I want to make something perfectly clear right now…YU SUZUKI IS A GENIUS! Forget Miyamoto or that guy who designed Final Fantasy…Suzuki-san should be walking away with the AIAS Lifetime Achievement Award with all the stuff he has developed.
His resume is filled with many exceptional titles: Hang-On, Space Harrier, Out Run, Virtua Racing, Daytona, Virtua Fighter, and Ferrari F355 Challenge to name a few. With so many great titles on his wing, I can only wonder why he has not received as much credit as he deserves.
Now with his latest venture into gaming, Suzuki-san is diverting away from his forte of super-realistic, thoroughly engrossing simulators, and directing his effort towards what I consider to be the first title in an amazing series, entitled Shenmue. In the first chapter of this immense series, we are taken back to Yokosuka, Japan in November 1986, and are introduced to 18-year old Ryo Hazuki, son of Iwao, who operates a dojo in the neighboring hamlet of Yamanose.
One snowy day, Ryo returns to his home, and sees a black car next to a damaged house sign. Sensing trouble, he rushes to the dojo’s entrance, where his live-in friend Fuku-san is smashed through the door, taken down by a mysterious man. Enter Lan Di. Dressed in Chinese clothes and brandishing a cold stare, Lan gives Iwao one simple demand, "Hand over the mirror!"
Knowing that the mirror is a powerful artifact, Iwao initially refuses, but after a violent (and visually captivating) fight, Iwao surrenders the mirror, but at the cost of his own life.
As a witness to the whole incident, Ryo swears vengeance and seeks to hunt down Lan Di, no matter the cost.
The best thing about Shenmue is that this is only the main story to the game, but it’s not the only event that is taking place. Yokosuka is presented as a true, real life, city. Over 300 characters live their lives out at the same time Ryo does. They get up, they go to work, they play in the streets, and they do anything that most people do in real life. There are people who are open to you and will start a conversation with you, and also there are those who want nothing to do with you except perhaps to pick a fight.
Yokosuka’s city life is also open for many enjoyable diversions as well. For instance, do you have some time to kill, and you don’t know what to do? How about gambling a little at the Slot House, or going to the arcade where you can play darts, or real working arcade titles such as Hang On and Space Harrier. That’s right, in the arcade in the game, you can play real arcade games that were popular in 1986. How cool is that?
Feel like wasting some more of your yen? Then a trip to the convenience store could be planned. You can buy little things like food, music cassettes, batteries, light bulbs, and candles that might be helpful in the story. Not only that, but you might want to spend some money on little capsule toys of various Sega characters (even those in games that take place after 1986).
At different points in the storyline, Ryo will also have to partake in different tasks besides collecting information about Lan Di. For instance, he must take care of a kitten that lost her mother (who was run over by Lan Di’s car). He must feed her, look after her, and treat her the way you and I would treat a real pet. In addition, Ryo will also need to get a job as a forklift operator at the local harbor in order to get more information. And that means actually going to the job site and working a full day. The possibilities are just endless!
However, as I said before, these events are done to kill time. But time needs to be kept in mind as well. For instance, some places will only open at certain hours in the day. But more importantly it must be kept in mind that Ryo has an 11pm curfew, and needs to be home by then. If he stays out past 11:30, he is automatically sent home and reprimanded by Ine-san, his caretaker.
Being a martial arts student, Ryo would surely have to work on his fighting skills in order to succeed. So whenever he gets a chance, he will practice each and every one of his moves, and learn new ones along the way by practice or by being taught by someone else. This fighting/training will be vital for the big finish at the end of the game, which I will not mention other than to say it is a fight like you have never, ever seen before on a console system. Huge. Big. Get the idea?
Fights also take place in what are called Quick Time Events (QTEs). The best way to describe them is to think of them as a game of Dragon’s Lair. As the event takes place, a command will pop up on the screen. That button must be pressed in order to succeed. Fortunately the QTE events work better than the laser disc games used to, as the action is instantaneous, with no disc access or anything taking place. These QTE events can also be practiced in the arcade with two different games. Again, how cool is that? You even have a Sega Saturn in your house, and if your character buys games for it, you can actually play them.
Graphically, the game is stunning, especially in the facial animation. Remember when the PS2 demos were released and everyone was bragging about how great facial animation was? Forget it! Shenmue’s facial expressions have to be seen to be believed. Yokosuka is also a well-designed city, where every building is intricately detailed, and the town changes as the days go by. Approach Christmas, and stores will be decorated for the holidays, and big signs will decorate the streets as an example.
The graphics are enhanced by the beautiful "Magic Weather" system that was also implemented in Ferrari F355 Challenge. Weather can change without warning and not distract from the game at all. I’ve seen this type of effect before, but not in this manner.
Lastly, the sound is some of the best I have heard, especially the soundtrack. The opening theme music has a true Chinese/Japanese feel to it, as it should, but most of the other music is appropriate as well. Voices I will admit are a mixed bag. Some are really good, particularly Lan Di and Ryo (who does sound a bit monotone at times), while some, especially Fuku-san (who reminds me of a bad anime lackey), are pretty bad.
Considering that this is the first of 16 chapters, I can only imagine what Suzuki-san has in mind with this series. Shenmue: Chapter 1 is an immense, graphical tour de force that everyone needs to take part in. There are those who have criticized the game for being boring, but hey, this is based on real life, and life gets boring at times. Deal with it, after all I find the whole Final Fantasy series boring.
If this title doesn’t give Yu Suzuki that AIAS Lifetime Achievement award next year, I don’t know what will. It will be really hard for me to wait another year for Chapter 2 to come out, as the end of Chapter 1 and its 5 discs (3 for the game, 1 as a Passport disc to analyze the game’s extra features, music, movies, and game rankings, and a soundtrack disc which is only available in the Limited Edition) left me wanting so much more. Very few games do that to me, the only other that comes to mind is Metal Gear Solid, and it’s for this reason that I am giving Shenmue a full six GiN Gems out of 5, which it so rightfully deserves!