You had me at hello

As a Sega fan, the Dreamcast has always been my favourite console. It was my first venture into proper 3D gaming and coincided with the first time I was able to access the internet in my home. At that time, my hippy parents were somewhat suspicious of the internet and how it worked and we didn’t even own a family computer, so when I first went online, we all huddled around the television to stare in amazement as jpegs very slowly loaded onto the screen.  The little grey box wasn’t just a gaming console as my Megadrive had been, it was a portal into a brave new world.

One of the first websites I visited was of course eBay, as a collector it was a complete treasure trove of rare games I had never seen before and ones I had wanted for years.  Up until this point I had fleshed out my collection in flea markets and second hand video game stores. Whilst it could be fun never knowing what I could find, it did mean that building my collection relied on luck or chance a lot of the time. eBay was a gaming collector’s haven, at the few clicks of a mouse (or a Dreamcast pad), I could add to my collection whenever my pocket money allowed. This was a time before words like ‘rare’ and ‘vintage’ were being thrown around as casually as they are today, a time before artificially inflated prices and a time before the vultures had pretty much stripped the internet of affordable gaming gems to be found.

But one item always was out of my reach, it was to become my Holy Grail and the gaming rarity that I would lust after for over half of my life, the Hello Kitty Dreamcast.  The beautiful glossy box was emblazoned with pretty pink flowers and the Hello Kitty motif.  Inside were the Dreamcast keyboard, a control pad and VMU all in a stunning transparent pink. It was a Japanese exclusive and only 1500 were made.  I first saw it one night while I was just casually browsing eBay. I tended to browse online in the middle of the night because we only had one television and I had to fit my gaming around the TV schedule. The first time I saw it I knew I had to add it to my collection.  My wish-list was long already, Samba de Amigo with the maracas, Nights into Dreams with the 3D pad for the Saturn and various imports from around the world. While those games may have been expensive, at over £500, the Hello Kitty Dreamcast was a pipe dream for a teenager with no job. But the heavy price tag didn’t deter me, I knew I had to have one eventually.

As the years started to pass, my collection grew.  I was fortunate enough to work in a game shop for three years while I paid my way through university.  During this time I was able to cherry pick rare Sega finds and use what was left of my wages on eBay. I started to notice a trend amongst gamers and collectors of hoarding ‘rare’ items based entirely on their monetary value and not on their worth to the owner.  I remember one colleague wanting to buy my Samba de Amigo to ‘complete’ his Dreamcast collection. It wasn’t for sale, nor would my collection ever be complete as my goal was not to own every single game ever produced, but rather to own the games that were important to me and to enjoy them.

It was after this time that the prices of games seem to increase rapidly.  Where you could once pay around a pound for a used Master System game, the price started creeping up to around five pounds and in the present anything from ten pounds for a game boxed with instructions in mint condition. In 2006, I paid under fifty pounds for a boxed good condition Sega 32X from then UK chain store Gamestation. To find one under a hundred pounds now would be nothing short of a miracle. Despite having a job, my Dreamcast was still out of reach.  The market value of ‘retro’ games had increased so much, my minimum wage could only stretch so far and university was expensive, especially since I did not take a student loan.

With the ever increasing prices, came the drought of games that could once be easily found in the high street independent shops, and online.  Where eBay had once had a plethora of titles in various conditions, most of these had vanished and been replaced with over priced buy it now options, usually in less than great condition. The word ‘mint’ being completely devalued. Boxed with instructions does not mean mint, it means ‘complete’. Mint should only be reserved for items in the best condition but as with a lot of vocabulary it’s been sadly thrown around so much as to be meaningless. Of course there are still some wonderful sellers on eBay with reasonably priced excellent stock, but they aren’t as plentiful as they were in the past and choice and been vastly reduced.  Likewise the independent shops, often they can be overstocked with hundreds of badly looked after incomplete games with a high price tag and a ‘rare’ sticker.  I’ve been lucky enough to find some awesome indy shops online and on the high street, but they are like gold dust.  Only recently I walked away from an indy shop which had a huge amount of stock, most of it sadly in a degraded condition. The staff seemed shocked when I asked to inspect some of the titles I was interested in, especially when I rejected a Master System copy of Golden Axe where the manual was covered in coffee stains and the cover had peeled off on the back. It was placed back behind the counter with its £15 price tag. (It’s on eBay for a comparative price but sometimes I like to be surprised when I’m browsing on the high street).

My Hello Kitty dream was sadly slipping away. By the time I was financially in a position to spend £500 on a discontinued game console just because it was pretty, I couldn’t find one. UK indy shops would tell me it was just too expensive to import one from Japan, that it would be cheaper to just go there and look for one. So after years of trawling indy shops, game fares and even a trip to Japan itself, Hello Kitty had eluded me.  eBay was drying up and the consoles that were listed were starting to look battered and bruised, no box, no game, no VMU, mild sun damage, smoke damage and so on and so forth. But it struck me that if I was willing to spend £500 on a console surely I could pay whatever associated shipping and duty fees it would cost bringing it from Japan into the UK. So I began my search again. This time I specifically targeted Japanese sellers, and the first thing I noticed was that their stock appeared to be in a much better condition than UK stock, and it was more fairly priced. I found several Hello Kitty consoles all fairly priced and various conditions. Sadly none were in a condition I would be willing to part with cash for except one. The seller had only photographed it from one angle though so I couldn’t be sure how well preserved the box was. I decided to message them and ask for more photographs and tried to reassure them that I wasn’t a time waster, although I’m sure they must hear that a lot.

About a week passed and I’m not ashamed to say that despite having eBay alerts on my phone, I kept refreshing the page an unhealthy amount of times. Eventually a reply came and additional photographs had been added to the eBay listing. It was near mint. A couple of worn edges, I could live with that, so I immediately clicked buy it now and sent the seller a very enthusiastic message. The console itself was considerably cheaper than £500, but the shipping was around £100. This would include fast shipping to the UK and cover all the import taxes and duty.  So for less than the price I was willing to pay I finally purchased my dream console and it was coming from Japan.

When it reached the UK border, shipping was transferred to Parcel Force who did a less than wonderful job of delivering it, it took under a week to reach the UK and then over a week for Parcel Force to get it to me from my local depot which is around 5 miles away. I didn’t stay wound up about that for long though when I started unpack it.  Everything was carefully packaged. It arrived in a brown cardboard box filled with bubble wrap. Inside the console everything had been padded out with further bubble wrap, there was even a little piece inside each game case. Unwrapping it felt like a thousand birthdays all at once, I’d wanted this console ever since it was a few pixels on my TV screen half my life ago and now here it was sitting on my living room floor as I took photographs.  It was just as aesthetically and ergonomically pleasing in real life as I had hoped and certainly worth the wait. I wish I had not been deterred from ordering from Japan otherwise I may have had one sooner, having said that I’m glad I imported it. The process was not nearly as complex and bankrupting as I had been lead to believe.  I was able to use a free online tax calculator to check what tax and duty was owed before I made the purchase, although in the end that was unnecessary as my shipping costs were paid in their entirety upfront rather than when the console entered the UK.

So now I have the jewel in the crown of my collection, but its still not complete, I doubt it ever will be. Collecting for me isn’t about an end point, or about having the most games or the most rare or expensive, it’s about enjoying the ones I have.  The video game market place may have evolved over the years but the hidden gems are still there to be found it just takes a little more perseverance, just like before the internet.

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Do you know of any places where sailors hang out?

When I first heard that the two Shenmue games were to be updated and re released for the current consoles, I was excited, yet sceptical that they would ever see the light of day.  After all, this is Shenmue, and Shenmue fans have learned be patient despite their scepticism. For those not familiar with Shenmue, two excellent games were released for the Dreamcast in 1999 and 2001. Although both games were a critical success, they underperformed financially and the franchise sadly entered a period of development hell that it’s yet to crawl out of even seventeen years later.

The basic premise is an epic murder mystery revenge thriller. Japanese teenager Ryo Hazuki must discover who has murdered his father and then track him down to avenge his death. It doesn’t sound much by todays standards, but almost twenty years ago the sheer scope and ambition of the game was off the scale. It was a fully realised world to explore and engage in, people to talk to, clues to find, it was deep, emotional and atmospheric. This was prior to even basic console sandbox games like GTA 3, which is often hailed as a turning point in modern 3D gaming. Shenmue was different, it had living and breathing characters you cared about and the effect was so strong that in 2015 creator Yu Suzuki launched a crowd funding campaign to fund the third instalment, which smashed its target within hours. Three years later, Shenmue 3 has yet to materialise, so forgive me for thinking the HD updates would never materialise.

I was so blasé about the re release that the date slipped my mind until I started seeing numerous excited tweets. I immediately went to my nearest game shop and purchased what looked like the only copy, as the sales assistant eyed me with a mixture of what I presume was suspicion and pity. Having secured the game, I didn’t find the time to dedicate to playing until around a week later. Shenmue is not a pick up and play game, it’s an experience, and one that would need a good few uninterrupted hours so we could get well acquainted again.

The original Dreamcast versions of the two games were presented in jewel cases across 7 discs and packed in card sleeves adorned with beautiful artwork. In my hand the Xbox One version condenses everything into one disc, the beautiful artwork remains, though it’s crazy to think just how much space was needed back then for a game of this size. I was feeling very nostalgic as the Xbox fired up the loading screens, the graphics were clean, crisp and colourful. The music was just as atmospheric as it always was and I was feeling sad already because I knew that in a few moments, poor Ryo Hazuki was about to see his father slaughtered in front of him. So far so good, but the nostalgia hit a bump when I actually started to press the buttons on the control pad and I was reminded of just how bad video game controls were in this era. 3D was still a reasonably new medium and many games controlled like a tank, requiring heavy handed button bashing to make basic moves. If you are used to the fluidity of the current generation of games, this will more than likely seem clunky and imprecise. However, if you are willing to persevere, Shenmue will more than compensate you for your patience.

As the story unfolded, I was reminded of just how detailed this game is. Ryo’s house, the Hazuki residence is a home, you can explore the rooms right down to looking inside closets and drawers to discover items. As you venture into the wider world, the detail continues from neighbours houses, convenience stores, parks, bars, an arcade, a travel agency, there is even a fortune teller. The local town isn’t just a couple of interactive facades and a load of jagged dead space, you can enter each shop, purchase things, chat with the staff and the customers, all to further your mission of locating the killer of Ryo’s father. Just playing the game and walking around is an experience in itself, the game never feels linear or like it’s rushing you to completion.  The graphics are rendered beautifully. Of course they may seem somewhat dated compared to some of today’s hyper real graphics but they capture the feeling of the game and illustrate it well. Shenmue implemented a night and day system, which again was rare at the time. This creates a feeling of time passing but also serves to immerse us in atmospheric sunsets and brisk winter mornings.

Prior to playing this game again, I was worried that my rose tinted glasses meant it could never live up to my idealistic memories, and I feel safe to say I’ve proved myself wrong. There are of course a few stumbling blocks. Loading times were slower back then so sections of the game were chopped up in such a way that you would have to wait for them load. By removing these loading times, some sections of the gameplay don’t flow as well as they could if the game was made using contemporary methods. The voice acting can be a little stiff in places. Fortunately I think the main characters escape this and it’s only really minor npc’s such as shopkeepers.

The biggest problem you’ll run into with Shenmue is pacing. If you’re impatient you may find yourself becoming frustrated with the infamous forklift truck section. This is a section of the game where Ryo must find himself a job working at the docks so he can infiltrate a gang for information on the whereabouts of the killer. This does not take place in the space of a cutscene, rather it happens over a few days, which may be a few hours real time. You actually have to apply for the job and then work driving a forklift truck.  I found the forklift truck race at the start of every day much more tedious than the actual job itself, and I was further hindered by a glitch in which a specific cutscene to further the plot did not trigger so I was stuck at the warehouse a couple of days more than I should’ve been. It was actually starting to feel like real work without the benefit of wages. It has been argued over the years by fans that maybe Yu Suzuki paid a little too much attention to detail with this section but equally the mundanity and ultimately authenticity of this part of the game is what endears itself to many people.

I found myself intrigued by catching a bus. This is something I have done many times myself in real life as a non driver, but somehow standing at a bus stop in Yokosuka looking at a timetable seems much more exciting as Ryo Hazuki than it does in the freezing cold of northern England. The little details are what draw you in. That’s not to say the game is without high octane events. It’s littered with the now common place QTE’s and spectacular cut scenes, as well as epic fights and even a high speed motorbike ride through the city at night. Possibly the most famous fight being the seventy man battle in which you must take on and defeat seventy bad guys including three bosses of increasing difficulty, all without the safety net of saving your progress. When I finally got through that (I think I took three attempts), I really felt proud of myself, as though I had actually achieved something.

As the first instalment drew to a close and Ryo Hazuki finally boarded the boat to leave Japan for Hong Kong, I was overwhelmed by just how powerful this scene was. It’s cinematic and thoughtful as many of the cutscenes are. They don’t just serve to further the plot, they are framed and paced in a way that evoke emotion. Shenmue deserves to be remembered as more than just a game that went down with the Dreamcast. It was one of Sega’s last battle cries at a time when it was arguably producing its most creative and innovative work, from an era that arrived just a little too early or maybe a little too late. Shenmue brought together new features in 3D game play and fused with thoughtful cinematic gameplay it forged the building blocks of contemporary video gaming. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.