Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Shenmue is Tons of Fun Until One of its Billion Discs Don't Work

Okay, okay, so it only has three discs, actually, but it is still mighty annoying to not be able to finish the game. I recently set my Dreamcast up after having not really played it for, well, a very long time, and since I had only brought a few games with me, I had to choose between playing one of the Sonic Adventures or Shenmue. Although, unlike many people, I actually don't have anything but fond feelings for the Adventure games, I decided to revisit Shenmue, as I had only a year or two earlier replayed both of Sonic's Dreamcast outings. 

I like the Dreamcast. I liked it when it came out, and I still like it now. It was the first console I had ever bought with my own money, but my library of games was basically limited to whatever my older siblings bought (they had moved out by then and had their own Dreamcast, which I guess was why I wanted one so bad). I spent sooo much time playing Marvel Vs. Capcom, House of the Dead 2, Sonic Adventure 2, and of course, Shenmue. Other favorites included Record of Lodoss War, an absolutely absurd Diablo clone based on Ryo Mizuno's books and the awesome anime they inspired, and Gundam Side Story 0079: Rise From The Ashes. At this point in my life I was basically in love with Japanese cartoons, with Lodoss War and Gundam being among my favorites, but both of those games were actually better stand alone titles than they were licensed games, to be honest. 

Now, at this point in my life, I can't help but shake the feeling that I've already played anything worthwhile on the consoles with which I am most familiar. I know that isn't actually true, but it just FEELS like I have exhausted the supply of good, or even decent, games on most of my machines. It wasn't until recently rediscovering the Dreamcast that I realized I had barely scratched the surface of its library, due to my being 11 and having no money. This was actually distressingly exciting for me, as in a way it feels like the final unexplored frontier. I tracked down a few games that caught my eye, including survival horror game Carrier, insane action adventure Blue Stinger, and an RPG called Timstalkers, which appears to combine dungeon crawling, turn based combat, and monster raising, which personally sounds like an absolute free time annihilator. 

Of course, I had to wait for those games to arrive, and in the interim busied myself with Shenmue, which was actually full of surprises for me. I hadn't played the game in a VERY long time, probably not since it came out in 2000, so while I thought I remembered most of the game, there have been some pretty big things that had completely escaped my memory. I found myself literally opening every drawer and cabinet in Ryo Hazuki's house this time around, mostly for laughs and to see just how mundane they would allow me to be. This turned pretty exciting when I discovered an old key in my murdered father's desk. This was mind blowing to me, because nobody told me to go looking in there; that key was not my objective. As far as I was concerned, I was supposed to be asking locals if they had seen a black car. Obviously this excited me, as I was determined to find where that key was supposed to go. I searched high and low in the Hazuki household, removed literally every picture from the walls hoping to find a wall safe or something, but found nothing. It wasn't until I entered the dojo that I found a locked box. Inside, I found a sword. The sword fit into a hidden compartment behind a wall scroll. I was on a roll! Again, this was perhaps 20 minutes into the game. I hadn't even left Ryo's house yet, and yet I was engaged in some National Treasure shit. Of course, progressing any further on THAT particular distraction required another mystery item that I had not accidentally stumbled upon, and so I was forced to give up and move along with my investigation as it had been assigned to me: the black car. Still, I was refreshed by the freedom I had felt.

Shenmue really is a remarkable game. It's also an incredibly boring and cumbersome game, but honestly that doesn't really matter. The world feels so authentic, so real, and so detailed, that it's kind of weirdly pleasurable just walking around and talking to people. There's a great deal of freedom in Shenmue, but unlike alot of modern open world games, that freedom feels... special, somehow. There feels like there might be some consequence to your actions, I suppose. The NPCs are fairly distinct, with their own voices and often super weird personalities, each building feels distinct and placed with purpose. Compare that to something like Grand Theft Auto, where most of the pedestrians are just mindless faceless drones, and most of the buildings are just copy pasted filler. By comparison, Shenmue's game world feels dense with content and purpose, and there always seems to be some strange surprise popping up here and there. Sometimes you'll enter a building or a park completely on a whim, only to suddenly see some cutscene or learn a new move, and you walk away wondering "would I have missed that if I hadn't just decided to walk in here? Why did that happen?" Whether you're buying Sonic toys from a vending machine, feeding the kitten you find on the road, or hanging out at the arcade playing darts and Space Harrier, you feel immersed, somehow. 

Objectively, lots of modern games have aped some of Shenmue's approach, but I don't feel like anybody has really replicated that feeling of really being in a place. The Elder Scrolls games offer these huge worlds to dick around in, but they mostly feel dead. Sure, they are big, and there are a bunch of things scattered around, but none of it feels particularly consequential. Mass Effect, at least the first one, is similarly dense with dialogue and exploration, but again, the places never end up feeling very distinct. The adventurey talky bits of Mass Effect just seem like filler in between janky third person shooting, and neither seems as realized as it really could be. Deadly Premonition has probably come the closest to replicating the experience of adventure and exploration that Shenmue pioneered, which, after replaying Shenmue, I am realizing is probably why I found myself so enamored with it, in addition to its particular wackiness.

Of course, all of this more or less boils down to nothing but frustration when one advances to the third disc only to discover that the damn disc won't read. I don't know if it is scratched or what, but it doesn't seem to want to load my safe file, which leaves me basically stranded. I can't go back to disc 2, and I don't know whether disc 3 is actually busted or whether my safe file is wonky, so for now, I'm just gonna play Time Stalkers. 

That's a shame, though, because Shenmue is a game that deserves to be played, even today. Hell, maybe even especially today. Open world game design is more popular and possible than ever, and I think Shenmue still has alot to offer, provided that the player is willing to really get into the game. I sincerely hope someday Sega reissues or rereleases this game, maybe via the eShop (I am a Nintendo fan after all), but really any digital storefront would be ideal, as this, and honestly many Dreamcast games, shouldn't be lost to the ages.

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