Shenmue, and why it matters



05 Jan 2021

As of this post, this is a legacy post from 2017-2018, but its contents are still relevant today.

I intend to reflect on this blog post in a new one, as I progress through my Shenmue Let’s Play series on my YouTube channel.

~//~

Imagine your favourite series or franchise, for example, it could be Harry Potter. Imagine that J.K. Rowling stopped writing, for some reason or another, at the Goblet of Fire, when she intended to keep writing until the Deathly Hallows (as we know it). Imagine going for 17 years* without closure, not knowing how the series was meant to end.

Sound familiar? Then you are probably a Shenmue fan!


Why does Titch even care?!

Even as an adult, I still remember the day that I went out to the shops to pick up a Dreamcast console - and being in complete awe of its graphics as they really felt ahead of its time. The console bundle came with Sonic Adventures and ChuChu Rocket, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. As time went on, more games got released… including a particular game called Shenmue. My memory of the period surrounding its release is (very) hazy, but I remember the game entering our household one day and being recommended it right away cos, as a child, I was really interested in Japanese culture.

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!). A completely different adventure and setting to the first game, it still compelled me as much as the first. I was completely hooked by the series, and the games left a lasting impact on me, even into adulthood - I still always think about the games and have always longed to play through them again and again…

…anyway, the ultimate demise of the Dreamcast came as a result of dwindling profits, but it paved the way for the Xbox era - meaning Shenmue II was ported over into the next console generation.

And then that was it, nothing – until you fast-forward 14 years to June 2015, the E3 conference, which saw the surprise rebirth of the saga.

Why now, and why does it matter after all these years? Read on to delve into a special extra-long blog post on one of my favourite game franchises of all time…


Plot summary

Nobody likes a spoiler, so a brief spoiler-free overview of the game plot follows.

Set in 1986 in a quiet neighbourhood in Yokosuka, Japan, the game starts with the death of Iwao Hazuki, the father of the game’s main protagonist, Ryo Hazuki. The death of Iwao was a direct result of a conflict with Lan Di, a strange man that came about the Hazuki household to demand the handover of a mysterious mirror. With no prerequisite as to why his father was murdered in front of his very eyes, other than the sole fact that Iwao had killed someone else in China, Ryo sets out to seek revenge for his father, and to piece together everything that led up to the event - in particular, who is Lan Di and why did he do it?

The first installment of the game takes Ryo through his hometown, meeting local people and looking for clues as to what happened that day in the run up to his father’s death. As the story progresses, Ryo soon finds that he needs to venture to Wan Chai in Hong Kong in order to get more leads, especially since Lan Di was headed there himself. Ryo’s visit to Hong Kong sets up the premise for the second installment of the game.


Ryo Hazuki holding his father, Iwao Hazuki


Gameplay

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! There are even seasonal holidays in the game (including Christmas and a man dressed as Santa Claus that roams the town).

Certain events occur on certain days, and it may be the case that you may have to wait for a certain date/time in order to progress a particular story aspect. There is even the possibility that you could get a ‘bad ending’ (game over) if you don’t complete the game by a particular in-game date (just hit up your favourite search engine with ‘Shenmue bad ending’)!

As previously mentioned, the first installment of the game is set in Yokosuka, Japan, in which you can freely visit a number of little neighbourhoods (with loading screens in between). These include residential areas, a town centre with shops, bars and restaurants, and a harbour. In the second installment, you venture into different neighbourhoods and districts within Hong Kong. Within these individual neighbourhoods, you have free-rein of who you can talk to at any given moment, and each of the individual NPCs has a set of conversational responses - they even have their own daily routines. All in all, it makes you feel part of another world in different era.


Ryo Hazuki playing Hang On at an arcade Ryo Hazuki getting a capsule toy


Throughout the games, you may encounter mini games on the side, including the opportunity to play arcade classics from game creator Yu Suzuki himself (e.g. Outrun) and even the ability to collect capsule toys. There are a lot of the mundane tasks of life in Shenmue, such as the requirement to hold down a couple of jobs to finance your Hong Kong trip, but this adds to its charm.

You even have the opportunity to purchase food for and take care of a little kitten!


Ryo Hazuki kicking a baddie


Two additional game elements include combat and QTE. Much like a typical fighting game, there is the opportunity to combine a number of buttons on your controller to deliver a particular martial arts move onto your opponent. The game also saw the rise of QTE - quick time events - where you have to press a particular button within a very-short time frame in order to progress a cutscene with desirable consequences. Fail, and chances are you would have to start the whole cutscene again (Shenmue was forgiving but only on rare occasions)!


Campaign

The game was a masterpiece in its day, an instant classic. The sad part being, that it was meant to be an 11-chapter series - as in, a few chapters per game, not necessarily split into 11 games! Since 2001, the failure of the Dreamcast essentially meant that Shenmue II was left as a cliffhanger for over a decade.

As the years went on and there was just nothing, it was always a blow to see that the hope of any news on the future of Shenmue was always dwindled. However, the growth of social media became a blessing for Shenmue fans. There was always a buzz and constant talk of the nostalgic feeling the games brought, whether playing it on a working Dreamcast console or not (via emulation). Fans were (and still do to this day!) always sharing relatable stories about how the game meant so much to them, and how it reminded them of a time in their life, and so on. Whilst I wasn’t a particularly active conversationalist in these groups, I became a member of a few of them and followed their activities, always feeling warm and fuzzy when seeing a post I could relate to.

Over time, fans were also slowly drip-fed small things to do with the series, which increased speculation and again piqued hope - such as being able to use Ryo as a character to race with in Sonic Racing Transformed, as well as merchandise releases from Insert Coin, a Japan-exclusive t-shirt design and an exclusive figure designed by First 4 Figures.

A few notable online groups began a monthly social media campaign, on the third day of every month (the third was chosen as the campaign was for the third installment in the series, Shenmue III). The aim was to post certain hashtags and to post directly to the social media accounts of those who were responsible for Shenmue in the past - mainly Sega. Initially, it was to encourage the handover of the Shenmue licensing from Sega to the game creator and mastermind, Yu Suzuki, so he could pursue his dream of reviving the series and bringing closure. Eventually the campaign snowballed, and people started to take notice…


Ryo Hazuki and Nozomi


Kickstarter

The day had finally come.

Fourteen years later, in June 2015 at the world-renowned E3 conference, Yu Suzuki took to the stage to announce Shenmue III as a Kickstarter campaign, at the end of a PS4 demonstration. The community had won, at long last, a long-fought battle. I still remember the day I woke up to the news - a “pinch me, I’m dreaming” moment, complete with tears!

As it was a Kickstarter campaign, nothing was set in stone just yet, as a financial target had to be met in order for the game to reach production stages. Low and behold, the community came together again and smashed the goal right through, breaking records in the process - becoming the fastest campaign to reach $2million in under 8 hours!


Scenes from Shenmue III waterfront


Remasters

Since the announcement, Kickstarter backers have been slowly drip-fed (again, we are so used to being drip-fed by now!) little bits and pieces of game development news, such as interviews with programmers, designers, even early footage of the game. Fans were then hit by the unfortunate news that the game had been pushed back to a late 2018 release after being initially due for release in late 2017. 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!

Whilst the third installment coming into fruition is enough joy and happiness for any Shenmue fan, the campaigning work was not yet done - we needed HD remasters/remakes of Shenmue I and II. You may be thinking, “why can’t you just be happy with what you have when you have had nothing for years?!”. The answer to this being that the ability to play Shenmue I and II in modern times is to master the art of emulation, or to be lucky enough to source a working Dreamcast console and copies of the games - with the former being a graphically-buggy mess at the best of times, and with the total risk of losing hundreds of hours of game saves in the process (also probably not legal either).

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a means of introducing your friends and family, or an entirely new generation, to the series that pretty much had a huge impact on your life, and played a part in the shaping of future games?

…and so it finally happened, the news we had been waiting for (again) came from Sega in April 2018 - the long-awaited remasters were coming, to PS4, PC and even Xbox One. Both of the original Dreamcast titles were coming in a single package, with new features, updated control schemes and upscaled graphics. 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!


Ryo Hazuki on a motorbike


Why does it all even matter?

Resurrecting a game franchise from fan demand alone was no mean feat - I absolutely cannot credit enough the hard work and passion of the Shenmue community for what has been achieved over the last few years! Yet, why would anyone besides fans of the original franchise even care in this day in age?

Whilst the game may not have been the first free-roam title, it certainly was the first open-world title that allowed you to roam in an environment with complete free-will. There is no linear set-path, and you can interact with characters that give you unique conversations every time you encounter them - some conversations eventually led the story on, as particular characters would divulge a clue at the right moment in the story which would allow you to progress the game forward. The style of game play realised in Shenmue was so unique of its time that it became something that Yu Suzuki named himself as Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment (FREE).

Just to reiterate the level of detail in the games for their time, and an example that may sound completely bonkers(!) - at one point during my many hundreds of childhood hours playing Shenmue I and II, I followed a random NPC around a neighbourhood in Hong Kong. They spent some time walking round the streets of the shopping district, stopping in a couple of places, and then they spent a good few in-game hours sat in an ice cream parlour. A certain time hit, and they got up to leave and go home - so I followed them through a few other neighbourhoods to their actual residence! Again, probably simplistic in this day in age but at the time, it was just incredible how each individual NPC in the game had their own daily routines.

The mishmash of all its features - no linear path, open-world, FREE, level of detail, relationships with unique NPCs, mini games, and so on - meant Shenmue was ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it resulted in commercial failure, where its incredible ambition (and the cost of development to match it) was ultimately its downfall. 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.

Looking back at the franchise after playing realistic 4K ‘epic’ titles of the modern era, it is easy to see that the games were indeed of a very slow pace, but this is what the appeal was. It wasn’t about ‘fast-paced action’ or ‘kill them quick’ reactions (well, maybe for the QTEs and battles!) - Shenmue was about emotional investment in a fascinating fictional story that just didn’t get the closure it deserved.

The reason why Shenmue matters now and why you might want to care (even just a little bit), is that the next time you delve into a game like Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V or Sleeping Dogs - chances are, 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.


Ryo Hazuki and Shenhua


Thank you so much to the Shenmue community (Shenmue 500k, Team Yu, Shenmue Dojo and Shenmue Forever, to name a few!) for keeping the dream alive, and making it a reality! And thank you, as always, for reading - given the announcements, I had to use this platform to celebrate and commend the efforts of the Shenmue community, and to ultimately spread the awareness and joy of the game franchise close to my heart.

~~

Speak soon,

//Titch.



The images in this blog post were sourced from shenmue1-2.sega.jp and shenmue.link.

* “17 years without closure” refers to the time of writing this blog post, in which the remasters and Shenmue III have been well and truly announced but are still in development, and so fans are still awaiting closure!