Shenmue. Some people love it, some people hate it. There's no in-between. (There is).
It's one of my favourite games of all time. But I'm a realist - it's not perfect. I played it again this week to completion, with the rose tinted glasses firmly locked away, and a good few years between my last play, I've been able to see Shenmue for how it really is.
First of all, one thing that hasn't changed is that Shenmue was a graphical marvel, and to this day still (just about) stands up to the relentless weathering of time. The textures are a bit blurred now, and the character movements jarring and angular, but despite this, it still looks okay. Shenmue's world feels real, it's detailed, it's populated with vending machines, shops, an arcade and bars. There is no copy and pasting in Shenmue, every location is unique.
The story, in my opinion, follows suit. It was great at the time, and still presents itself as deep and intriguing, one which I want more of (but I'll get to that later).
However, the controls might be pretty awful for today’s standards. I don't think they were considered great at the time either. Ryo plods about like his legs are numb, and he can only get a rough estimate in his mind of which direction to travel. Once he's running, he moves more freely, but has the turning circle of a tank. On more than one occasion, controls stopped me dead in my tracks as I tried to go somewhere or do something quickly. Sidestepping would've been great, for those moments you need to do an almost 360 about-face to go to where you just missed.
The pacing was often criticised for being too slow. For some there are too many days where you are doing nothing, progressing hardly at all. Failing to speak to the right person at the right time can mean an extra day lugging boxes about at the harbour. For me, this wasn't an issue. In my recent play through hardly a day was wasted, there was always something to do, but to those at the time who were playing it without experience, you can often find yourself wondering around in frustration talking to guys who 'have some stupid business to take care of' and can't talk, or girls who are 'sorry' but just 'aren't interested in boys'. This leads me onto another problem...
The English voice acting in Shenmue is like a rollercoaster. It's up and down at the best of times, and at the worst it's stuck upside down for 3 hours as your brain slowly disintegrates. A few characters sound fine, most are middling, but some are absolutely atrocious. One character at the Harbour told me to 'Go away! Now!' in what may have been the greatest Spongebob Square Pants' Patrick impersonation known to man. Ryo himself comes out with bizarrely out of place comments that sometimes sound as if he has gotten the entirely wrong end of the stick. The English voice acting in Shenmue is no Metal Gear Solid, and considering they are both from roughly the same period, shows that Sega's localising team did not fire on all cylinders. Still, Mircrosoft decided to drop the ball with Shenmue 2 too, so, who am I to judge. This is a local issue though, because the Japanese voice acting, from what I've seen, is absolutely great, and as poor as the English voice acting sounds at times, the developers themselves must be applauded, because every intractable character speaks verbally and not through on screen text. That in this day and age is still an impressive feat, and one that makes Shenmue more real, more engrossing. Shenmue feels more real to me than GTAIII ever did, back on the PS2.
The fighting reminded me of Yakuza. I know that it is actually the other way round in terms of release dates, but I meant what I said. Is it a good thing that Shenmue's fighting mechanics play like a 2010 release? Or does that tell us something about Yakuza's combat? Either way, I found the fighting to be better than I remembered , and for a 10 year old game, that's pretty good.
I admit, there is some pretty strong criticism in this blog about Shenmue. That doesn't mean I like it any less though. Looking back, it's a rich world, made all the more amazing by the technical prowess flexed at the time, and it's deep storyline. It's a game that has wonky controls and a few pacing problems, with the odd bit of voice acting mediocrity you wouldn't expect from a pioneering series. But it's a game I enjoy playing. It's a story I want a conclusion to.
I've ordered Shenmue II, as I never bought the sequel, instead playing friend’s copies, or the Xbox version on occasion. I'm aware that it doesn't end the saga, and that's a real shame.