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Throwback Thursday - Shenmue (1999)
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 04:30pm 02/07/15 | Comments
Throwback Thursday is a weekly column here on Ausgamers where Kosta opens up the proverbial gaming industry attic, has a poke around, finds dusty copies of games from a different time – and plays them!

Watch the introduction to the cinematic Shenmue

The Game: Shenmue
The Year: 1999
The Developer: Sega AM2
The System: Dreamcast

At the time of its worldwide debut, if every single Dreamcast owner went out to their local game store and bought a copy of Shenmue, it still would have lost money. With a development budget ending up somewhere in the vicinity of $70 million dollars, Shenmue remains one of the industry’s most creatively ambitious projects of all time. Plus, one of its most talked about commercial failures.

Beginning as an RPG offshoot to creator Yu Suzuki’s Virtua Fighter arcade series, Shenmue (or Virtua Fighter RPG: Akira's Story) was originally developed for the Sega Saturn. A notoriously difficult system to develop for, the 32-bit Sega Saturn was ill-equipped to properly handle fully 3D environments and characters. Two things that Shenmue would not only have a lot of, but use them in such a way that hadn’t really been seen before. Or even, thought possible.

A marketing campaign with a focus on baldness may have also hurt sales of the Saturn

And there lies one of the main reasons why a lot of people feel a special connection to Shenmue, released a few years later on the more capable Sega Dreamcast. Simply describing it as a cinematic adventure game or RPG with solid fighting mechanics sells the experience short. For many, Shenmue was the first true 3D open-world experience. Even though it featured a tightly structured narrative, it conveyed a sense of explorative freedom that at the time felt completely new. And mesmerising in its attention to detail. Set in a small coastal Japanese town in the mid-1980s, the citizens not only go about their daily business based on the time of day but the weather system actually mimics real weather experienced within the region at the time. A fact that in addition to serving as a wonderful piece of trivia, says a lot about Shenmue as an experience.

Playing Shenmue around the time of its release was an experience unlike any other. The word unique has just about lost all meaning as a way to describe a gaming experience, but Shenmue was for lack of a better word, unique. Here was a game where you could wake up, walk down to the local arcade and spend your day (and entire allowance) playing classic Sega games like Space Harrier. And if you got bored there you could go down to the park to catch up with friends, buy a snack from the convenience store, or even use a nearby phone booth to call home.

Or more likely. Spend a fortune on a toy collection.

For a game with a linear storyline that didn’t allow for any real deviation or variation on the outcome, Shenmue was a surprisingly freeing experience. Coming at the dawn of the new millennium, it was revelatory. A dynamic day and night system that saw people live their lives in an ordinary town was a technical marvel. As was the ability to walk up to a cabinet and switch to a first person view and open up all of its drawers and witness everyday items like clothing, utensils and candles in 3D graphics. In a time when superfluous detail makes up the background of many a modern blockbuster videogame, Shenmue still serves as a great example of where a memorable experience can often lie within the simple act of observation.

For a game with such a large scope and one created by a team numbering around 300 people, Shenmue still feels like the product of a singular vision. Led by famed designer Yu Suzuki, the scope of Shenmue was so large that the game that ended up on store shelves only really told the first part of the story. The game begins with Ryo Hazuki returning to his family’s dojo just in time to witness the murder of his father by a mysterious Chinese man called Lan Di. He’s after a specific artefact, a mirror, currently in the possession of Hazuki Sensei. Of course it won’t be given up easily, and only once Ryu’s life is put in mortal danger.

Hazuki Sensei dies tragically after that.

As Ryu stared off into the distance, he knew he nailed the 'band-aid on face look' pioneered by '90s rapper Nelly

This incident not only serves as the foundation for Shenmue, a game where you take on the role of Ryo Hazuki and begin the journey to avenge your father’s murder, but the timely sequel released the following year. As a story about a criminal underworld that has spanned many generations all framed by a singular event and a path towards vengeance, Shenmue wouldn’t have felt out of place as a Hong Kong or Japanese crime film. As a videogame, the story is rare in that it serves to introduce a setting rarely seen before or since.

Taking place in Yokosuka, its citizens and its many businesses and residential buildings all come together to form a singular entity. A Japanese coastal town from the mid-1980s. Coupled with little touches like smoke filling the air at the Mah-jong parlour, and a small cardboard box to house discarded plastic casings that sits next to a toy capsule vending machine, Yokosuka is arguably the main star of Shenmue. Naturally, time has softened the sense of wonder gained from having to wait until morning for a particular character to arrive or the fact that day turns to night and clear skies can lead to cloud and rain. But even so, Yokosuka is such a distinct place to set a game that it exudes character. More so than a game with a city tenfold in size, and with many more things to do.

"Hey girl, is this seat taken? Because I need to ask you about black cars and Chinese people."

But saying that Shenmue is an open-world experience where you’re free to explore can be a little misleading. Especially to those familiar with what that term refers to today. Shenmue has no real mission-based structure or levelling or skill progression system. Sparring serves only to provide the purest of rewards, experience gained from practise. Going to the arcade to spend your time playing arcade games, is simply there as a distraction and a waste of money. Working a menial job down at the docks driving a forklift, is repetitive and monotonous. But it provides money that you need.

At times Shenmue feels like an interactive movie, albeit one where you can stop to explore your surroundings and talk to whomever you want. Other times it feels like an adventure game, one where you play detective and need to talk to a cast of colourful characters to work out who did what and where to head to next. Sometimes it even feels like a beat ‘em up, where you fight through groups of bad guys wearing typical bad guy attire like leather jackets and sunglasses at inappropriate times. But most of all Shenmue is a game unlike any other, and one that if you don’t “get” you’re missing out on.

Plus, for better or worse, it unleashed QTEs (Quick Time Events) onto the world.

Throwback Rating:

Best Forgotten / A Trip Down Memory Lane / Timeless

Previous Throwbacks:

Kosta Andreadis remembers a time when in order to get the best out of a console game you had to blow gently into it and whisper sweet nothings like "please work, I’m up to World 8-3, for fudgcicles sake". Situated in Melbourne, Kosta is a freelancer who enjoys playing RPGs, strategy, adventure, and action games. Apart from investing well over 200 hours into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim he’s also an electronic musician with an album recently released.

Find him or follow him on Twitter - @toadovsky, Steam - toadovsky and Xbox Live - Toadovsky.

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Turn a smart phone into a home security alarm system, don't be fooled this is the real deal built by some Israeli guy pissed of with his stuff being nicked.
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