The Importance of Shenmue, 19 Years Later

Ever since I was a small child, I’ve enjoyed video games. They were a fun little distraction to help pass the time whenever my neighborhood friends weren’t home, it was a rainy day, I was home from school sick, or just when I felt like spending the afternoon indoors. I remember devoting what felt like hundreds of hours to games like GoldenEye 64 and Tomb Raider, when in reality I don’t think I actually beat these titles until years later. For the most part gaming was a pastime, not a passion. This all changed in November of 2000.

One night while watching TechTV’sExtended Play”, a young Adam Sessler presented viewers with a game that demonstrated a “living world”. A world where characters lived their own lives even when you aren’t looking; where you can shop for chips, cassette tapes, milk, and cat food; where visiting arcades, helping near-sighted ladies find their homes, and fighting random drunks was a daily activity. I was instantly interested. It sounded like nothing I, or anyone else for that matter, had ever experienced in gaming. While many open world games boast “living worlds” these days, back in ’00 this was a completely new claim. So of course being the Dreamcast lover that I was, I purchased the game that week.

Fighting thugs in playgrounds was commonplace in 1980 Japan.

Within a few minutes I knew this was something special; something new. I remember pulling my mother into my room to watch the gripping introduction. Seeing the amazingly life-like characters move and speak as if we were watching a film, she seemed even more amazed than I did. The story instantly grabbed me from start to finish. I was engrossed in the plot, the characters…everything. I had never felt such a huge connection to a video game before in my life. This wasn’t like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, a game I absolutely adored…this was something more. I found myself exploring every nook and cranny of the game’s world. This being my first real exposure to Japanese culture, I was keen on slowly understanding this interesting new way of life. I realized for the first time in my life, I didn’t just like video games, I loved them.

Fast forward to today and I’ve never been more passionate about the medium. I consume as many games as I can. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter to me; I want to try them all. While many, many games have become some of my favorites over the years, nothing has ever reached me in quite the same way that Shenmue did. And it’s not just me.

The past couple of years has been a whirlwind for any Shenmue fan. With the announcement and success of the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter, more and more interest has grown in the series so many of us hold dear. Now with the imminent release of Shenmue 1 and 2 remastered for current gen systems, it feels almost like a dream for any Shenmue fan out there.

With interest at an all-time high, and the original two releases being available on nearly every platform next week, Shenmue is going to reach more players than ever before. I’m interested in seeing how people who have never experienced the title feel about playing this twenty-year-old game in a sea of modern titles.

The now infamous forklift racing is a staple of Shenmue.

The game revolves around Ryo Hazuki, a teenager whose life in thrown into uncertainty when he witnesses his father’s murder by a mysterious man named Lan Di. Vowing revenge, you’ll uncover more and more secrets from your father’s youth, travel to distant lands, and meet a plethora of friendly, shady, and even near-mystical characters along the way. It’s a simple, passionate, and intriguing story told in an intimate and moving way unlike any game before it.

Shenmue set out to do something no other game had even attempted at the time; to create a fully immersive world for the player to lose themselves in. Of course whether or not they were successful is purely subjective. However, I’m just going to say it: Yes. They were very successful and I know about 69,320 other people that would agree.

Both take place in real life cities and are recreated in painstaking detail. Obviously they aren’t to full-scale, but landmarks, roads, and even stores are based off of actual locations. Many Shenmue fans have made a pilgrimage to Yokosuka, Japan in order to visit these familiar places that they had only visited digitally before.

The first game is designed in such a way that you find yourself becoming accustomed to the town, the people and the setting. Finding shortcuts naturally and running into familiar faces becomes commonplace and you start to gain a real sense of belonging. You feel at home, while slowly unveiling a shadowy underworld that Ryo never knew about. The second game does the exact opposite. You feel lost, overwhelmed, and alone for a good portion of the game. Meeting new friends and getting help from strangers is your only lifeline in this new and dangerous place. The games are absolutely incredible at creating an atmosphere in line with the story, it’s truly a masterpiece of artistic design.

The amount of stores, people, and complex back alleys are staggering.

While NPCs that live their own, scheduled lives may not sound like much, in 1999 is was so groundbreaking it was considered to be a blatant lie pre-release. Hundreds of characters with individual voices, personalities, and dialog? Impossible. In-game weather system that can be both dynamic or set to real weather reports of the area during that time period? Unheard of. Nearly every building in the town can be entered with nearly every item able to examine or interact with? Ridiculous. This is what most people thought when hearing these statements for the first time. But Yu Suzuki and his team did just that, and more. Think this sounds kind of amazing today? Imagine how it was in 1999.

While the world isn’t anywhere near the size of games like Skyrim or GTA V, at the time no game came close to having such a large, rich, and detailed 3D game world like Shenmue did. It was the first to create an open world that felt alive. It came before GTA III, it came before Morrowind, and in many ways it still feels more real and alive than even the most recent entries in those fantastic series’.

Visually the game was incredible for the time it’s hard to properly illustrate it. It was so vastly above anything video games had seen it instantly caught the eye of anyone who stumbled over a screenshot or video. When you compare it to other games released in the same time-frame, it’s no contest. While it certainly can’t compete with the polygon count or the texture resolution of today’s games, the artistry and craftsmanship still make for an extremely immersive experience and personally I find the visual design to still be attractive even now.

Shenmue released on Dreamcast compared to CounterStrike released the following year on PC.

Along with high-end visuals, the amount of detail in the game is another mainstay for the Shenmue series. Included with the previously mentioned characters, living world, and weather system, there are countless buildings, stores, and rooms that are fully rendered, furnished, and come with their own custom musical ‘theme’ and unique character that dwells or works there. What make this all the more incredible is you aren’t required to, and more than likely won’t set foot in the vast majority of these spaces. I’ve played the second game more than I’d care to admit over the past decade and a half and I still have yet to see every building, let alone store, in the game.

The small details are what make the world itself feel alive. This is what sets Shenmue apart from other games that followed suit. Stores have set hours just like in real life, so if you find yourself there before they open you’ll have to kill some time until the owner arrives. Luckily there are arcades where you can play other real Sega video games accurate to the time period. You can even collect capsule toys of your favorite Sega characters. Why? Because it’s just fun. That’s right, there’s no real mechanic to it other than being something to do for amusement. Crazy right? Buses also run on set time slots. You may have to wait a bit to catch the next one. It’s understandable how some may find these details annoying at times, but that’s what makes the game all the more engrossing. Sometimes things working more like real life other than how you expect it should in a video game is what pushes the player deeper into this digital world.

Just a normal day for the residents of Yokosuka, Japan.

It’s obvious I’m a huge fan of this series, so I’m gonna say it’s perfect right? While in my heart I may feel that way, I know it’s not the truth. The English voice acting can be a bit awkward at times, especially when compared to today’s standards, but from what I’ve gathered from Japanese fans, the Japanese voices are pretty great. Pacing is a huge issue in the first game. Having to kill thirty real-time minutes until characters show up or a store opens can be a tad tedious, especially on repeat play throughs, but they added a “Wait” option in the follow-up to fix this problem. Everyone knows about the forklift job. The way some people talk you’d think it was the worst thing in video game history. While I personally found it fitting to the story and actually enhancing to the narrative, I understand people’s dislike for it. Luckily if you do a decent job working the old docks, you only really work about five times before the story moves on. Another thing some may consider to be a negative is the inclusion of cutscene button prompts, or ‘Quick Time Events‘. While yes, I agree that way too many games use these actions and almost always do a poor job of implementing them, Shenmue is the exception. No only did it invent the idea of QTEs, it includes the mechanic in arguably the best and most enjoyable way of any game to date. Don’t judge them until you play this title.

I guess the point of this article, other than to praise and share my love for Shenmue, is to help give new players an idea of why the game is so important. While I’m sure a lot of newcomers will find the game dated and maybe even “boring” when compared to modern releases, I hope you’ll at least understand just how many groundbreaking things Shenmue accomplished. Odds are, one of your favorite games walked a path forged by Shenmue, adding to it and creating new paths for future creative teams. So all I ask is that you go into these games with an open mind, patience, and wanderlust. The world of Shenmue is there, it’s up to you to explore it.

Justin Ortiz

Introduced to video games when he was only five, after dying somewhere around four thousand times while playing Star Tropics, he never looked back. Some of his favorites range from titles like Shenmue and Metal Gear Solid 3 to Half-Life 2, Manhunt, and the Dark Souls series. Justin has a passion for vinyl records, and loves to collect video game memorabilia. If he had one wish, it would be to travel back to 1984 Miami.

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