Shenmue | Games To Play Before You Die

Shenmue Dreamcast
Release Date
December 29, 1999
Sega AM2, Ys Net
Original Platform

When we put together these “Games to Play Before You Die” features, we realize that some games just don’t hold up. Instead, they may be historically significant, and so worth playing just to see how they influenced other titles. But that doesn’t mean they’re fun to play compared to the games that came after. Just look at Grand Theft Auto III or the original Metroid.

That brings us to Shenmue.

Shenmue is one of the first games to put players into a static, constant world where things can be explored, investigated and interacted with. Players could dive headfirst into the mystery the game offered, or they could play arcade games. They could investigate the different leads regarding the murder of their father, or they could collect Sonic the Hedgehog mini-figures.

Early on in the game, the main character Ryo is introduced to a stray kitten. He’s given the opportunity to care for the cute little munchkin, or not worry about it. Whatever you choose, it has no bearing on the game’s narrative (although if you don’t help the kitten, you are clearly a monster). It’s the same with your relationship with just about everybody in the small Japanese town you live in. There’s a whole world existing outside of your problems.

You know, like real life.

Shenmue follows the life of Ryo Hazuki, a teenage Japanese martial arts student in the 1980s whose father is murdered. The Chinese gang and their leader, Lan Di, are looking for a mirror they believe Ryo’s father has. Why a mirror? Does it matter? Anyway, Ryo declares he’ll get revenge on Lan Di and there’s the game.

Ryu’s quest for answers and vengeance begins in his hometown of Yokosuka – a real city in Japan. The town is populated with dozens of NPCs, each of whom have individual spoken voices. Not only that, but they aren’t static, either. Everyone in Yokosuka has a daily schedule, which means they’re not always going to be in the same place. Time passes, seasons change, and the weather varies day by day in Shenmue.

Some objectives can only be completed at certain times of the day. Fortunately, there’s plenty to keep you occupied while you hurry up and wait. There’s an arcade where you can play other Sega classics like Hang-On and Space Harrier. There are mini toys to collect, shops to visit, and a stray kitten you can take care of and play with. You can even practice your karate moves, and you’ll need it.

While the majority of the game involves the mundane (there’s a lot of asking NPCs questions), there’s also plenty of combat. Shenmue actually began its development as an RPG based on the Virtual Fighter series, and the action in the game reflects that. There are plenty of opportunities to learn new combat techniques, and plenty of opportunities to put them into practice.

There have been numerous games that have taken inspiration from Shenmue and its sequels. The Yakuza series, also published by Sega, owes a debt of gratitude to Shenmue. That being said, there really haven’t been any games exactly like Shenmue or its sequels. As much as it has influenced dozens of games (any game with a persistent world where the inhabitants stick to a regular schedule owes a debt of gratitude to Yu Sukzuki and his masterpiece), there still haven’t been any other games quite like them.

There’s a lot of cringe-worthy moments in Shenmue (just wait until you have to ask the locals about where sailors hang out). There’s a lot that’s just, well, boring – no spoilers, but forklifts are involved. But, even with the weird voice acting, you can’t help but get pulled into this world. The town of Yokosuka is a character in of itself and, even today, few open world games take the time to make their settings really stand out.

Shenmue is pretty divisive. You’re either going to love it or want to throw the disc out a window. Either way, it’s worth playing it and finding out what side you’re on.

If you’re looking for more classic games, Games To Play Before You Die should be on your reading list.

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