Vinyl and Video Games: Shenmue - A Beautiful Revolution

On May 6, 2016

by Joe Fuller

2885750-shenmue

Vinyl and Video Games showcases great games across the medium’s entire lifespan, as well as the music that is often tragically overlooked. Expect to see the good and bad of each game, and the vinyl soundtrack that accompanies it.

Every once in a while, a piece of work comes to light that propels its respective medium into new territory. In 1999, Shenmue was the work that sparked a storm that would inspire the design choices of future open world and story driven games, especially the games that emulate real life – think everything from The Sims to Grand Theft Auto.

Summarizing what Shenmue actually is is a daunting task. It’s part murder mystery/revenge tale, part Virtua Fighter sequel, part intro to Japanese culture course, part daily life simulator, part comedy (I’ll get to this later), part forklift racing game, part meta game, part obsessive completionist’s nightmare. Limitations of the hardware at the time meant that the developers originally planned multiple sequels that would unfold the whole story. A second did come to light on the Xbox, and a third is in the works now. Keep in mind the first game is 17 years old now. Not only were the mechanics revolutionary, the graphics and audio mastering were as well. The Dreamcast may have been a failed platform, but the A/V experience it produced was way ahead of the curve.

Though the graphics are stunning, there’s a lot more going on here than just some pretty faces and scenery. You play as Ryo Hazuki, a teenager who witnesses his father’s murder in their family dojo, at the hands of a mystery man who then steals what appears to be an artifact. The rest of the game is spent looking for clues as to who this man is, and stopping him. The premise is as simple as a bowl of cereal, but it’s the individual cornflakes that make this breakfast stand out. The game has a meaningful 24 hour night and day cycle that rewards and punishes accordingly. Some encounters only happen during certain times, shops and bars open and close during defined hours, and what time you go to bed impacts when you wake up the next day. The combat system uses the Virtua Fighter engine, and the fights in Shenmue are just like Virtua Fighter, but with multiple enemies attacking you at once. The rest of the bits involve being a normal, curious teenager. You can search your house to find fun little doo-dads and Easter eggs. There are tons of references to everything else Sega has done up to this point, from a few of their old titles being featured in the arcades, to unlocking songs from previous games, to capsule machine collectibles.

My mind became a blur of karate and early gambling addiction when the startup company Data Discs announced that they were pressing the Shenmue soundtrack on vinyl last year. I obsessed over this release almost as passionately as I did collecting those *ahem in-game toys. When it finally arrived, I was blown away. I managed to snag one of the blue on blue special editions, and trust me the product in your hand far surpasses any picture you’ll find on the internet.

The 13 songs in the collection all mesh into piano-driven wintery sadness with just a dash of hope and an aftertaste of mystery. The thing I found most interesting here is that the full OST is 39 tracks, clocking in at over 2 hours, yet these 13 songs perfectly capture the tone of the game and lead the listener towards the path I believe the game will head towards in future installments. That path is not necessarily one of revenge, but understanding and acceptance. Not one track on this soundtrack has an angry tone, and other than “Encounter with Destiny” I hear no sense of urgency either, which is exactly how I played the game. There’s so much beauty in the world that a thing like revenge seems narrow minded and shallow. The best parts of the game were experiencing the world around you, and this soundtrack is a perfect companion in that exploration.

Shenmue was a game changer when it came out, and I like to think that modern video games draw a lot of inspiration from the things Sega tried to do with this title. Even better than the game is its soundtrack, and the vinyl pressing is the perfect sampling of both the game itself and the music that enhances the work as a whole. I highly recommend picking this one up, even if you’ve never played the game. Grab a cup of your favorite warm beverage on a cold winter night, and spin this beauty. Actually, just spin it whenever. You will not regret it.

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