This week, Yahtzee reviews Shenmue.
Shen-meugh is a classic game for the Sega Dreamcast that very recently got officially ported to Steam as part of the console world's ever-burgeoning acknowledgement of its own irrelevance. The main things I knew about Shen-meugh is that it's a primogenitor of the particular kind of Japanese open world game now exemplified by the Yakuza series, and when Shen-meugh III got announced, all the Sega fans collectively wet their Dr. Robotnik-themed pajama bottoms. So having now played Shen-meugh I, I have to come to the conclusion that they were probably doing it ironically, and I hope their mothers appreciated the joke when laundry day rolled around.
Shen-meugh's kind of a bad game. Not that it's boring or miserable to play; it's got a tang of obliviously enthusiastic badness that makes it slightly hilarious, on top of being boring and miserable to play. Hey, people who've been waiting for Shen-meugh III, here's a thought: maybe you could've scratched that itch by watching literally any martial arts film. I'm thinking, the plucky young hero who got beaten up by the sneering villain who killed his dad/kung fu master at the start probably beats up the sneering villain at the end. And this way, you can enjoy the fight scenes without having to smash your controller with a steak tenderizer.
"What's that, Yahtz? Shen-meugh on the Dreamcast doesn't hold up in this day and age? Thanks for the revelation; don't forget to inform us that Elizabethan ruffs make it difficult to look at your smartphone." Hey, granted, there's a lot of clumsiness in Shen-meugh that can be put down to it still being the awkward developmental years of 3D gaming: the movement controls that feel like we're redirecting a Roomba by strategically kicking it; the way we can zoom into and pick up random objects for no reason except to turn them around in our hands in a way that implies we're supposed to be dispensing a constant stream of thick, ropey cum strands at the mind-blowingly cutting-edge graphics. One could conceivably forgive the quick-time events, 'cos this is the game that arguably invented them, and it took us a while to realize that QTEs are to narrative game design what firing ping-pong balls out of a vagina is to midwifery.
But there is plenty of badness about Shen-meugh that doesn't take the retrospective view of a mighty space genius from the future to spot; even the primitive early man at the turn of the millennium could tell that all the conversations sound like every line was recorded on different days, in different rooms, with no context, and during a gas leak. The plot is, we play Ryo Hazuki, a fairly stock Japanese character: the high school student who is also a karate master and has the emotional range of a plate of egg and chips - even less, actually, since at least you can use the chips to simulate raised eyebrows - using their quiet stoicism to mask their utter cluelessness. A sneering villain comes to his house, beats him up, kills his dad, and steals a green drinks coaster, and so Ryo declares vengeance with the raw emotional power that most of us would use to complain about a vending machine failing to work, and sets out to uncover the truth behind the villain and their sinister organization by walking out of the house and asking his next-door neighbors.
In fact, that seems to be Ryo's solution to most of the difficulties in his life, as his entire universe consists of five or six streets in a Japanese city populated exclusively by people he knows and incredibly rude bastards who will tell him they're just "too busy to talk" and are in a hurry to get somewhere, while sitting on a bench, reading a fucking newspaper! But by the time-honored method of asking the neighbors, Ryo delves into the seedy underbelly of the five or six streets, meaning some people who wear dark glasses and muscle shirts and are somehow even ruder than the newspaper assholes. It's here in this early phase of the game that we come to fully appreciate Ryo's cluelessness when he falls on roughly twelve occasions for the old "Sure, I'll tell you what you want to know; just meet me in this dark alley tomorrow with three of my burly mates!" trick.
And thus, two hours into the game, we are suddenly thrown into the deep end of the combat, getting attacked relentlessly on all sides while forced to get to grips with the lengthy list of combos like a drowning man being thrown a flat-packed lifebelt with half the assembly instructions missing, and it's hard to tell if a blow landed or was dodged 'cos all the combatants frenetically roll around each other like a bunch of action figures in a tumble dryer, so in the end, all you can do is get out the old steak tenderizer and do the Monster Mash. Still, I shouldn't complain about these brief interludes of excitement, because I'd spent the last six in-game hours waiting patiently in the street for the ambush to start, passing the time by reading the stop signs, and before that, I'd spent eight hours outside a tattoo parlor, waiting for them to open so they could tell me where to go tomorrow to get ambushed!
See, I'm not going to rag on the game for not being full-on martial arts action all the way through, and not just 'cos the combat calls for precisely the same button inputs made by an impatient person trying to skip a cutscene; the concept of having to balance the exciting part of the story against the mundanities of everyday life is unique fertile ground for video games, explored by games like Persona 5 and Yakuza, and work simulators like Harvest Moon and Recettear. The problem is, Shen-meugh's open world just doesn't have anything to do in it between the story beats, besides walk around the neighbors, tell them you have to avenge your father, and listen to them quite rightfully call you a suicidal fuckhead; otherwise, you can stroke a cat or bum around the arcade playing Space Harrier, neither of which feel like making the most of a bold new era of open-world gameplay.
The real kick in the teeth was that, after several hours of bumming around, getting ambushed as punishment for indiscreetly asking random strangers where the sailors hang out, Ryo's mum, or housekeeper, or live-in gimp, or whatever the fuck she is, just goes, "Oh! Here's a letter for your dad that's your first actual lead, that I forgot about, so everything up to this point has officially been a complete waste of your fucking time! And don't forget to feed the cat." Eventually, our detective work takes us to the docks, it having never occurred to Ryo to check there while he was looking for sailors, and we have to get a job moving identical wooden boxes back and forth along the pier over and over again, day-in, day-out.
Finally, the action's picking up. No, really! This is the point when Shen-meugh turns into a video game, lo and behold! Phew, only took about six hours! You have to use actual driving finesse and map-reading skills to move a minimum quota of boxes in a time limit! And finally, the game can justify the fact the character movement handles like operating a piece of industrial lifting equipment! I was getting into beating my box relocation record, and resented the game for constantly interrupting it, so that the bad guys could have another crack at throwing some meatheads at the karate master in the hope that practice will help them get better at being concussed. And, inescapably, the story rolls on to the insipid "To Be Continued".
To me, the experience of playing Shen-meugh I was rather like what I imagine having sex with Ryo Hazuki is like: it'd just lay there, staring resentfully at me as I poked all its bits, trying to provoke a reaction. Yes, I'm sure it was influential, and very nostalgic for you, but of all the many wonderful properties in gaming, this is the one you're holding out for a sequel to? That's like having two perfectly good eyeballs and using them to watch Destructoid videos!
- Let's get sweaty: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Yeah I wouldn't hold out hope for college Ryo mate if you're bunking off school to stand in front of tattoo shops all day looking serious
- What, really, do any of us know about sailors