November 29, 1986: Ryo Hazuki comes home to witness a gang leader beating his father to death. Being the good son and martial artist that he is, Ryo steps in to defend his daddy, only to get the stuffing beaten out of him. Ryo's knocked out, his dad's dead, and Lan Di - the gangster - rides off into the sunset with the dragon mirror. What is the dragon mirror? Why did Lan Di kill Hazuki-sensei? Will Ryo exact revenge on the evil Lan Di? For the answers to these questions, you'll have to play Yu Suzuki's gift to the children of the 21st century, Sega's Shenmue. However, if you want to know if you'll enjoy the experience en route to these aforementioned answers, keep reading.
At the outset, Shenmue appears to be a run-of-the-mill role-playing game. You wander around, search for items, talk to people, and gather clues - all in an effort to track down the elder Hazuki's killer. Appearances can be deceiving, though - especially when a game packs a development budget of $70 million. Utilizing the revolutionary FREE (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) system, Shenmue attempts to combine a number of tried-and-true gameplay elements with previously unseen levels of realism and a first-rate story of loss, love, and betrayal. These elements fall under four categories: FREE Quest, FREE Battle, Quick Timer Events, and minigames.
The FREE Quest system is the main portion of the game, where you'll spend hours interacting with people, places, and things throughout Shenmue's five gorgeous environments. Within each town, you can talk to every human inhabitant, examine every object, knock on every door, and explore every shop - all while time passes, seasons change, and weather intrudes with an amount of graphical splendor bordering on real life. On the positive end of things, splashing through mud puddles, interacting with friends, and gathering clues is fun and easy. On the negative side, though, there's not enough interstitial interaction. You can knock on every apartment door, but no one ever answers. You can enter every open shop and restaurant, but you can never order food or buy items. The only exceptions to this are three convenience stores, a gambling house, and a video arcade. In many ways, FREE Quest feels like an old style text adventure, albeit filled with appointments and curfews.
As you gather clues to Lan Di's whereabouts, random interruptions in gameplay called Quick Timer Events will erupt from time to time. These QTEs, which are similar to the quick-response games found in Beatmania and Dragon's Lair, require split-second controller responses to hazardous stimuli. If an opponent attacks from the left, you'll be tapping right, but if you need to punch, you'll be hitting A, and so on. These random interruptions are neat, but they're far too underutilized to reach their full potential. As such, they're more of an aggravation than anything else, especially since they tend to lead into long FMV sequences. The first disc is thankfully light on QTEs, but you'd better get used to them - by disc three you'll be experiencing at least one per Shenmue day.
The other main gameplay element is known as FREE Battle, and it's basically a play on Sega's Virtua Fighter. Mad Angel gang members wander onscreen or attack suddenly, challenging Ryo. Using the controller, you need to execute punches, kicks, and assorted melee moves in order to vanquish your foes. Should you succeed, an FMV sequence or the chance to talk to someone awaits. Should you fail, well, you'll just try again, because outside of one instance, you can't truly fail in Shenmue. The FREE Battle system is decently executed, but it's hampered by tedious practice requirements and a lack of skilled opponents. Other than Chai, a sickly kung fu expert, each of the game's opponents is easy to defeat. Worse than this, however, there are just never enough battles. Should you beat Shenmue, you'll have participated in approximately 20 hand-to-hand combat situations, the majority of which occur on the third disc.
The game also includes a number of minigames, such as Hang On, darts, and Space Harrier. Each of these minigames will prepare you for tasks later in the game, and they also provide a decent diversion from some of the game's more tedious time elements. As a bonus, you can even win Hang On and Space Harrier CDs within the game to play on Ryo's Sega Saturn at the Hazuki residence. There's also a Pokémon-inspired collecting aspect to consider, as you can acquire a number of toys and trinkets to add to Ryo's collection of knickknacks. Frankly, it's a darn good thing Shenmue has these diversions, because there's a dark side to consider with all of the aforementioned realism.
When you get right down to it, waiting for appointments, running errands, and circulating back and forth between towns is one of the most tedious things about human life. Ryo's father is dead, and as the person in charge of finding the killer, you also assume the restrictions of his life. Ryo wakes up at 8:30am and must be in bed by 11:30pm. This gives you 15 hours per game day to talk to people, hunt down clues, and make progress. However, some people only appear at certain times of the day, while others require that you make appointments to see them. Since each hour within the game takes roughly five minutes to pass, it's not uncommon to find yourself with 30 minutes to waste. The minigames and martial arts training elements help, but after three discs, these things become boring as well. By the time you're driving forklifts and participating in the game's QTE-filled conclusion, hours upon hours of boredom will have taken their toll. Exacerbating the situation, disc one is mostly exposition and disc two mostly gallivanting about, while disc three contains the brunt of the game's true gameplay elements.
Supporting the game's thick story and haphazard gameplay, Shenmue's music is a true example of greatness - an example that can't be mentioned enough. Yu Suzuki and his team have come up with one of the best soundtracks ever included in a home video game. On the other hand, the game's voice acting is laughably random. The Shakespearean-caliber performances of the elder Hazuki, Fukuhara, Goro, and Nozomi are to be lauded, but the Ryo character's voice work lacks emphasis and reliability. The boy is stiffer than wood, his emotions are unbelievable, and the way he dryly reacts to Nozomi and Tom's departures is nothing short of heartless. Also, hearing the cadre of Shenmue's children mutter "Hey mister, wanna wrestle?" or "Hi... there... I want... to... play... Mister" gets old pretty quickly. Despite these problems, however, one can't deny that the game's gorgeous visuals and emotion-filled story make it worth experiencing, even if there's a five to one ratio of cutscenes to gameplay.
Perhaps the best feature of Shenmue isn't the game itself, but the Shenmue Passport disc that comes with it. In addition to the copious Internet-related features it boasts, the Passport disc also allows you to view a number of gameplay tutorials and promotional videos, as well as listen to all of Shenmue's wonderfully orchestrated score. Traversing through the tutorials is highly recommended - even more so than reading the manual - but your visit to the Shenmue Passport needn't end there. As you progress through the game, you'll unlock the ability to listen to more music tracks and view more cinema scenes. If you've got your Dreamcast hooked up to the Internet, you can even trade knickknacks, view game statistics, and register your high scores online. Oddly, however, you can't view your inventory or game statistics on the Passport disc without first logging onto the Internet. It's a bit of a bummer, too, since there's really no decent technological reason for it.
Just like the summer letdown D2, Shenmue is not for everyone. It's a game rich in story, visuals, and environmental stimuli, but light on overall gameplay. Fans of whodunits and RPGs will take quicker to the game's overall premise, but there is enough to please the casual gamer as well. Indeed, while Shenmue is revolutionary, the game is far from perfect. Its QTEs aren't as cool as Dance Dance Revolution's, its fighting isn't as diverse as Virtua Fighter's, and the game's main quest is overwrought with contrived situations. Regardless of its many shortcomings, though, Shenmue is an adventure worth experiencing - provided you have the time to invest.
Editor's note: The preceding review is a re-evaluation of Shenmue on GameSpot - the original score overlooked certain significant features that, after consideration, invalidated the original score that the game received. GameSpot regrets the error.