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Shenmue

is an adventure game developed by Sega-AM2 and published by Sega for the Sega Dreamcast, produced and directed by Yu Suzuki. Suzuki coined a new genre title, "FREE" (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment), for the game, based on its unparalleled interactivity and freedom, as well as the innovative real-time and weather systems. However, Shenmue most resembles an adventure game in terms of gameplay focus. Shenmue was followed by a sequel, Shenmue II.

Story

The fictional story of Shenmue begins on November 29, 1986 in the perspective of the protagonist Ryo Hazuki (芭月 涼 Hazuki Ryō) returning home to his family dojo to witness his father, Iwao Hazuki battling with a man dressed in Chinese attire, who demands he hand over an item known as the "Dragon Mirror". Ryo intervenes in battle after his father is felled, but is injured by a blow from Lan Di. As his father refuses to reveal the location of the mirror, Lan Di lifts Ryo from the ground and threatens to kill him with a final blow, which prompts Iwao to reveal its location underneath the Cherry blossom tree.

After Lan Di's henchmen recover the mirror, he asks Iwao if he knows of a man called "Sunming Zhao" and then kills him after forcibly asking him to stand as a warrior to face his end. As Ryo lies injured on the floor of the dojo, Lan Di and his men leave the Hazuki household. After Ryo has partially recovered he feels that he must dutifully gain revenge for the murder of his father, and begins to instigate inquiries into the incident with the local people of his hometown, Sakuragaoka.

Ryo's first clue is a car that some of his neighbours saw on the day of the murder. Though his leads are few and far between, Ryo slowly makes progress in his investigation by interviewing people all over Yokosuka. Just as he is about to run out of leads, a letter from a man named Yuanda Zhu suggests that he seek the aid of a certain Master Chen, who works at the harbour. Through Chen and his son Guizhang, Ryo learns that a local wharf gang known as the Mad Angels is connected to Lan Di's crime organization, the Chiyoumen. Ryo also learns that "the mirror" stolen by Lan Di is part of a set of two mirrors. After much investigation, he locates the second mirror underneath his father's dojo. This mirror is decorated with a phoenix.

Ryo takes a job on the waterfront in order to learn more about the Mad Angels gang, and eventually he causes them enough trouble that the gang kidnaps his friend (and principal love interest) Nozomi Harasaki. To rescue Nozomi, Ryo must first fight Guizhang, then team up with Guizhang to defeat all seventy members of the Mad Angels gang. Upon defeat, the gang's leader reveals to Ryo that Lan Di has left Japan for Hong Kong. With the aid of the Chen family as well as his family and friends, Ryo boards a boat to Hong Kong. Before the close of the first chapter (and subsequent end of the game itself), he is instructed by Master Chen to seek out the help of a master of the Chinese martial arts located in Wan Chai named Lishao Tao. Concluding the first chapter of Shenmue, Ryo boards a boat and travels to Hong Kong in pursuit of Lan Di.

Characters

In Shenmue, Ryo Hazuki is the main protagonist, and the only playable character. As the game progresses, Ryo meets a variety of new characters that serve to further the narrative of the storyline. The most important of these include Nozomi Harasaki, a childhood friend who is romantically interested in Ryo, and Master Chen Yeo Wen, who guides Ryo on his quest with his insightful knowledge and kindness. The main antagonist is Lan Di. Throughout the game, he is elusive to Ryo. Large sections of the narrative revolve around tracking Lan Di down. Two important antagonists that Ryo does come into contact with are Chai, a powerful Martial arts expert who is often deranged in his devotion to Lan Di, and Terry, who runs a harbour gang known as the Mad Angels.

In addition, several characters provide insight into Ryo's true self and also give him motivation for his actions. There are several supporting characters that often act to further develop Ryo's back story to the player and define his personality more clearly. The most important of these being Nozomi Harasaki, who is understood to harbour a deep love for Ryo. Their relationship can never progress beyond friendship, despite a sincere love and affection for each other, because of Ryo's quest to avenge his father's murder. The scenes involving Ryo and Nozomi are often the most emotionally charged in the game, and perhaps more than any other help the player understand Ryo and the turmoil he suffers following his father's demise. Other childhood and family friends, who reside in the Yokosuka area, serve to further develop Ryo‘s character. There are also several incidental characters that populate the game world. Although these characters might occasionally provide the player with some useful information, they are primarily present to produce the game's realistic atmosphere and setting.

Significance of the title

The game's title is derived from a specific tree that makes a cameo near the ending of the second installment in the series. The tree is located, both literally and figuratively, at the centre of the prophecy that is a constant thread throughout the saga (and which is featured in the cinematic intros to both games). The Shenmue tree resides in the same small village (Bailu, which is located in Guilin) that spawned both Shenhua and the game's notorious stone mirrors.

There is further foreshadowing to this tree in Shenmue, although such references are very discreet. One example is the cassette named "Antiquity Tree", which Ryo may purchase at any point during the game. Antiquity means "ancient", hence "Ancient Tree". The musical score played from the cassette shares an uncanny resemblance to the musical score of the Main Shenmue Theme. Therefore, it is suggested that the Shenmue Tree is an ancient tree, probably reflecting the tree's mythology and its significance.

Gameplay modes

Gameplay in Shenmue is diverse; while most of the game is spent walking around the atmospheric, life-like Japanese locations in a third-person 'chase cam' mode (talking to people, searching for things, solving puzzles, and so forth), it is interspersed with many 'mini-games', including forklift and motorcycle races, bar fights, chases down crowded alleys, full versions of Sega arcade games Space Harrier and Hang-On (both originally programmed by Shenmue creator and director, Yu Suzuki), dart games, and 'free fighting' sequences.

Free Quest

The majority of Shenmue is based on Free Quest gameplay. During such gameplay, the player will explore the Yokosuka area usually for any leads to progress the narrative. Often, these leads will be gained by talking to local people who can provide important clues. If the player so desires, they can explore the area simply for fun without progressing the game's narrative. There are a variety of activities to engage in, the best-known being the ability to play Space Harrier and Hang On, two of Yu Suzuki's classic arcade hits. Other mini-games include Darts and Snooker, but there are many more. Many players find that simply exploring the immensely detailed locations of Shenmue to be a greatly rewarding experience. Furthermore, talking to a wide variety of local people that although will not progress the narrative, can greatly enhance the player's understanding of the plot and/or gameplay mechanics. There are also several side-quests for players to engage in throughout the game. These will not affect the main narrative, but might provide Ryo with useful items or further develop characters and storyline for the player. Yu Suzuki has stated that for a player to see everything Shenmue has to offer, and to truly experience the game fully they must be patient and take the time to explore the game's numerous hidden facets.

QTE

During QTE (Quick Timer Event) sequences, a button will flash on screen briefly and the player must press the relevant button or combination of buttons to trigger Ryo's actions. Fights against opponents can take place in QTE form as frequently as in Free Fight form. In addition to battles, QTE sequences are used for various other scenarios. For example, at one point a QTE sequence is used when Ryo must chase an escaping crook and Lan Di associate who has stolen money from him. The sequence takes place in the middle of a busy town centre, and a variety of incoming obstructions must be avoided. As the game progresses, the reaction speeds required of the player become quicker and the button combinations become more complex. The player's success or failure in these scenes can affect the flow of gameplay as well as the current cutscene.

The QTE concept is not new to Shenmue, however. The earliest known example of the QTE, is the gameplay of the original Dragon's Lair, released in 1983. While not referred to as a QTE (that term having been coined by SEGA), in principle it was the same thing, and can be seen as its origin. There is also an earlier example of a SEGA game featuring prominent use of the QTE, 1996's Die Hard Arcade. Nevertheless, it was Shenmue which has made the QTE into the well-recognised, and increasingly popular, gameplay mechanic that it is today. Since its release, several other games have included a QTE system, or something similar. Some of the higher profile titles with such a system include: Resident Evil 4, Fahrenheit, and God of War..

Free Battle

The free battles pit Ryo against one or more enemies in a cross between Virtua Fighter and Streets of Rage; Ryo has a large list of martial art techniques, almost worthy of a full one-on-one fighter. The player has the ability to enter a practice mode of sorts, in which Ryo will practice his various martial art techniques, either alone or with a friendly opponent - this helps to increase the player's familiarity with the Free Battle system. Whilst progressing through the game, players have the ability to learn more techniques, adding to Ryo's repertoire and ultimately making him a more powerful martial artist. There are several senior martial artists that Ryo meets throughout his journey, and they offer to teach him new skills. The player has the choice to decline these offers, although they would be ill-advised to do so as Ryo's physical development is important to his success as his opponents become stronger. Another method for learning new techniques involves Martial Arts Scroll Rolls. These antique instructional scrolls can be found, or purchased, at various locations in the game. Once Ryo has read the scroll, the technique will be added to his repertoire, but the player will need to practice the key combinations it requires to truly master it. The culmination of the game involves a gigantic brawl between Ryo, his ally Guizhang, and exactly seventy enemies. Upon completion of the game '70 Man Battle' is added to the main menu, and can be replayed to the player's content.

Development

Early stages

Yu Suzuki has stated on several occasions that during its early stages, Shenmue was a traditional style RPG based on the characters and storyline of the hugely successful fighting game title Virtua Fighter. The Ryo character was originally Virtua Fighter character Akira. The final Ryo character has several key differences, but there is a very clear visual resemblance between him and Akira. As the game's development progressed, the characters became original and the storyline moved away from its Virtua Fighter roots.

Initially, Shenmue was planned as a killer application for the beleaguered Sega Saturn. Although it was very powerful for its time, the Saturn was also notoriously difficult to work with and progress was painstakingly slow. Yu Suzuki has stated how difficult it was to get the most from the Saturn, but that he is very proud of the visual quality he was able to achieve on the 32-bit system. Work on the Saturn version of Shenmue is said to have been fairly complete, but following the console's commercial collapse internationally, Shenmue was shelved and never officially released on the format. However, Sega was already beginning work on a brand new console (which during the early stages of its development was called the katana, later renamed to its commercial name "Dreamcast") and work on Shenmue quickly resumed, with the powerful new system as its format.

Project Berkeley

As the gaming industry became more aware of Sega's next generation console towards the end of 1997 and beginning of 1998, Shenmue was also gaining positive buzz and intrigue. At this time, however, the game was only ever known as Project Berkeley. Tech demos from the game were being used by Sega to show what the Dreamcast was capable of producing. Many of these sequences were very well developed, and some were even used in the final retail version of the game. This has led many to believe that Shenmue was probably one of the very first Dreamcast titles to begin production. Shenmue quickly became Sega's flagship Dreamcast title - representing the systems powerful graphical capabilities and also its ability to render immersive, cinematic characters and environments.

Shenmue was one of the first video games to incorporate development techniques that had previously been primarily used for film. The voice acting in Shenmue was especially ground-breaking because it was the one of the first large scale games to include real voices for every single NPC in the game world, not just resorting to text transcriptions (e.g. The Legend of Zelda). Furthermore, this extensive audio script was recorded in both Japanese and English. Clay models of every character - regardless of how minor their role in the game - were built as reference material for animators creating the final in-game versions of the character models. The game also includes a highly cinematic musical score, which required a full size Orchestra. The main composer was Takenobu Mitsuyoshi.

Content and features

Magic Weather System

Shenmue incorporates an entirely original system to produce the game's in-universe weather conditions. Named the Magic Weather System, it is one of the most important elements responsible for creating the game's realistic universe. For every day that the player progresses through, weather conditions are generated. Conditions vary from rain, to snow, to overcast skies to sunny and several other variations. Furthermore, weather can change throughout the day - for example, a rainy morning followed by an overcast afternoon and evening. No two players will ever experience the same weather conditions, since the game generates random weather every time the game is played (Although the conditions generated are reflective of the season in which they take place). In addition, records of actual weather conditions of the Yokosuka area during 1986/1987 (the time period in which the game is set) were implemented into the game, giving players the option to experience these weather conditions in addition to those which are randomly generated.

Geography

Shenmue takes place within Yokosuka, Japan. The four main areas of Yokosuka available to the player are detailed and offer many avenues for exploration. The Hazuki Dojo is located in a small hamlet called Yamanose, where many of Ryo's childhood friends and neighbours live. Ryo's childhood friends, Ichiro Sakurada and Noriko Nakamura, are also residents of Yamanose. Directly next to Yamanose lies Sakuragaoka, a slightly bigger neighborhood. There are several points of interest here, including Setsu Abe's Candy Shop and Sakuragaoka Park. There are also several residents of Sakuragaoka that can offer assistance to Ryo in his quest to find Lan Di. They include local gossips Fusayo Mishima and Fusako Kondo, as well as Naoyuki Ito, who lends Ryo his motorbike towards the end of the game.

Dobuita, the second largest location in the game, is a busy town that boasts a wide variety of people and activities. Dobuita offerings include an eclectic and diverse selection of shops in the game, from convenience stores to specialized antique shops where valuable martial arts scrolls can be purchased. Nozomi is often found in Dobuita at her grandmother's flower shop. There is also a red light district with several bars, restaurants, a small slot machine parlour, and a mahjong parlour. The bus service that allows Ryo to travel to Yokosuka Harbour is also located here near a tobacco shop.

Yokosuka Harbour is Shenmue's largest environment. Ryo first travels there to meet Master Chen, and eventually gets a job at the harbour to gain information on The Mad Angels, who have a large criminal influence in the area. Mark Kimberley, who eventually becomes a valuable friend to Ryo, also works at the harbour and has several run-ins with the Mad Angels. Shozo Mizuki, a homeless man who lives at the harbour, is a skilled martial artist who reveres the Hazuki style and teaches Ryo three useful techniques.

Culture

Shenmue takes place within the span of a few months, from November 1986 until as late as (depending upon the player's speed in completing the game) April 1987. At Yu Suzuki's insistence, the game's environment and culture adhere closely to this period. Various martial arts disciplines play an integral role in both the storyline and the gameplay of Shenmue, and aspects of Japanese and Chinese culture related to martial arts are prevalent. Ryo's character represents a typical young man of late 1980s Japan. He comes from a traditional background and his childhood was focused around the mastery of martial arts so that he can one day become responsible for the Hazuki name. However, Ryo is part of a generation with changing values. His generation considers personal wealth and enjoyable life experiences more desirable than traditional Japanese values. This theme appears throughout the game in many forms, such as the numerous inclusions of American pop culture. For example, Ryo wears typically Western attire of t-shirt and jeans. In the original Japanese edition of Shenmue, the trademarked Coca Cola logo is seen in various locations.

Passport

On all versions of Shenmue accessible on a special fourth disc, Passport is a supporting application of sorts that greatly enhances the Shenmue experience. The Theatre option allows players to view cutscenes they have unlocked in the main game, while the Music option works in the same way but with unlocked tracks from the game's soundtrack. In addition, the Information section allows new players to learn more about the various aspects of Shenmue gameplay. Several of the game's main characters talk through a variety of elements from Shenmue including mini-games, magic weather system and free battle. These sequences are fully interactive, allowing players to interrupt the pre-set camera movements and take control of all camera movement, as well as control the position of the light source. Many of these tutorial sequences were used as technical demos and were shown at various events, such as E3, prior to the game's release.

Passport also utilised the Dreamcast's internet connectivity. The Shenmue World feature contained highly detailed information regarding all aspects of the Shenmue world (i.e. locations and characters), and it also hosted an online manual. Furthermore, Network Ranking also allowed players to upload their scores from the playable arcade games found in Shenmue and to compete in the worldwide rankings board. Downloads, including Shenmue-themed VMU Icons and in-game collectible items (such as toy capsules), could be obtained through Everyone's Space, with several of them requiring some kind of item trade. Via loading their saved games, players could also use Data Review to view detailed information about their data - from total hours of play, to frequency of mini-game plays, to the number of soft drinks purchased. As of April 1, 2002, all Online features of the Passport application were discontinued. This was due to the cancellation of all Dreamcast production, which also saw the closing of the system's dedicated ISP Dreamarena (for Europe) and SegaNet (for North America).

Reception

Initially released in Japan at the end of 1999, Shenmue is regarded by many critics and fans alike to be one of the Dreamcast's finest titles. This is largely due to the game's status as a highly original and groundbreaking technical achievement. It is often credited as one of the first video games to employ such lavish, and typically film-like production values. It received an Excellence Prize for Interactive Art at the 2000 Japan Media Arts Festival.

Critical review

Shenmue often divided critics; many hailed it to be a masterpiece, while others found it self-indulgent and uninspiring. A universally praised aspect of the game, however, was its graphics. Gaming Target, who gave the game a perfect 10/10 score, described Shenmue's visuals as "The greatest in-game graphics that have ever been seen for a console." Even less favorable reviewers included strong praise for the game's visuals. RPG Fan, while only giving the game a score of 68%, wrote "Shenmue is truly a benchmark game. The world and its complexity is flawless, easily the most impressive, real, and interactive world I've ever seen." It was also voted number 25 on the GAME Greatest games of all time list in 2008.

However, many reviews cited the game's pace as a major flaw, complaining that the whole experience offered by Shenmue was far too slow. GameSpot highlighted this problem in their review: "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." Several other critics gave the gameplay of Shenmue high praise. Both US and UK editions of the Official Dreamcast Magazine awarded the game the highest possible 10/10 score, as did the popular publication DC:UK. Gamepower said the game's Free Fight system was "just as entertaining as almost any fighting game on the market." The publication concluded their review with "[Shenmue] is a landmark in gaming as we know it, a revolution in every sense of the word. The future is here, and we are staring it in the face. Shenmue is a masterpiece, I was honored to play."

Sales

Considering the high production costs and high critical praise, Shenmue experienced disappointing sales. The game, which cost an unprecedented $70 million to make, (including the cost of several scrapped projects, a version running on the Saturn, and groundwork for future installments,) would have, according to IGN, had to be purchased by every single Dreamcast owner, twice, in order to turn Sega a profit. The game sold 1.2 million copies worldwide as Farouk stated, making it one of the few Dreamcast games to top one million sales. Still, given the game's vast budget, it did not even come close to breaking even. Shenmue is consistently listed as one of several key Dreamcast titles (most of them Sega productions) that ensured the console enjoyed solid sales during the Christmas season of 2000.

References

External links

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