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ShenmuePlaying Shenmue was an experience unlike any other video game I've played in the past 10 years. The graphics, sound and music were excellent. Its shining quality though was the level of interaction, with the virtual world and realism and freedom. For the first time the character I played, Ryo Hazuki, was free to wander anywhere. He was free to do nothing, stand around on a corner, waste time at the arcade, and buy worthless trinkets, much like in real life.

It was still video game though that had a storyline to follow. It begins with a father's murder and a son's (Ryo's) thirst for revenge-a plot rehashed from countless martial arts movies. The level of characterization, however, was higher than most movies.

Talking with friends and neighbors revealed not only clues to follow but facts about their lives as well. Ine-san worried about Ryo too much. Fuku-san talked too much. Sumiya-san was gossip queen of Sakuragaoka. Tom, the Jamaican hotdog vendor did not feel at home in Japan. There were countless other tidbits about their lives that could take weeks in the game to learn.

In Shenmue time passes-albeit faster than real time-and is marked by night and day cycles, changes in the weather from sunny, rainy to snowy and Christmas decors hung on the streets. Other characters in the game go about their lives independently. Early in the morning they could be found sweeping their front yards, taking their walks and going to school or work. At noon they take their lunch breaks. Late at night they fill up the bars and afterwards walk home drunk and wobbling. Just watching them is fun already.

Player's looking for action will be disappointed. The hunt for the murderer of Ryo's father involves a lot of asking strangers for directions. Sometimes a quick timer event (QTE) happens that involves controlling Ryo in an action sequence by pressing a button at the exact time. There are also fight sequences were the game turns into something like Tekken or Virtua Fighter. Sometimes instead of the usual one-on-one Ryo would have to fight in a 70-man brawl.

To most players this is Shenmue's biggest flaw. There is too little action. Perhaps the reason for this is, the game is too much like real life. You can't rush through it. Ryo waits for appointments just like everyone else. Because he's just in high school, he has a curfew and a limited allowance. He has to sleep.

The only game I can think of that offers this level of realism is The Sims, which has no elements of action or adventure.

Shenmue stands by itself in its own genre. Surely in the future, games will improve and follow offering the player even more realism, interaction and freedom and Shenmue will be known as their pioneer.

July 2001


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