Shenmue is a series that has stayed on the backburner of the public consciousness since it came out. Now, though, with the imminent arrival of Shenmue 3, it seems like people are starting to really talk about the series again. The good folks over at Giant Bomb are doing a playthrough of the first game here. I’ve had several friends mention the series to me again out of the blue. Even Sega is now making public comments about the viability of a Shenmue Remastered.
To me, Shenmue is one of the most fascinating case studies in the history of video games. Critically loved at the time, it has now become the game most people love to shit all over. On the other hand, the people who don’t mock it seem fanatically obsessed with the series, elevating it to the level of video game deity. So where does Shenmue really fit in the history of games and is the upcoming Shenmue 3 really a good thing?
In order to really get an accurate idea of what Shenmue is, you have to both get in the mindset of the times and forget about all the extremist opinions/memes scattered across the internet today. Shenmue came out on November 8, 2000 in the USA after releasing a year earlier in Japan. It was released exclusively for the relatively new Sega Dreamcast and touted some very revolutionary ideas for its time.
You play as martial artist and wannabe-vengeance killer Ryo Hazuki in a realistic portrayal of Yokosuka, Japan. After seeing your dad murdered by an unknown Chinese guy and then proceeding to get your ass kicked by said Chinese guy, Ryo decides to set out on his murder quest. While that all sounds like your typical action game setup, Shenmue is different in that it really doesn’t follow action game tropes, instead opting for a very realistic look at how this story would really go down.
Ryo doesn’t immediately run outside and start beating the crap out of everyone he meets, he has to travel around town and ask around about Lan Di, a mission that goes about as well as you’d expect seeing as how all he has to go off of is, “he’s Chinese”. Eventually, you need to get a job in order to keep up funding for your mission. Occasionally, you beat some guys up but more often, you decide to spend your nights hanging out at the arcade and playing some Space Harrier. This is not a fast-paced game but rather a narrative mystery story with some occasional fights or chases.
Shenmue never rode on being an action game though. The main thing I still remember from hearing about this game as a kid was that it was the first game to not use any invisible barriers in the environments. In essence, this was one of the first games to use the modern concept of an open-world. You could go anywhere you wanted from the start, using only realistic barriers to bar progression instead of arbitrarily forcing players to go in a linear path.
Another major revolution was its use of time in-game. While other games had used clocks to simulate reality, not many used it like Shenmue. NPC’s kept to their schedules, stores opened and closed at certain times and Ryo had to make sure he wasn’t late for his job. It may sound tedious (and for many players it was) but it went a long way towards making the game feel realistic and immersive.
Finally, Shenmue was the first game to use the term Quick-Time Events and to use them in the modern style. Previous games to use these QTEs usually based entire games around them (Dragon’s Lair) or would implement sudden button presses into the gameplay (Metal Gear Solid). Shenmue was the first to incorporate QTEs into cutscenes in order to allow for more cinematic gameplay. Yu Suzuki, the director of Shenmue, is even the one who coined the term quick-time events during the game’s development.
All of these new mechanics allowed for a mind-blowing sense of realism that simply didn’t exist in games at that period. Video games were still mostly made with kids in mind with few exceptions such as the over-the-top, Grand Theft Auto or the cheesy horror of Resident Evil. Package that realism with an incredibly ambitious story (even with the series drastically cut back, Yu Suzuki still wants the story to go for four games) and full voice over for almost all dialogue and you got what was, at the time, the most expensive game ever made.
Despite selling 1.2 million copies and becoming the fourth best-selling Dreamcast game, Shenmue had overstretched and still wound up being a commercial failure. They tried to recoup their losses on the sequel but by then, it was too late for the Dreamcast. Microsoft did secure exclusive rights to Shenmue 2 for the Xbox in North America but apparently interest in Shenmue had waned drastically and that game only sold about 300,000 copies worldwide. Because of this, the Shenmue development hell really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.
So what did Shenmue do for the industry, then? Look around at today’s games. Open-world titles are everywhere to the point where linear games can feel refreshing. Video game narratives have become far more adult but also far more realistic. Games like Gone Home, Firewatch or Heavy Rain may not have been directly inspired by Shenmue but they have a lot to thank Yu Suzuki for in terms of altering the game industry. QTEs are a hot topic now but only because they became such a prevalent part of video games throughout the sixth and seventh gaming generations.
In many ways, Shenmue changed the way we think about games. There was still room for the cartoonish platform mascots like Sonic and Mario but video games didn’t have to only be that way. They could also be something more; a narrative medium all their own. Games could be made for the sake of art and storytelling much in the way that movies or books can and they can still sell copies.
And that brings us to…
So where does that leave us with Shenmue 3? Obviously, I think very highly of the series’ past but what about its future? For that, we have to look at those same game mechanics that I mentioned before. Shenmue is built on being an open-world game with a realistic setting, using QTEs to tell a very narrative heavy story.
In 2016, literally all of that has been done to death. David Cage has built an entire company (Quantic Dream) around using QTEs and strong narratives in games like Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy. Open world games have not only been done since Shenmue but have been done far better than Shenmue ever had with new advancements coming out almost weekly. Realistic settings for games are now not that unusual with games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided showing near-future locales or the Persona series that incorporates fantastical elements into real life.
So what place does Shenmue still have in this era? Is Shenmue 3 simply going to rehash its once new ideas years after they have taken hold and since become cliche? Just look at YouTube videos of Shenmue to see what today’s gamers think of these once revolutionary mechanics. Check out Giant Bomb’s playthrough to see how impressed they are.
The problem isn’t that Shenmue wasn’t a success. The problem is that it was. It was such a success that most of its ideas have been taken and expanded on over the last 17 years to such a great degree that it seems impossible for Shenmue 3 to make them fresh again.
I loved Shenmue in the year 2000. Even as the years progressed, it became a strong step forward in helping games to be accepted as a legitimate art form, something I believe very strongly in myself. If Shenmue 3 had been released a decade ago, I would have been ecstatic but now, the world has moved on. The idea of Shenmue is much more exciting than the reality of what Shenmue actually contains. So when Shenmue 3 is released, it will inevitably disappoint those who deified the series and serve as fuel for those who love to hate on it. Still, I hope those of us who haven’t fallen to the extremes can continue to see Shenmue for what it is: a relic of another time but one that served as a foundation for the video games we enjoy today.