Retro Review: Shenmue (Sega Dreamcast)

Review-ShenmueWith Shenmue 3 recently being announced at E3, a cool 14 years after its predecessor, it felt like the perfect time to dust off the Sega Dreamcast and replay the first entry in a series that struck a chord with so many gamers back in the day. Just how big of a chord it struck has been left with no doubt whatsoever, as the Kickstarter is currently sitting at just over $3.7m, almost twice the original asking price.

Shenmue, which hit the American and European markets in 2000, introduces 18 year old student Ryo Hazuki as the series protagonist. The introduction to the game instantly lays the table in an emotive and effective manner. We are immediately introduced to the game’s villain, Lan Di, who confronts Ryo’s father Iwao in the family dojo, regarding the whereabouts of a mysterious mirror. With Iwao refusing to talk, Lan Di takes out his frustrations on Ryo, threatening to kill him. Rather than watch his son die, Iwao finally tells Lan Di of the mirror’s whereabouts. Now armed with all he needs to know, Lan Di mercilessly kills Ryo’s father in front of his own eyes.

Like many other aspects of the game, this intro was groundbreaking for its time, showcasing cutting edge graphics, voice acting and animations to truly captivate the player and lay the foundations for what was to come. Once we are finally able to control Ryo, we are introduced to another pioneering aspect of the game, the character movement. The game allows the player to freely control Ryo in lush 3D environments, with a first person camera mode allowing Ryo to focus and interact with any objects of interest he encounters. With local towns and harbours to explore, the designers did a terrific job in carving out a small piece of Japan and putting the player directly within it.

As may be obvious from the intro, Ryo’s quest is one of vengeance. Armed with only a notepad for jotting down clues and limited martial arts capabilities, Ryo must both gather knowledge and hone his skills in battle if he is to achieve his goal. The notepad is central to the game, in that it constantly serves to remind the player where to search for their next clue. Once Ryo gains important new information, it will be automatically added to the notebook and can be referred back to at any time.


At its core, Shenmue is an exploration, fact finding game with some action sequences sprinkled in for good measure. You will spend the majority of the game finding clues rather than fighting, so fans of games such as Sega’s other powerhouse at the time, Virtua Fighter, may be left wanting.

When the action sequences do arrive, they hit you in one of two ways, Quick Time Events (QTE) and free battles. QTE, a term coined by the game’s director Yu Suzuki, was a largely unfamiliar concept at the time. It involved buttons flashing up on the screen during action sequences, forcing players to quickly hit the corresponding button to progress the sequence further. While QTEs have been criticised for being unnecessary and overused in more recent games, Shenmue used them sparingly and in an effective way to both immerse the player in the action and provide a change of pace from the clue finding norm.

The free battles pit Ryo against his enemies in a setting similar to the aforementioned Virtua Fighter series. Players can punch, kick and throw enemies utilising a variety of combos which can be practiced in various areas of the game, such as an empty car park or the family dojo. Additionally, new moves can be purchased and learnt over time by constantly executing their relevant button combos. The training, while important, can get on the repetitive side, forcing the player to perform the same combo countless times in order to progress that move to a more advanced level. If Ryo should fall during free battles or QTE sequences, the player can simply retry them as often as they like.

The true passing of time is another feature Shenmue introduced and executed well. Shops are only open at certain times of day, certain clues may only be visible at night and Ryo must get home before 11pm, lest he be continuously lectured by his mothering housekeeper Ine. One criticism that could be said of this feature was that certain clues, meetings and opportunities do force the player to wait an unreasonable amount of time before being able to progress with the game.


Especially given the time it arrived, Shenmue was simply 3 disks of pure genius

Should you find yourself needing to pass time within the game world, one popular way of doing so was by playing through the various mini-games on offer. Electronic darts, QTE boxing and even old classics such as Space Harrier and Hang On are available for Ryo to enjoy at the local arcade. These not only provided a welcome distraction but also further worked to truly place the player in Ryo’s world.

The real meat of the game though as previously alluded to is exploration. Whether it is finding someone who can translate a Chinese letter, searching for sailors or finding a missing kitten, Ryo must speak to as many people and gather as much information as possible if he is to ultimately avenge his father. One minor niggle which could be given to the clue finding aspect is that it is often down to trial and error to find someone who may be able to help. You can often find yourself talking to the same groups of people in the blind hope that one will be able to point you in the right direction. This however is only a small criticism, as for most clues the game does an adequate job in at least nudging you towards where you need to be.

Overall, especially given the time it arrived on the scene, Shenmue was simply 3 disks of pure genius. A real work of art. You truly do get immersed in Ryo’s world and feel every emotion with him. You want him to succeed. It’s this immersion, combined with the beautiful 3D surroundings, storytelling, and character development that provided a blueprint which games of today still look to emulate. For this reason it left a huge impression on the player, and as such it was no surprise to see Yu Suzuki reach his Kickstarter goal with the greatest of ease.

Shenmue (Sega Dreamcast) Gameplay

Link: Find Shenmue (Sega Dreamcast) on eBay

Last Updated ( 05 July 2015 )  


(Link to this comment) ewjim 2015-07-05 12:31
I've just managed to get a copy recently. Looking forward to playing it again for the first time in years! Great review, it's forced Shenmue further up my 'to play list.'
(Link to this comment) kamakazi20012 2015-10-22 19:59
This game is the sole reason I grabbed a Dreamcast again. It is a great example of an open world ancestor done right. I never did get to collect all of the toys, games, tapes that were in the game. I highly recommend this game, it is one of Dreamcast's shinning moments.

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