Revisting 'Shenmue, and why it matters'



14 Feb 2021

Welcome to the first proper blog post on this blog - that isn’t a rehash of an old one (well… kinda) or a random announcement!

Back in 2018, I wrote a heartfelt ‘essay’ on why Shenmue is one of the biggest interests in my life. The nostalgia, home-like feeling that the game leaves me with every time I play it, and never getting bored of playing through it for the umpteenth time. This is something that resonates with a lot of fans and is so hard to explain, but it’s there.

You may have already read that blog post as it’s been updated and stuck back on this blog anyway, but here you go if not. It feels like a prerequisite before I start waffling on again in this post.

That post is a little bit dated now that time has gone on and we’ve had a new game (!), further announcements and rumours of things to come. For the first time in over a decade, things are really looking up for Shenmue.


Ryo Hazuki by the Shenmue tree



TL;DR

I will be discussing the facts and what we know, and then my thoughts and feelings on the following:


Ryo Hazuki in You Arcade




Anecdotes from the previous post

As the previous post came from 2018, some of the points are outdated now, but some nuggets still stand out and ring true. Here’s a few things that caught my eye to reflect on:

“Cue many, many hours, even days, spent playing Shenmue, and a trip to the local game shop a few years later to pick up a preowned copy of Shenmue II, once I had finally completed the first installment (I took a long while completing games as a child, probably didn’t want them to end if they were particularly good!)”

Very true - time felt infinite and slow as a child. At the start of the 2000s, the internet existed but it wasn’t really that commonplace to have it in households in my locality until a few years later. You had to rely on physical video game guide books to get through those parts of games that you got particularly stuck with, and I didn’t really have those - probably to encourage me to figure stuff out by myself and really get the full value out of a game. ;)

“Whilst there is a fixed story for the game, it is still set in an open-world (no linear set-path), with day and night cycles. The cycles pass a lot quicker than real-time, and even follow an accurate weather system - the weather you encounter in the game mirrors the exact forecasts during the time period and location that the game is set in!”

This added to the realism and immersion of the game and something I always thought was cool. This is still a thing in the remasters, but there is an option to switch between randomised game weather or ‘real’ Yokosuka weather from the time setting of the game. Looking at some comments online, it seems that this feature is unlocked once you have cleared the game once (which I’ve done so the option is there, so it’s tricky to check if this is the case) and that was apparently also true for the original Dreamcast version.

“At the time of writing, there is speculation that it could now be looking at a 2019 release - but in any case, the game is coming, we are used to the wait and the extra time surely means an even better game to come!”

Shenmue III did indeed reach us in 2019, right at the tail end, in November. I was travelling when it was released so missed out on playing it the day it came out, but then I saved it for my next day off to really get stuck in. There will be more about my thoughts on Shenmue III later on in this post.

“Incredibly, Sega also later confirmed that they were already intending on doing the remasters long before Shenmue III was due to come out, due to the pressure and demand from the fans in the community!”

This just shows the power of people in numbers, and never giving up on what you believe in - persistence, patience and consistency is key to getting places. Here’s hoping that, with the momentum that the community has already reached, we can get Shenmue IV in some form or another (a game would be most preferable, obviously).

“If Shenmue was created now, in the current gaming climate and in its original state, it would not be pushing the level of budget it required back in the 90s, thanks to technological advancements.”

That’s still a given - I’ll expand on this when talking about Shenmue III further on in this post. Briefly though, one of the most interesting things for me in waiting for Shenmue III to release at the time was to see what it was going to be like in comparison to the previous games, balancing graphics and story on a Kickstarter budget (although some further financial support was obtained from other sources e.g. ‘slacker backer’ campaign, Sony and Deep Silver).

“Shenmue was about emotional investment in a fascinating fictional story that just didn’t get the closure it deserved.”

How I would describe Shenmue in one sentence, even today. This is why the game has stuck with fans - at the time, it was groundbreaking, but what kept fans hooked in all this time wasn’t the graphics or clunky mechanics at all. It was the depth of the story, the interactions with other characters leading to new discoveries and its overall ‘charm’, quirks and even humour. It also opened up another world and time for an uncultured, under-travelled, millennial westerner (yes, I mean me).

The FREE aspect of Shenmue was an inspiration for the open-world nature of these titles and the like - a gaming experience that, in this day in age, is commonplace but with a common root - Shenmue.”

It seems that it is almost expected of games now to have a vast open world element of some sort. In some games, it is the game - the ability to do whatever, whenever, leaving it up to you whether you want to progress the story or not.

Arguably, whether an open world element exists or fits in depends on the genre of game, but there are aspects of it weaved into all sorts of games nowadays. Notable examples off the top of my head include battle royale games, and even a ‘linear platformer’ such as Super Mario (Odyssey) has open world elements in it.

All in all, Shenmue was the trailblazer for free roam gaming.


Ryo Hazuki face-to-face with a gang


Remasters

It was a dream come true, for me at least. My broken Dreamcast was no longer getting any stick for being broken, as it was finally possible to play Shenmue on a modern gaming system without a clunky, janky emulator with more complicated-looking settings than the cockpit of a commercial aeroplane. And that was before even considering the murky waters of the legalities behind emulation.

Shenmue I and II were remastered for PC, XBox One and PlayStation 4 (sadly not on Nintendo Switch though, maybe one day!). The key word here being remaster - not ‘remake’. This means that the games had their textures nice and crisped-up to full HD, whilst retaining most of the original mechanics, dialogue and features, with interface updates to accomodate modern settings and controller functionality. A remake would have been a complete start-from-scratch effort, which is what we didn’t get, but let’s face it - if you had stripped away most of what made Shenmue ‘Shenmue’, then it would have been too far removed from the iconic artefact that it is. We need the robotic movement physics, chaotic dialogue and lack of facial expressions or it just wouldn’t be Shenmue.

It was a no-brainer really - Shenmue III was already in development at that point, and in order to rally up new fans towards the series, it’s a bit of a hard-sell to get them to play a game that’s the third one along (it doesn’t really matter if it’s not part of a sequential series, but Shenmue is sequential) so to hook them in via the HD remasters of the originals prior to the release of III was definitely a worthwhile venture. Yes, it’s been on sale at ridiculous prices now and again but if it drums up interest, it keeps the dream alive.

Since the remasters came out, I’ve played each of the first and second games through once - completing the second installment just in time for the release of Shenmue III. Not enough times in my book, but I’ve aged a bit since 2001 and time is a precious commodity once you leave school so… anyway, the playthroughs were a thoroughly enjoyable experience and it was heavenly being able to play the games without worrying about an imminent crash and losing hours of gameplay… if I got that far before the laser on my Dreamcast kicked me back to the home menu, sometimes before I’d even finished the opening cutscene of the game, therefore ending my desire to play through Shenmue games during the Christmas break period furthermore. ;_;

However, since I decided out of the blue (not really, this has been brewing up for months) to start putting content on the internet, or even what to even talk about or do, I knew at the very least that it had to involve Shenmue somehow - so I committed to starting a Shenmue Let’s Play series on my YouTube channel, involving a consecutive playthrough of each game. At the time of writing, I’m a few episodes into Shenmue I, with a couple more in the pipeline to edit and ship out to the world. The buzz and desire to complete the Let’s Play up to and including Shenmue III is still there, and I pick up the camera and controller at any given opportunity. It’s great to play it again, feeling like a tour guide with a goldfish memory - either remembering stuff really clearly and getting hyped on nostalgia, or getting pleasantly surprised when discovering something new - either cos I’d not actually seen it before in any playthroughs in the past (the beauty of the game is that each playthrough can be completely different to the last), or cos I’d forgotten what was coming, making me feel like I’m new to the game all over again with the excitement that it entails.



Shenmue III

It finally came, on November 19th, 2019. That means we waited 18 years for a sequel - a long time getting sad over ‘the story goes on…’ end-screen of Shenmue II.

The game was released on PC and PlayStation 4 - not quite on the Dreamcast like many folks had hoped, for old time’s sake, but with budget constraints and the need for further reach and accessibility, it had to be on modern consoles first and foremost. The lack of an XBox version is an ongoing head-scratcher (the lack of Shenmue anything on Nintendo is a bigger shame), but the fact it wasn’t limited to one platform / console was a great start.


Story

I have tried to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, which was very difficult given that this is the third installment of a series with prerequisites.

The game picks up right where Shenmue II left off - in 1987, where our main protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, has left his home soil of Japan and now ended up in Guilin, China (via Hong Kong). Here, he has befriended Ling Shenhua, who offers Ryo a place to stay and requires his assistance in looking for her father. They later discover the disappearance of her father directly links to Ryo’s arrival in Guilin and Lan Di, who Ryo in turn is looking for.

As Ryo discovers more about what links the death of his father to Guilin, he then leaves to visit Niaowu - a vibrant fishing town, with market stalls and shops aplenty, complete with its own local gang which Ryo is, of course, in pursuit of (he loves seeking trouble which definitely comes down to his quest for revenge).

It is in Niaowu that some familiar faces appear from the previous games in the series, assisting Ryo in his quest to get to Lan Di. New friends and faces teach Ryo different fighting techniques and styles along the way, and definitely some life lessons - whether he listens though, is a different story.

Without giving any further in-depth plot details away, the game ends with more progression of the Shenmue story and sets things up ready for more installments of the game / series in the future.


Ryo Hazuki and Ling Shenhua


Gameplay

Shenmue III plays much like its predecessors - a free open world to explore, interactions with people and objects to obtain clues for story progression, fight training and development, quick-time events (QTEs), mini games, arcade games and collectibles. The element of earning money is back, with the previous methodologies of brief work shifts behind a forklift (yay!), gambling and selling collectibles. New money earning features include fishing and chopping wood.

Other new features include a health system, in which Ryo is expected to purchase / forage for foods in order to replenish his energy. This means he cannot sprint everywhere without being taxed, unlike the predecessors. A divisive feature amongst fans, but it has definitely been included to add some level of realism - and could well have been a feature that they wanted to include in the original games but couldn’t, due to some constraint or another. Another gameplay tweak is that you can do a 360-degree camera spin around Ryo’s character model (this wasn’t possible in the predecessors), and Ryo is now off-set to the left side instead of central to the screen. Both of these small additions and changes really show off the beauty of the world design.

Graphically speaking, the game was developed in a completely new and different game engine (Unity) to its predecessors, meaning character textures, models, graphics and worlds are rich and deep in comparison, making full use of modern hardware too. Movement mechanics are much ‘cleaner’ in comparison to the previous games too. While this is a glaringly obvious change, it is worth noting as it leaves room for scrutiny, in that - how can it live up to its predecessors in modern times when it arguably looks and plays so much different? More on that point shortly…


Was it worth the wait?

In short and in my opinion, yes. There is a balanced argument to be had though - the game hit the mark for me in some cases, but then completely missed it in others.

Despite the fancy graphics and new gameplay elements, one of the best things about the game is that it ‘feels like Shenmue’ - to achieve that 18 years after the originals was a fantastic effort. The game stayed true to its roots, with the free roam of vast worlds, every NPC having their own unique characteristics and personalities, bringing back familiar faces and gameplay features for a true nostalgia hit. Everything old that was brought back had been improved upon and modernised perfectly, within the contraints of the finances available.

Another positive is the story in of itself - without any spoilers, it’s great to have progressed this further. Some might say that it didn’t go far enough, and so whilst the game hasn’t given us all the answers, it’s given us more than we had before, and set us up for even more in the future. The story and how it made you feel was always the most impactful thing about the game, and it is great to see that this was not a complete afterthought once the graphics were prettified - the depth of story remains and the element of mystery and ‘why’ still lingers on.

However… the pace of the story was the shortfall for me. The game series as a whole does have its moments of tedious, repetitive tasks in order to achieve a greater goal (much like real-life really) or to progress to the next part of the story. There were a few moments of this in Shenmue III, especially when it came to needing to make a certain amount of money to do something with. As an impatient adult with time as a limited commodity, the game tested this to the point where I was seeking out tips online to get money at the fastest possible rate without any hacks or mods. This also came down to the fact that I had started to play the game later than the release date, and I was desperate to not see any spoilers online from those that had got far ahead or had completed it already.

Again, no spoilers, but the pace of the ending was also very jarring to the rest of the game. It wasn’t awful by any means, it was very exciting, but it just didn’t quite fit.

A final thing I thought was slightly off was the attention to detail on having a mass of repeated, similar shops throughout Niaowu and a lot of expansive, ‘blank’ spaces in the world. No doubt, the world space was stunning and great to be a part of. However, without knowing what happened behind closed doors in the development process, I wonder sometimes how the game would have been if they spent less time focussing on these unusual bits of detail and ploughed it more into the story - instead, having a less expansive world but either more different types of shops or more depth to the story (for example, fewer / smaller eateries - although I could be being pedantic and ignorant to the fact that in the time setting of the game, that’s all they would have had anyway).

I have completed the game from start to end once, and have not yet replayed it. It’s nothing personal - other stuff came up along the way and I just hadn’t picked it up since completing it. Although, I am planning to do my second playthrough as a Let’s Play series on YouTube, so watch this space. My feelings laid out here might otherwise change on that second playthrough.


Ryo Hazuki ready to fight


Where we are now - Shenmue IV? Anime? Huh?

At the time of writing, we are at the start of 2021, over a year later from the initial release of Shenmue III. In terms of reviews and sales, it did a good job considering the odds were stacked against it - being a niche, revived ‘retro’ game in the middle of a linear series and having a limited budget compared to modern blockbuster games. It was probably a tricky game to review too, deciding between “should Yu Suzuki have kept the game true to its roots to appease the original fanbase, or take the risk of progressing it for the benefit of modern times and newcomers, who have been spoilt with AAA(+) games with much higher budgets?”.

As a Shenmue die-hard, I did go into the game with that expectation of ‘retro revival’, and so the game worked for me exactly how it came to us, but part of me feels that if it pushed the boundaries a bit further, focused more on being less ‘Shenmue’, it would have had a wider public appeal at the cost of losing its unique charm in the process. I also often wonder about the pacing of the game towards the end - was that from budget constraints, a lapse in ideas, rushing towards a deadline or trying to get some spice and pizzazz in to sweeten a wider audience / reviewers? Or even, a test of the waters to see how fans would respond to the game moving away from its roots a little, showing off what Shenmue could be if it was let out of its cage a little bit more and had a faster change of pace. Who knows!

The campaign goes on

Why stop now? Shenmue III proved what can be done in modern times with the game, on a modest, non-AAA(+) budget, and it worked. Sure, it had some flaws which I discussed earlier, but nothing is perfect and to go from nothing to something that really made fans smile again, even if it was secretly a little bit of an experiment to garner interest or direction, it all paid off in the end. Imagine the development team now building off Shenmue III, taking lessons learned from the development process and wider public feedback, improving the shortfalls and making a Shenmue IV that is just… wow.

That’s enough fire in one’s belly to campaign for Shenmue IV in my opinion - and one of the myriad of reasons why the Shenmue community is on the campaign trail again. ‘Shenmue Day’ is back, moving from the third of the month to the fourth, and with a new hashtag, #letsgetshenmue4.


Let's Get Shenmue 4 campaign


“Sequel”

In a recent yearly survey conducted by Famitsu.com (credit to Phantom River Stone), Yu Suzuki, the creator of Shenmue, was quizzed with some light-hearted questions on his outlook on the year ahead (2021) and what he is currently up to. One point caught the eye of Shenmue fans (shortened a bit for relevance):

Q: Your New Year’s Resolution?
A: The sequel to…

…and that was all the context we got for that one! Resolutions are not always set in stone and so what was said can be taken with a pinch of salt, but any glimmer of hope is always clung on to when you’re a Shenmue fan. Either way, the dream is still alive and the previous campaigns and noise got us this far, so imagine what could come next. It’s also humbling to see that Yu himself has never given up on Shenmue and still shares our belief in the future of the franchise.

Anime

This next bit of news is actually true - whilst Shenmue III was in development, Crunchyroll and Adult Swim had started working on a Shenmue anime! Picked up for a season of 13 episodes, the series will be developed with Yu Suzuki having full involvement as Executive Producer.

The details on this are quite thin on the ground at the moment, but it sounds promising - it could be the way to go for Yu if there are ongoing issues with getting more Shenmue games out there in future. Concluding the series via the anime would be better than being left without closure - personally I think most Shenmue fans would agree in that the video game format is the most desirable, but an anime is a good second option.


Shenmue anime


Fan-based Kickstarters

Admittedly, these had passed me by as I’d been away from social media and well out of the loop for some time, but it’s neat to see that fans had taken things into their own hands to create more Shenmue-related media. Here’s a couple - there could be more to come in future:

I’m really hoping things pan out well for these. I’m also gutted about missing out on the Kickstarters - here’s hoping for something for the slacker backers out here. ;)


Thank you for reading

I’ll definitely be back again with more Shenmue ramblings in future - with the current momentum, who knows where the future will take us! Here’s hoping that I need to get a bigger ‘Shenmue Shelf’ in future. ;)


My Shenmue shelf


~~

Speak soon,

//Titch.



The images in this blog post were sourced from shenmue1-2.sega.jp, shenmue.link, crunchyroll.com, Shenmue 500k Facebook group, screenshots I took of the games themselves and my own camera.



Corrections