A Quick Look At What's Shenmue

What's Shenmue? A good question. What is Shenmue? Is it a game? Is it an interactive movie? Is it a cultural phenomenon that has built up so much of a frenzied mythical status that nobody even remembers how flawed it was in the first place? However you look at Shenmue, the fact is that the legend now precedes that actual game, but it wasn't always like this. Back before Ryo Hazuki's quest had even begun, Sega wanted to announce that Lan Di was on his way to kick ass and take names and so they released What's Shenmue - a sort of playable teaser trailer/demo disc hybrid to give Dreamcast owners a small taste of what to expect. Last week I was lucky enough to find a copy of this game on eBay for the bargainous price of £9, and naturally I snapped it up with no questions asked. In a way, this is totally linked to my recent look at Former Managing Director Yukawa's Treasure Hunt, because What's Shenmue uses the former head of Sega as a pivotal character in the plot of the main demo...but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Upon booting What's Shenmue, you are presented with a small but perfectly formed menu. The first menu item leads to a sort of technical demo area where character models from the main game give a brief explanation of who they are, their roles in the quest and also some other features present in the final game. Mark, the only English speaking character explains that he works at the docks driving a forklift truck and that money and convenience stores are a large and integral part of Shenmue's game world. There are also demos featuring other characters, including Ryo himself (naturally) but these are all spoken in Japanese so I have no real idea what they're saying. I can probably hazard a guess that Ryo is saying something like: "Hi, my name is Ryo. That bastard Lan Di is going to pay for shooting up my ride. It's time to kick ass and wear a bandaid on my face..." Or words to that effect.

The cool thing about these talking head sections is that they are rendered in real time by the Dreamcast, and for the time showed a level of facial movement and lip syncing never previously seen in real time on a home console. These days, games like Mafia III have taken facial animation to a whole new level of uncanny valley realism, but back in the late 1990s the stuff on this disc was mind-blowing, regardless of how ropey it looks now. While the characters are speaking, you can use the D-pad to move the light source around and the triggers and analogue stick to zoom in and rotate the view. It's still quite impressive even today to see the internal teeth, tongues etc moving, although probably don't show Mark's section to your kids/younger relatives before bedtime as nightmares are pretty much guaranteed if you do.
The main part of the What's Shenmue disc is a playable demo where you must control Ryo and discover the whereabouts of one Mr Yukawa. Because all of the dialogue is in Japanese, I'm not totally sure what the storyline is, but it was easy enough to work out where to go and who to speak to next as all of the NPCs you meet point you in the right direction. The play area is pretty tiny and consists of a couple of streets from Dobuita, and the machines in the arcade are not accessible (at least they weren't during my play through). As a demo though, this section of What's Shenmue must've been massively impressive back in the day. Sure, the play area is small and the whole demo only takes around 20 minutes to finish, but it introduces the player to the general gameplay mechanics of Shenmue proper, the stupid D-pad movement controls, the QTEs and the way in which you interact with characters and use the notepad etc.
The demo ends when you finally bump into Mr Yukawa as he falls out of a bar, and then you chase him through the streets in another QTE section. Once you catch up to him back at the arcade, his famous dream sequence kicks in and you get to see the scene where he wakes up in his office surrounded by Dreamcast boxes. It's a surreal and ingenious way of breaking the fourth wall - does this mean Ryo knows he's actually in a game? There's so much wrong with this from an existential point of view, but I'm prepared to let it lie...because Shenmue.

There's not really much else to What's Shenmue, but between it and the Project Berkely disc that came packaged with Virtua Fighter 3tb, Sega did a pretty good job of hyping and teasing the Dreamcast user base for Shenmue. Obviously, the game is far more revered today than it ever was during it's contemporary lifespan, but that's just the result of nostalgia I guess. Not that it's a bad thing - we would never have seen Shenmue III come to life if not for the passion of the wider Shenmue fanbase, with both newcomers to the game and old hands alike sharing a love for the series.

Edit: I've just been informed by the internet's own Adam Koralik that there's a fan translation to English of What's Shenmue that can either be burned to a disc or played with GDEmu. So if you want to know what's going on, might be an idea to track that down. Cheers for the info Adam!


Father Krishna said...

Never even knew it existed!

Deef said...

may be worth to mention you have two versions of what's shenmue the most common one being the blue edition) but actually the content is the same. The orange one was distributed by Famitsu magazine to game testers and employee of games magazines.