Year: 1999
Platform: Dreamcast
Publisher: Sega
Developer: AM2 of CRI
Genre: Adventure
Rating: ****

Wow, where do I begin? "Shenmue" is by far the most emotionally engaging gaming experience I've ever had. Taking place in rural Japan during the winter of 1986, you play as a young man named Ryo Hazuki whose father has been murdered under mysterious circumstances. It's Ryo's duty to avenge his father and restore his family honor. The story flow is very linear, but the gameplay is totally freeform. You can talk to and interact with nearly 300 characters who live and work in the surrounding neighborhood, and it's your job to follow the clues and advice that they give you. There are also real-time martial arts combat sequences, Quick Timer Events (QTEs), forklift and motorcycle racing, and half a dozen mini-games including pool, darts, "Hang On", and "Space Harrier."

The environment in "Shenmue" is amazing and the detail is astonishing - a fully immersive world of fascinating sights and sounds. The story is epic and dramatic, accompanied by an emotionally stirring soundtrack that's reminiscent of "Nausicaä." Music maestro Yuzo Koshiro ("Streets Of Rage") was involved with parts of the soundtrack, so you know it's got to be good. Combat sequences are appropriately difficult, but more often boil down to frantic button mashing instead of strategy and technique. The game design is excellent, although hardcore gamers will probably not enjoy its slow pacing and its exploratory nature. For me, the game design is perfect, as it's simple enough for anyone to play and the action sequences can be mastered without too much frustration. The game ends on a satisfying and exciting note, but leaves you extremely anxious to continue the story in "Shenmue II."

Of course, with a game as huge and complicated as "Shenmue", it's easy to nitpick. After playing games like "Dead Or Alive 2" and "Ecco The Dolphin", the graphics in "Shenmue" aren't as impressive as you would expect. In particular, trees don't look very good and the human characters in the game often lack detail and are mostly unattractive. However, you get used to the way people look and act pretty quickly, after you've interacted with enough of them. As you would expect from an imported game, the English dubbing has problems. The quality ranges from poor to very good, and fortunately Corey Marshall's interpretation of Ryo is the best of the bunch. Other characterizations are just downright awful, although in the case of Goro, you can easily imagine his Japanese counterpart being just as irritating. Also, almost all of the young girls that you encounter in Dobuita use the same voice and same lines, which is rather disappointing. I also ran into places where conversations weren't registered correctly and I ended up having to repeat them. Finally, there's the ever present beast of CD-ROM load times, which can happen often. However, these are all very minor complaints that don't impact the playability or enjoyment of this awesome game.