Game Analysis: Shenmue

The Game Analysis blog series documents my experience of playing games with an analytical eye and dissecting their design elements, aesthetics and mechanics.

The game in 30 seconds:

A life simulator game which follows Ryo Hazuki’s long journey to avenge his father, from Yokusuka through Hong Kong to Kowloon. In his search of Lan Di – a Chinese Kung Fu master whose goal is to recover a sacred medallion the dragon mirror held by the Hazuki family – Ryo has matured and discovered the highs and lows of existence.

Most of the time is spent in Quest Mode – talking to people and exploring places, travelling on buses, playing with cats, vending machines, arcades and capsule toy dispensers.

Shenmue helped to establish the standard conventions for open-world games and assisted in the foundation that is responsible for how modern interactive titles function.


What’s great about it:


  1. Intricate, free roaming level design full of details: Yu Suzuki aimed to deliver “the most compelling form of interactivity ever experienced outside the real world” – a credible living place with shops, restaurants, markets and arcades – all explorable and hiding little treats for the player. There are lots of characters to meet and secrets to uncover but the structure is loose – you are free to roam.
  2. The huge variety of gameplay mechanics: Adventure, RPG, life simulator, fighting, racing (forklift truck and motorbike) and a stack of mini arcade games.
  3. Impressive graphics for 1999: Benefiting from some primitive motion-capture work and high poly count for characters, NPCs are treated with the same attention to detail as primary, plot-essential characters, which adds to the believability of the game. Great 3D polygonal visuals often came at a steep price of the game’s performance (frame rate), which surprisingly doesn’t affect Shenmue – The game runs smoothly with relatively quick load times from start to finish.
  4. Interaction with almost everything in the environment: One of the first game to have the option to switch from third person view to first person view at will and allows the player to interact with almost everything.
  5. Strong memorable characters: the Harbour’s mysterious homeless martial artist Shozo Mizuki, Ren(a former gang leader who became a trusty friend), Xui Ying Hong(a young lady well versed in martial arts, history, literature and Taoism), the comedic greaser Goro Mihashi, Kung Fu master and international businessman Gui Zhang Chen, Tom Johnson(a permanently bopping hot dog salesman and a good friend of Ryo who eventually leaves for US) – some of whom even come accompanied by their own theme tune. The main character – Ryo – is charmingly Japanese – always respectful to his elders and grateful for the allowance he receives each day, takes off his shoes carefully when he gets home, handles toy capsules and empty drink cans carefully – very different from most 21st-century game protagonists.
  6. Fun combat system: The player could customise Ryo’s fighting style to a limited degree by learning new combat moves and enhance certain moves using basic RPG elements. The 70 man battle near the end was very enjoyable.
  7. Realistic Magic Weather system: The entire game keeps track of date and time, including day/night cycles and weather effects (the player can unlock true weather from the exact dates of the game upon your first completion). As the days pass, the season cycle  is reflected on screen. From 15th December, Christmas decorations are put up, stores play Jingle Bells and a cocktail-loving Santa begins to roam the streets of Dobuita.
  8. Incorporating amusing mini games in a live arcade : The player can play classic games inside the You Arcade – Space Harrier, Hang-On, mention darts and a QTE trainer.
  9. Fortune teller mechanic: The player can visit the Lapis Fortune teller if they get stuck – this will give the player a clue as to where they should be going to next, as well as a lucky number for the day which corresponds to a slot machine in the Slot House that should give winning games more often.
  10. Wonderful variety of music: A lot of game locations have their own theme tune, the player can also accumulate cassette tapes and listen to many sweet songs such as “Magical Sound Shower”.


What could be improved:


  1. Unavoidable menial tasks: Once Ryo gets a job at the Harbour as a forklift driver, mundane work will take up a large portion of his day-to-day life. The player has to complete mundane and repetitive tasks of moving boxes from warehouse to warehouse, for a minimum of 5 days in a row to a maximum of infinity(If you don’t talk to people or check out certain places at the right time, you will keep on repeating the same work day infinitely until you do to advance in the story).
  2. Fuzzy collision detection and navigational controls: can be hard to steer the character into control sometimes. The collision detection is particularly bad during the forklift races, making it very difficult for the player to get the first place in the race.
  3. Occasionally unnatural dialogue: resulted in many moments of accidental hilarity. For example: when the search for Lan Di requires Ryo to track down a group of sailors, he keeps asks random people everywhere he goes, “do you know where I can find some sailors? Ryo’s conversation-closing gambit of “I see” is endless and often doesn’t make any sense for the preceding chat.
  4. Extremely slow pacing: The game progression is very slow especially in the beginning, however, slowing things down does allows for a greater appreciation of everything that Yu Suzuki and Sega’s AM2 department achieved.
  5. Lack of control with the forced nighttime schedule: if the player doesn’t take Ryo to home before 11.30.p.m, the game takes Ryo straight to bed.
  6. Too much random interactions which can sometimes feel meaningless: The player often have to roam around killing time until the end of the day or the next scheduled event. Interactions with some NPCs can be brief and feel meaningless.
  7. Not enough fighting training to prepare the player for the final battles: your fights are so few and far between you never quite get good at them unless you’ve played the game multiple times before.  In order to get better at fighting, The player must go out of the way to train Ryo nightly in his room, which will be essential to the crucial fights near the end of the game.
  8. Realistic but frustrating life simulator mechanics: The player cannot simply walk into a shop or arcade whenever they want, it has to be open. For example: you have to visit Nagai industries at exactly the right time but it doesn’t tell you when it will open or when it will be closed, it’s necessary to wait for a very long period and try your luck at different times. When someone tells you to meet them at a specific time, you have to remember to get there at that time.
  9. QTEs(Quick Time Events): QTEs were introduced in this title and they are fronted by unskippable cut-scenes.
  10. A sense of very little achievement after reaching the ending: “After all that, I still didn’t get Lan Di.” Upon reaching the ending, the player is told that the main quest hasn’t even started yet – what the player has been through after all these hard work is just the prologue.


Fun facts & trivia:

  • Shenmue’s combat system has its origins as an offshoot of Sega’s Virtua Fighter series. Ryo was originally meant to be VF’s star combatant, Akira – there are noticeable physical similarities between the models.
  • Ryo’s watch is a Timex and the company  produced a limited edition model based on the in-game timepiece.
  • A smartphones-only title – Shenmue City – lasted only a year following a December 2010 launch and never migrated from Japan.