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Years Later, Still Nothing Can Compare to Shenmue

Posted on November 12, 2012 AT 09:08am

There are some games that stand the test of time, as well as some that for some reason the industry has yet to even attempt to best. One of those games that kind of fits into both categories would have to be Sega and AM2 visionary Yu Suzuki’s magnum opus, Shenmue. We need more games like Shenmue, already. Even saying the name brings back memories for me for the fall and winter of 2000. At the time I was a senior in highschool (I’m really aging myself here; both young and old to some, funny enough) and remember endlessly discussing the possible merits (or lack thereof) of the upcoming Shenmue.

We were in history class when my friend Ryan turned around with his copy of EGM and started talking about an article about the upcoming Shenmue. It was a photograph of the old man in the park, if you’ve played the game you’ll know the one and his stepping double palm strike he teaches you, and it was a close up of him. For the time, those graphics were really quite good, with the Dreamcast handling some hefty texturing for the time. “Look, this is like a real person and he lives in this freaking city, uggggh,” was what Ryan said to me, and at the time I was irritated. It was hard to get him to talk about anything that wasn’t Shenmue for months, as the game promised immersion unlike we had seen on that scale with an open world adventure title. So this kind of talk was common among my group of friends at the time, to say the least.

Nonetheless, I held onto my preorder of Shenmue even if I was sick of hearing about, because the promise of the game alone seemed to be worth checking out. When December 6th finally came around I was sick, and by sick I mean really sick. I had mono, which for a senior in highschool it meant that I was making out with my girlfriend regularly, but it also meant that we both got really sick for the better part of a month. For me, it was a few days into my first flare up of mono, and it meant calling out of both school and work for a few days, which was all that a high school senior could ask for at that point. A part of me felt guilty when I crawled out of bed on that Tuesday afternoon and got into my white ‘89 Cutlass Supreme and started it up without the key, like it was prone to do, but regardless I drove over to Funcoland with my old, worn receipt for my preorder in hand.


As per usual, there wasn’t much in the way of a line at my local Funcoland and Justin, a guy who was a year older than me and that I knew in passing was behind the counter. I sighed, as I didn’t feel like having much human interaction at the time, but went up to the counter and presented my tattered piece of glossy receipt and told him that I wanted my copy of Shenmue. “Uh uh, you gotta say it right, man. It’s Shen-moo,” he said as he fumbled around in the drawer behind the counter to pull a copy of the game out. “Jesus christ, Justin,” I said in between coughs, being courteous enough to use his real name and not the name we called him for being 6’2”, skinny and dating a 5’3” high school freshman. “Just give me the goddamned game.”

“Shen-moo,” he said again, thinking that he was clever.

“Cut it out, I feel like shit,” I said, laying out three twenty dollar bills on the counter as he tshook his head and rung it up. I got my change back and gave him that “what’s up” nod that guys tend to do and pocketed my change.

“I was playing it last night, man,” he stated, pursing his lips and nodding his head. “Fucking awesome, man,” and I nodded, still to this day not  understanding a shop clerk’s obsession with always congratulating or reaffirming a game purchase that I seemingly face everytime I go out into public and buy a game. The drive home I was apprehensive; was this game going to be as good as everyone says? DailyRadar, our personal favorite site at the time, had said it was everything we expected and more, and I was prone to believe it, but I was also sick and cynic.

That night turned into a marathon session where the only real break I saw was when my girlfriend called me on my personal landline, yes, this was right before I had a cell phone and landlines were still common, and we talked about how sick we both were. I felt like I had stepped out of a dream, and knew that I was completely hooked when I had to dive right back in. Ryo’s story was completely engrossing, as was life in his village even if there were the sinister overtones of Master Hazuki’s death and how goddamned obnoxious Fuku-san was (seriously, what was with that guy?). Even if you looked under the surface and saw the patterns of the townsfolk and the way that they’d respond to your indignant, almost jarring queries, it was still engrossing and felt like it was living and breathing. You could feel their daily lives and place together their backstories in your head by the small bits of information that they gave you.

The old woman at the flower stand knew Ine-san, your grandmother, and was truly sorry for what happened to your father, but her life went on. She may not have had the best clues for you or been that valuable of an informant, but you knew that she lived in the town and had interactions with everyone else on some level, even if you didn’t see it. Trying to play the game now, the controls feel jerky and unresponsive, and compared to the modern open world game, you are heavily restricted in what you can do. Just a year later, Grand Theft Auto III would be released and blow the roof off of the open world game and show the world what a chaos simulator was, but Shenmue was not that.

Looking back, I appreciate that, as the game forced you into Ryo’s mindset and code of ethics and made you play the game like you were Ryo, not yourself. Ryo running around like the character in Sleeping Dogs and beating up random pedestrians, stealing vehicles or finding guns and blowing stuff up just makes zero sense for the narrative style presented in Shenmue. Ryo’s Kung Fu training didn’t make him a loose cannon, it made him a lethal weapon who was not yet sure of himself and his abilities, but knew better than using his skills unless he was forced to protect himself or someone he knew. When he was forced to use his Kung Fu, it felt like a big deal and you were primed and ready to go, in the mindset of Ryo Hazuki. It meant either you were going to be presented with a QTE (Quick Timer Event) or you were going to be put into full combat mode, using a modified version of the Virtua Fighter engine and would use moves you knew and practiced or had learned from friends along the way.

Everything helped to build that narrative structure that Ryo’s father had just been murdered in front of him and that he was on a tear trying to find the man who did it and seek revenge, even if his friends and family were afraid of what it was doing to him. You were in his headspace and wanted that as well, but at the same time understood that he was still just a kid and wasn’t ready for what he had taken on. He had his quasi-girlfriend, Nozomi, but his quest for vengeance seems to always get in the way of him having a real, meaningful relationship with her even if he wanted to. In the same vein, there were those random side things that open world games have, stuff like collecting toys from vending machines or corner stores, even an arcade with actual emulated games or QTE games for Ryo to play. They didn’t feel tacked on, they felt like they were just a part of life and you were torn between living life and living out your kung fu revenge story.

While to this day there will be jokes about being forced to do work within a game and driving a forklift, one of the menial tasks that Ryo is stuck with in his quest to find his father’s killer, it helped to move the story along. Both Shenmue and the follow-up, Shenmue 2 would be considered some of my favorite games of all-time, and a part of me is still dumbstruck by how there has yet to be a third game. At this point, yes, there would need to be some major gameplay changes and a new engine used as I stated before, the game feels old. The walking controls are nonsensical and robotic compared to modern games and the way conversing with someone pops up a cutscene of sorts would just not be necessary anymore. The very idea of what a Shenmue game could be on a modern console makes me long for it, as there have been a lot of open world action/adventure titles in the past few years, but maybe only Heavy Rain really captures the same feel and narrative voice of Shenmue, and even then I would in no way call Heavy Rain an open world game, as it isn’t.

Very few games have been able to pull you in like that. I mean, I remember the moment when Mark down at the docks gets the crap beaten out of him by those punks and there was just no way not to feel bad for the poor guy who apparently keeps raising the ire of the gang by the docks, and just feel awful. Especially when you learn that Mark’s brother was killed by the Mad Angels, the same guys that you are after for information. There are talks of a HD re-release of Shenmue 1 and 2 happening at some point, but information is scarce like everything else about the future of the series. Yu Suzuki won’t say that the series is dead, but he won’t say that he has any plans to work on it either, which is frustrating.

I could go on about the second game, but you get the picture. Truth is, there aren’t many games over twelve years later that could do what Shenmue did, which is a testament to how damned good it really was. Even if the controls don’t feel as good as modern open world games and there isn’t that “chaos factor” like in GTA, RDR, Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs, it wasn’t supposed to have that. Thankfully the game had the balls to force the player to play the game as they had envisioned it being played, and I can only hope to see more games do that in the future and put storytelling above letting people do whatever they want all of the time. Games like Heavy Rain show that it can be done and that it should be done, but everyone keeps trying to recapture the glory of Grand Theft Auto III and be “revolutionary” instead of telling a good, engrossing story.

Ryo’s story still feels important all of these years later, and he still feels like a fully-realized character, and that is more than I can say for a lot of characters from similar games. I find myself wanting to pick up a used Dreamcast and copy of the game to play it all over again every once in a while, and even sat down and watched the disc that came with the Xbox copy of Shenmue 2 that tried to sum up the first game in “Shenmue: The Movie,” but it just wasn’t the same.

Dave Walsh is the Owner and Editor-in-Chief of Kickboxing website, one of the foremost authorities on the sport of Kickboxing online. He is also a novelist, musician and avid gamer. Follow at @LiverKickdotcom

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