it was indubitably engrossing. People cite the recent GTA’s as having the most freedom of any game but…well I have to say I think they’re wrong (or simply misinformed). AM2 cracked the formula years earlier and because of the demise of the console didn’t get the recognition they deserved. Sure, after Sega’s decision to become exclusively a software developer and brokering partnerships with Microsoft etc. we were treated to a ported version of the sequel, but it wasn’t the same. Shenmue 2 was great, no doubt; a logical extension of what came before (the ending was particularly cool). But I missed the original. So many little touches I’m forgetting as well (I haven’t even mentioned the final disk that was purely online content).

Although I’m gushing things weren’t all peaches and cream. Whilst the title garnered critical recognition (10 out of 10 in the official magazine if I’m not mistaken) and had a loyal following, nothing could paper over the shocking total of the development costs. As I’m aware games that get delayed generally cost more to make and Shenmue’s valuation came in somewhere near the $75m mark (that’s dollars not yen!). A crazy figure by today’s standards but 10+ years ago that was extortionate (I read somewhere that it would have taken every Dreamcast owner to purchase the game twice for it to break even- something I would have done gladly).

Despite this indignation nothing can sully the memory of the great game. Shenmue sits proudly in my ‘top 5 games’ sandwiched between Devil May Cry and (ironically) Virtua Fighter 2. The product of some of the most skilled people in the industry the title has a charm and legacy all its own, things that only strengthen over time (the proof being the various petitions online that hope to help the third game in the series see the light of day). And that’s the highest compliment I can pay it; how many games do you know that have hordes of people fighting for the next iteration to be made? I can’t think of any others…


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