Years ago there was this movie called The Piano. It was the one where Holly Hunter was a mute woman with an abusive husband in a Victorian era who can only communicate by playing a piano which washed upon the shore one day. I guess the best category for it would be “artsy fartsy”. It was up against Schindler’s List in the Oscars and mostly lost. However, while all the critics loved it and most said it should have won best picture, no one I’ve ever talked to who watched it has ever had anything good to say about it. My mother watched it and said it was horrible. So if it was so bad, why did the critics like it? I believe there is a phenomenon in the movie industry where critics are “supposed to like” certain films. Was The Piano any good? From what I’ve heard, no. So why do the critics like it? Because they’re supposed to. Is Woody Allen a great film maker? No. So why do the critics love his films? Because they’re supposed to.
So a Dreamcast game was released Christmas of last year called Shenmue. It had been in development for close to four years. It had a budget in the millions. It had even originally been conceived for another platform, the Sega Saturn. It came out and instantly most critics proclaimed it the best game ever. Daily Radar did (right after saying the same thing about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2). Next Generation gave it the 5-star treatment. dreamcast.ign.com gave it a 9.7, and the Official Dreamcast Magazine gave it a perfect 10 (though they did give that one out a lot). OK, so I’ll bite – I got the game.
So I fire up this game. It’s got a cool into and it sets a nice initial mood. Then I go exploring my house in the game. One of the really big deals about this game supposedly is how realistic it is. Every room in your house can be explored. Every room in your house has something with drawers. Every drawer can be opened. Every drawer has something different in it. Every character you run into you can talk to. Every character has something different to say. Every character has a different voice. Every location in the game is detailed this way. Suffice it to say this was an ambitious project. There’s a vending machine you can buy drinks from and drink them. There’s people to buy stuff from. There’s a cute kitten to save. And the coolest – there’s an arcade where you can play emulated old Yu Suzuki games (the creator of Shenmue as well).
But this is where it breaks down. Everything I’ve done in the game (so far) has been of the “go here and talk to this guy and ask him this” variety. Problem #1 – the world is huge. Problem #2 – the characters don’t stay put and they are only at certain places in certain times of the day and only when you’ve already talked to someone else. Problem #3 – every sign on every house and street is in Japanese. You can of course go up to them and look at them closely and the English translation pops up, but this is tedious and it’s hard to remember where the hell anything (the streets tend to look the same).
And there’s other problems as well, mainly with the voice acting. It sucks. The original Japanese game was in, well, Japanese. They went back and forth on whether or not to put this one out with subtitles or redubs of the voice. They went with dubs but since all the characters in the game are Japanese it made sense to have Japanese people who speak English as a second language do the voices. However the low sampling rate means that the words tend to slur a little bit, so add to that the natural slur of the Japanese accent and it’s hard to make anything out. Finally, combine all of this with the fact that the actors they picked were just awful and they sound like they were instructed to yell into the microphone as loudly as possible, and you see why many people wish they would have just subtitled the game.
But the big problem is the amount of stuff to do. Sure, it makes the game more realistic, but it makes it boring, or at least as far as I got into it. I can wander around aimlessly anywhere. It’s been a year now since I touched the game and I’ve always meant to get back to it, but why? Well first off is the fact that I actually thing there’s a good game to be had, if I can find it. But ultimately I think that this is one of those games where you’re just “supposed” to like it. I want to play and like this game because I’m “supposed” to. And all the critics address the fact that this is an unconventional game and that’s great and all, but it’s not any good – that doesn’t make up for being unconventional.
And to make things worse, many people were turned off by the pseudo-episodic nature of it. The basic premise is that the main character, Ryo, witnesses his father’s murder at the hands of a gang and goes on a quest to solve the murder and why it happened. But here’s the rub – at the end of the game you still won’t know why. The reason is because Shenmue isn’t finished – it was envisioned as an episodic RPG of sorts with 16 chapters (16 games). That has since been scaled back a bit, the first game covers two chapters and the second game, Shenmue II, covers four, so there’s ten chapters to go. Shemnue III has been greenlighted but will not hit the Dreamcast for obvious reasons.
And even worse – Sega released Shenmue II in Japan and made a big hubbub about the game’s release in the U.S. Namely, in the efforts of cost effectiveness and timeliness they decided to do the subtitle bit for the sequel. However then they turned around and announced they weren’t going to release it in the U.S. after all but instead put it on the XBox in Fall 2002. However in the U.K., where two consoles weren’t just launched, they decided to go ahead and release it, so now everyone who wants to play this game on the system they already have has to import it (the game plays in NTSC as well). Insane.
And yet after I write this and go home for the day, I think I’ll fire up Shenmue and give it one more try…