Shenmue [Dreamcast] – Review

A must-have title for the Dreamcast.
A must-have title for the Dreamcast.

Shenmue definitely has a reputation that precedes it. At the time and for many years afterwards, it was reportedly the most expensive video game ever produced. With respectable sales that weren’t near the expected numbers, it assisted in ending Sega’s home console development. Nonetheless, the game received high praise critically and is routinely cited as an influential video game. Shenmue has always been on a personal bucket list of mine and I’m finally able to check it off.

Before being consumed by Virtua Fighter, Yu Suzuki was a titan at Sega. He was the major figure behind a plethora of the company’s marquee arcade titles in late 1980s. Space Harrier, Hang-On, OutRun, After Burner – this guy had a knack for designing video games. I’m not intending to short shrift Virtua Fighter either. It’s one of the most respected fighting game series and has a dedicated fan base. Shenmue is Yu Suzuki’s magnum opus however, and it oozes his passion. In the manual, in the credits, in the way he describes the game – the fictional world and gameplay elements that comprise the game were undoubtedly personal muses for the man.

Shenmue takes place in Yokosuka, Japan during the winter of 1986. The game is a tale of revenge, following Ryo Hazuki as he tracks down the mysterious man who murdered his father. Ryo’s father, Iwao, was a master martial artist whose dojo was in a remote suburb of Yokosuka. Iwao’s murderer, Lan Di, is a mysterious Chinese martial artist who had an unknown grudge against Ryo’s father. Not only that, but Lan Di’s ties to a Chinese criminal syndicate further complicate the affair as Ryo investigates the mysterious Chinese man.

Watching Shenmue was an engrossing experience thansk to the dynamic camera angles.
Watching Shenmue was an engrossing experience thanks to the dynamic camera angles.

Exploration and puzzle solving are the primary focuses of Shenmue’s gameplay, although there is a minor emphasis placed on brawling. Knowing practically nothing of Lan Di, Ryo takes to the neighborhoods and shops of Yokosuka to find and follow up on any leads he can. Interacting with dozens of townsfolk, it was easy for me to get immersed in the day to day heartbeat of the city. Ryo’s leads introduced him to friends and foes from practically all of the storefronts, and since the game had a strong adherence to portraying a realistic setting, I’d have to make sure to check in with individuals at the corresponding hour of the day, or night.

I was dead set on making a physical map of the shopping district and outlying neighborhoods, but by the time I sketched it out, I was familiar enough with the areas to abandon the prospect. The neighborhoods contained little to experience but the shopping district was densely packed with unique individuals and storefronts. To an outsider, such as myself, it was a joy to experience what this slice of Japan might’ve been like in the late 1980s – minus Ryo’s Sega Saturn.

The arcade was a fun diversion and I'd be remiss to not mention the gashapon machines.
The arcade was a fun diversion and I’d be remiss to not mention the gashapon machines.

The puzzle solving aspect of the gameplay revolved mostly around locating the proper individual to speak with. Then, utilizing the information they provided with Ryo. Be it an area to check or another individual to speak with. I didn’t find monotony in constantly seeking someone out, only to be pointed elsewhere. It didn’t seem like it was filler content. For the most part, every lead advanced the plot, if only slightly.

One related point is what I interpret as shoddy localization. The game is fully voice-acted and everyone will respond to Ryo if he prompts them. However, a lot of the dialog doesn’t sound natural. It’s as if the script was translated directly from the Japanese original with no localization. Translating the game is one part of the localization process, but another would be making it so the characters speak realistically. Some lines of dialogue didn’t make functional sense to me. Then again, the game contained a friendly Jamaican hot dog vendor named Tom, and he doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

Tom, the Jamaican hot dog vendor.
Tom, the Jamaican hot dog vendor.

The third pillar of the gameplay is the action sequences. I’d break these down into two categories: brawling and quick-timer events (QTEs). Both were infrequent, but an important aspect nonetheless. Brawling was reminiscent of the fighting system from Virtua Fighter – deep and very precise. Ryo had a wealth of moves at his disposal, but I was able to meander on by button mashing. This was helped by the fact that there were about twelve fights across the entire game. QTEs are now commonplace in video games and we have Shenmue to thank for that! They were pioneered in the game and allowed the player to experience a handful of exciting action sequences and actually feel some involvement. They were also infrequent.

After a dozen or so hours, I had brought Ryo to the end of his quest in Yokosuka. Shenmue ended with a slew of events, beginning with Ryo getting a job at the Yokosuka docks. This entailed me operating a forklift for about a week of in-game time which translated to a few hours. It was a decidedly dull climax to the game, but it was far from over. At the docks Ryo got a better understanding of the criminal syndicate Lan Di was aligned with.

Eventually, Ryo was too late to confront Lan Di who was already heading back to China. Ryo’s story was just beginning, but I wasn’t left unfulfilled. Shenmue capped off with an exciting motorcycle ride through the nighttime Yokosuka highway system. The goal was to reach the docks which lead to an epic brawl against 70+ gang members. Ryo intent on pursuing Lan Di to China and many of the interactions with Ryo’s friends and family were heartfelt.

Forklift racing at the dock was a fun beginning to each workday.
Forklift racing at the dock was a fun beginning to each workday.

With Shenmue off my bucket list, I’m anxious to begin Shenmue II on the Xbox. The series was originally proposed as a trilogy so my journey with Ryo will end with an unfulfilled cliffhanger upon completion of the second game. Heck, I’ll probably convert into one of those crazies trying to get a grassroots effort started to develop Shenmue III. It wouldn’t be a surprise. The game came out nearly a decade-and-a-half ago and it still feels modern. Its combination of storytelling, setting, and gameplay meld together to form one of the most realized and worthwhile video games out there.

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The Box Art of Final Fantasy IV

As I browsed GameFAQs, searching for these images, a revelation occurred to me. Final Fantasy IV is probably the most re-released game in the long-running series. That’s a fitting fate for it too. It was perhaps the major title to usher in the “golden age” of Japanese role-playing games. At the very least, it was the first game in the series that hinted at the forward momentum Square would have over the next decade-and-a-half with the genre. So, why don’t you join me as I explore the covers Square used to sell the game over the years.

A cutesy move away from the previous games' covers.
A cutesy move away from the previous games’ covers.

The first thing I noticed when looking at the original box art Square used for FFIV is the lack of emphasis placed on Yoshitaka Amano’s artwork. The previous three games featured his renderings of warriors and princesses prominently. This go around though, you’d think he was relegated to the logo only. This wasn’t the case though; Square simply chose to highlight a different aspect of the character designs – the super deformed! It’s cutesy for sure and plasters some common job classes upfront, and I guess I like that they took a different route with it. Oh, and there’s Kain Highwind in Amano’s logo.

Objects as letters! Not as bad as numbers as letters.
Objects as letters! Not as bad as numbers as letters.

When they released it in America for the SNES a year later though, the American branch didn’t even try. It’s simple and it always catches my eye when I scour local game shops for good deals. Maybe it’s not so bad; it does catch my eye after all. They really had to pitch it to us though, didn’t they? They’ve got bullet points on the front of the box! It was released over here as Final Fantasy II since the second and third titles weren’t. This prevented much confusion. And releasing a dumbed-down version prevented much difficulty.

Back to Yoshitaka Amano.
Back to Yoshitaka Amano.

The game was first rereleased for the PlayStation in 1997. The Japanese box art sees a return to the styling’s of Amano. Cecil Harvey and Golbez are prominently featured, although honestly, it’s hard for me to distinguish the rest of the imagery, and even if that really is Golbez and not Kain. Regardless, Kain takes his place in the logo. Cecil definitely fronted a hair metal band before being cast for FFIV. The PlayStation version was released in America too, circa 2001. It was bundled with Chrono Trigger and released as Final Fantasy Chronicles. There’s not much else to mention about the box art.

Bandai? You mean the company that collaborated on the Apple Bandai Pippin?
Bandai? You mean the company that collaborated on the Apple Bandai Pippin?

Little known to many Western gamers, Bandai had a fortuitous deal with Square to rerelease Final Fantasy titles for their WonderSwan and WonderSwan Color. FFIV was released for the WSC in 2002. A decadent airship is featured in the background that was no doubt crafted by the illustrious Cid Pollendina.

Simple.
Simple.

FFIV would next see release on a Nintendo platform again – the Game Boy Advance. It was released as Final Fantasy IV Advance in Japan and America in December 2005, and six months later in Europe. The Japanese box art is simple. Gray silhouettes of Cecil and Kain flank the logo. Meanwhile the American and European release is much more colorful. These versions feature Cecil and Kain, as well as Rosa Farrell for the first time. The box art used for these regions hints at the love triangle between the cast. This is definitely Amano refining the “wispy lines” he’s known for.

Less simple, but I prefer it!
Less simple, but I prefer it!

A few years later, the game saw a full-scale remake into 3D. Originally released for the Nintendo DS in Japan in December 2007, it was released in the back-half of 2008 in America and Europe. It has since been released for mobile devices running iOS and Android systems as well, but those platforms don’t really have boxed games… Japan received another Amano box art, featuring a larger portion of the cast, including the Lunar Whale. Here in America, we received an ominous black box, which formed a holographic Golbez. Europeans received the same essentially. The only difference was the color palette.

The DS covers.
The DS covers.

Finally, FFIV was bundled together with Final Fantasy IV: The After Years and an interlude bridging the two titles as Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection. This was released for the PlayStation Portable in 2011 and was the version I played. I think Japan and Europe got the better box art with this release. A large portion of the cast is done in emotive poses, painted in a watercolor style very reminiscent of Amano’s work on the original three games in the series. America on the other hand received gray silhouettes of Cecil and Kain against a white background. This version was very reminiscent of the Japanese release of Final Fantasy IV Advance.

The PSP covers.
The PSP covers.

With a brand as strong as Final Fantasy, the box art doesn’t have to sell the game. This might explain why Square has felt the liberty to rerelease Final Fantasy IV with a multitude of different covers. With much variety for this one game, it’s hard to pick a single favorite. I really like the Japanese and European release of Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection. It’s probably the easy favorite. All of Amano’s artwork is awe-inspiring personally. Heck, the Super Famicom release is cool too, in a differentiated cutesy way. I’ll go with my easy favorite though – the Japanese and European releases of The Complete Collection.

Final Fantasy IV [PSP] – Review

Bundling FFIV, The After Years, and a new interlude, this version has the most content of any FFIV release.
Bundling FFIV, The After Years, and a new interlude, this version has the most content of any FFIV release.

Having played through Final Fantasy III a few years back, and now having completed Final Fantasy IV, I can see a noticeable divergence in the series. This was no doubt brought about because of a new console generation. FFIII was originally released in 1990 for the NES (or Famicom, rather as it wasn’t released in the west until the 2006 DS remake) while FFIV was released in 1991 for the Super Famicom and SNES. Despite only being released a year apart, comparatively, the narrative and gameplay are worlds more complex in FFIV.

Beginning in the kingdom of Baron, Final Fantasy IV centers on Cecil Harvey. A devout and highly ranked member of his king’s military, Cecil follows the orders of his king, to the point of attacking a neighboring city to obtain their crystal – an important and mystical object. Upon questioning the king’s actions, Cecil is stripped of his rank and assigned the task of delivering a package to another neighboring village. The package winds up being a ruse, containing monsters which level the village. After these events, Cecil begins his quest to discover the actions of his king. Ultimately though, it’s a quest to discover Cecil’s identity and rid himself of the darkness in his heart.

Dungeon crawling is a major aspect, per usual.
Dungeon crawling is a major aspect, per usual.

Although there is a clear and singular protagonist in Cecil, Final Fantasy IV features nearly a dozen named protagonists who shift in and out of Cecil’s party as major events happen. Also hailing from the kingdom of Baron are Kain Highwind and Rosa Farrell. Kain is fellow soldier, rival, and friend. Rosa is a friend and love interest to both. Cecil and Rosa are clearly meant to be together and Kain deals with his jealousy throughout the course of the game, at points, succumbing to the darkness in his heart. Cid Pollendina is another Baron native and is the creator of airships and services the king’s vast fleets. He’s a rambunctious man who lends more than a hand.

There’s also Rydia, a young summoner and sole survivor of the village Cecil inadvertently leveled. She harbors hatred for Cecil early on, but eventually realizes he wasn’t to blame. Tellah, a powerful sage, joins Cecil and his party as he searches for the prince of Damcyan. Edward, the bard prince, was engaged with Tellah’s daughter before she perished. Tellah had felt Edward was to blame until he learned of the couple’s love for each other. A strong monk, Yang, joins the fight after the antagonist Golbez brings the fight to his hometown. The twin mages, Palom and Porom, bring lighthearted humor to the narrative. While only a few years old, they’re very knowledgeable about their craft. Two late-game additions are Edge and Fusoya. Edge is a cocky prince looking for revenge against Golbez. Fusoya is a lunarian – a resident of the moon.

The party was usually stacked with five protagonists.
The party was usually stacked with five protagonists.

The dialogue in the game is very limited compared to modern video games. That being said, the characters’ personalities do shine through and the sheer number of them kept the game fresh. As this was my first time to play Final Fantasy IV, I cherished coming upon dialogue and events that I’ve heard described as classic. Experiencing and understanding the context of the “you spoony bard” line was a favorite of mine. The major events were often too, helping to captivate me. Especially the final hours of the game which saw Cecil and the party fly to the moon! This was something else after thirty hours of traveling on Earth, never expecting anything different.

Speaking of memorable and important events, Final Fantasy IV is the game that introduced the active time battle system, or ATB system as the game refers to it. Allies and enemies continue to take turns but time continued to flow while I chose a character’s action. This could be switched to pause time while navigating menus, but I chose to experience the battle system with time continuously flowing. In the version that I played (Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection for the PSP) each character had a meter representing their turn. The meter filled at a rate dependent upon the speed of the character in question. For instance, someone dainty like Rydia should be able to a get three actions in for two of Cecil’s.

Lacking the job system introduced in Final Fantasy III, all the characters in Final Fantasy IV are specialized. I wasn’t troubled by not having that customization over the protagonists. Due to the brisk narrative, characters were shifting in and out of the party frequently. Therefore, I never got bored of the composition of the party. Sections were never too tough either. The game was balanced in such a way that I was never able to blame any failings on me losing a powerful character or a healer. Yet, I did have to do plenty of endgame level grinding to conquer the final boss – an hour or two at least.

Cid is a rambunctious old man.
Cid is a rambunctious old man.

I was honestly blown away by how much I was captivated by Final Fantasy IV. The dialogue was relatively bare-bones, and reading up on the development proved some of my theories on content being cut, but I still was captivated. The narrative moved briskly and thanks to the always changing party composition, it was hard for me to get bored of the random battles. I played the PSP version and I can look forward to playing The After Years at some point as the games are bundled together. My only gripe with this version is the inability to play with the original graphics. I would’ve appreciated the ability to switch between the redone visuals and the original sprites as I was able to do with the soundtrack in this version. For being twenty-plus years old, I still found the game to be captivating. Much more so than the previous game in the series. What a difference a year can make!