Hello and welcome to the second of our Clash of Fans write-ups. This week we'll be getting together in pairs (virtually) and forcing each other to play a beloved game. Then we'll chat about what we made of it all. Next up is Old School RuneScape and Shenmue!
Old School RuneScape
Matt: I have to admit, a good portion of my time allocated to this feature was spent signing up to RuneScape. It was frequently baffling - I somehow had an account already associated with Jagex which needed resetting several times, my usual handle (and my back up, and the back up to that) were already taken, and upon trying to buy membership, it wouldn't let me type in any credit card details.
It was similar to the only other time I tried to play an MMO - an evening wasted trying to get my head around Square Enix's account system to play Final Fantasy 14 in its infancy, forcing me to give up on what I hear is one of the best games in recent years - and a reminder of why I tend to stick to console games. There's only so many captcha screens I can take!
Lottie: Back when I made my first RuneScape account - like a good fourteenish years ago - I'm pretty sure that it only required an unused username and a password. In fact, I don't think I even attached my email address to that account until I signed up for membership a year later. I'm also honestly surprised you had such a time paying for your membership - you'd think Jagex would make taking your money an easy process.
Matt: You'd think so, right? However, once I was playing... I was pleasantly surprised! First, I absolutely love the way Old School RuneScape looks. I didn't get into PC games until Half-Life, but it's reminiscent of early PlayStation games, an era I'm more familiar with and tirelessly fond of - where everything was made of chunky, brightly coloured polygons, the world gradually clipping into view as you explore, and charming MIDI music blazing as you go.
It's also impressively tutorialized, uncovering its menu options and associated systems one-by-one as you explore the opening island. I've already forgotten how to use an anvil, or how to bake some bread, but I misjudged RuneScape as something which drops you in the deep end without explaining how anything works.
I also enjoyed how the first thing you fight is a giant rat in a mine. This is an MMO all right!
Lottie: There's a part of my brain that's dedicated to pure RuneScape knowledge. I can write you a guide right now about how to smith a rune scimitar or how to brew a prayer potion.
I've always loved how so many of the skills in RuneScape are interconnected; you grow herbs using the farming skill, for example, and, thanks to herblore, use them to create potions, which can provide boosts to your hunting skill or help out in combat. There's a real advantage to training every skill, which becomes more apparent the deeper you delve into the game.
Now that you've escaped Tutorial Island, how are your first real steps in Gielinor going?
Matt: Okay, so now I'm actually playing and picking up quests, I'm starting to run up against the antiquity of it all. I've discovered it's quite fiddly to get around, and my character's stamina depletes very quickly, making exploration feel far more sluggish than I was expecting. Meanwhile, left clicking on things is unpredictable - will you converse? Will you pickpocket? Will you puncture that cow with your bronze sword instead of milking it? (I quickly discovered right clicking on things first is the way to go.)
Also, the combat is frightfully simple - you just click on a goblin (of which there are an alarming number of?) and you'll automatically exchange blows until it dies, then repeat, occasionally pausing to eat something for health.
I ended up scrolling Twitter as I was chaining through a field of goblins, helping me get through the combat questline a little easier. At first this didn't feel in the spirit of the game, but then I realised - that's how MMOs are secretly supposed to work, right? It's a thing you chip away at while doing / watching / listening to other things?
Lottie: I'll admit that when I'm training a skill like woodcutting or mining, I usually do it while reading. Doing so has never felt like I'm betraying the game in some way, I'm still playing after all, I just don't want to watch my adventurer chop trees for an hour. Grinding is an inevitable part of any MMO and, as long as you're not using a bot, I don't care how people get through it.
For me, the simplicity of the combat has always been part of the game's charm. You can make it more complicated by using magic as your primary weapon or by training the slayer skill, which involves hunting down monsters that can only be killed using specific items, but I like how the melee combat is simplified, so that you can focus on buffing your abilities with potion or food.
(There's also a really good questline that explores what's happening with the goblins in the Lumbridge area.)
Matt: I'd love to find that, because there really are a lot of goblins. I was actually overjoyed when I saw a giant spider scuttling around, just for something else to fight.
I think where the game clicks for me is the non-combat stuff - I enjoyed the simplicity of milling wheat to help someone bake a cake, and digging up clues for a treasure hunt. It reminds me what I enjoy most about modern games-as-a-service stuff like Fortnite or Destiny - less the combat, but more completing challenges as an excuse to see the vast, beautiful world developers have created.
And, again, I love the look of Old School RuneScape - I might look up some YouTube videos later to see what other areas look like.
I'm not sure whether I'll come back to it - there are one too many rough edges with combat and controls for me, I think - but I enjoyed it more than I was expecting, enough so that it's convinced me to finally start playing an MMO one day. Assuming they're not all completely overrun by goblins.
Lottie: The graphics for Old School RuneScape have a special place in my heart as it manages to be both endearing and terrifying, sometimes on purpose, all at the same time! There are certainly some beautiful locations in the game, especially when you're able to visit places like Prifddinas. I also promise that there are a lot of goblin free areas in Gielinor - you might want to avoid north of Falador though.
I do understand why you have mixed feelings about returning; MMOs require a higher time investment compared to other games, Old School RuneScape especially due to its age and, as you mentioned, certain little quirks. I'm glad, however, that you enjoy the non-combat skills, as they have always been my favourite aspect of the game. It's really cool how, even if you completely ignore the combat system, the game still allows you to have a great time.
Now that you've tried Old School RuneScape, I think that it's only fair you give RuneScape 3 a go too, just for comparison's sake.
Matt: That's not a bad idea. Though unless RuneScape 3 has the same incredibly cute 'quack' sound effect, I'm not sure it'll ever live up to the original.
Lottie: Yes, the quack is the same!
Lottie: Shenmue makes it very clear from the opening cutscene that it wants to tell a martial arts vengeance story; a mysterious stranger arrives to demand an equally mysterious artifact, a father is murdered in front of his son and revenge is sworn.
This was great for me, because I love a good revenge story, especially if it involves punching. When I began playing Shenmue, however, I realised that it doesn't approach this story in the way you'd typically expect from a video game released in the late nineties. Instead of punching enemies in face, I was gathering clues by talking to Ryo's neighbours and managing an allowance, which means spending it all on capsule toys.
The game even used its genre to tease me; I dialled the number for the police, but Ryo refused to call them. He has to avenge his father himself after all.
Matt: First, I'm very pleased you tried to call the police! It's one of many great Easter Eggs you can easily miss. The game rewards you for experimenting with the world around you in all sorts ways - and by Ryo reacting accordingly (i.e. being stubborn) helps establish his personality beyond a typical cutscene.
He will continue to establish his personality further through punching as you originally assumed, though, so stick with it!
Lottie: I hope so! I do like how, as you explore Ryo's home, you can uncover little cutscenes that give more insight into his relationship with his father as well. As you said, scenes like those reward experimentation and helped me become invested in the story.
The more I played, the more I came to love how intricate the world of Shenmue is; the shops have different opening times, the streets grow busier throughout the day and each NPC has their routine, which means you have to learn when and where characters will be.
The game is as much about planning your day as it is revenge. Even when I found myself waiting for the local bars to open, the daily cycle continued to heighten the immersion of the game, rather than making me feel like I had hit a roadblock. It makes sense, in the story that Shenmue is telling, that Ryo's journey begins with him patiently tracking down information and, while he waits, he can always waste some time in the Sega arcade.
Matt: Yeah - despite the heavy premise, Ryo is still a teenager, right? That's exactly what he would do to kill time. Again, another way of establishing who Ryo is beyond a cutscene - people you talk to constantly remind he's still in school, the cash you can spend is from pocket money, etc etc. This is also the point where the game doubles down on the time aspect which can leave many players frustrated - forcing you to wait hours or sometimes a full day in-game for the next event to happen - but it sounds like you're fully on board?
Lottie: I am - I like games with well developed worlds, be it expressed through environmental storytelling, gradually revealing aspects of the lore or, in this case, applying aspects of reality, like the fact that most shops aren't open 24 hours a day. What did break my immersion though were the quick time events.
I've never liked quick time events, because, to me, their inclusion always feels forced; the flow of a game is brought to a standstill as you're made to push a certain sequence of buttons, often until you've done it correctly.
In Shenmue, there's always a chance that you might encounter a little side event, from a bike race to children playing football, and, like the daily cycle, these activities make the community feel more realistic. Unfortunately, a number of these hidden activities include quick time events and, of course, if you don't do it correctly, then you have to do it again. It took me four attempts to correctly complete one such event.
Ten minutes later I discovered that the main storyline also included quick time events.
Matt: Fun fact - Shenmue was the first to feature (or at least popularise) Quick Time Events, so you're seeing the birth of something which plagued every action adventure game for the next decade.
There are some brilliant chase sequences which use them effectively later in the game, but as you say, means you're now on alert every time a cutscene plays out. There's even a couple of arcade cabinets which are QTE simulators, if you need to kill some time and test your reflexes. I've played them so much the sound effect is forever seared into my brain.
Lottie: For me, it's the quick time events that are really preventing me from deciding whether or not I'm going to continue playing Shenmue. The story certainly seems to be picking up pace and I would like to see what other early open world aspects this game has, but the knowledge that there's even more quick time events to come is really off putting. I've had this happen with other games before when there's an aspect of the gameplay I don't like, such as the tests of strength in Breath of the Wild. I find myself unable to dislodge the thought of these features from my mind and, rather than simply enjoying the game for its own sake, I spend my time worrying about when I'll have to deal with this feature once again.
Matt: The last third of the game certainly gets more punchy - and has one of the most infamous mini-games of all time, so if you can make it a little further, I would say your spirits will be... lifted.
Ultimately, I think Shenmue is a game which suffers from playing excessively in short periods, so come back to it and progress through the story whenever the mood takes you. Or not - Shenmue is a game, 20 years on, I still load up from time-to-time just to spend time in, usually waiting for the jazz bars to open by practicing martial arts or trying my hand at the Tomato Convenience Store raffle to pass the time. Either way, take your time and savour it if you do return - there's no rush, despite how eager Ryo seems to get!