Shenmusings – Why Shenmue is Important to Me

Unfortunately, my plan to have a weekly column dedicated to the adventures of Ryo Hazuki was vetoed by the rest of the CountrCultur writers. I know, it’s a travesty. What more could people ask for during this period of uncertainly than a weekly reminder of the pinnacle of story telling and voice acting. I jest, of course, but the fact remains I love Shenmue. I always will, for better and for worse, until death do us part. The reasons? Many. The definitions, blurred. If I’m to choose between one game and another…Wait, different series.

In the Beginning

‘Twas the summer of 2000. I was a teenager who had survived the apocalypse caused by the millennium bug. Only venturing from my bunker (or attic bedroom, who really remembers) to forage for supplies. The new school year looming on the horizon, yet something loomed larger in my mind. Something huge. So huge it was going to be on four separate discs.

Hype around games was nothing compared to what it is today, but it was certainly present for the Western release of Shenmue. I still had a fair amount of time to wait, it wasn’t due until December after all. But hey, with such Dreamcast classics such as Blue Stinger (remember that?) and Spirit of Speed 1937 in my collection I’m sure I could wait, right?

December couldn’t come fast enough that year. I was the only one in my circle of friends who had a Dreamcast, which is objectively the best console ever released. They were all waiting for the PlayStation 2, the mugs. The PlayStation 1 was going to be a one hit wonder for Sony, Sega’s time to get back on top was now fools. I can’t quite remember the outcome but I’m sure it played out something like that in the end.

And then it came, December 1st, 2000. Finally, Shenmue arrived here in the UK. It had already released in the United States, so I’d been teased even further with what my future held. Finally, I could get the game I had coveted so much for like, a whole six months or so. This was it, however…

I was broke. At fifteen I wasn’t exactly rolling in cash. But chin up, there’s a rather big event in December known as ‘Christmas’, you might have heard of it. Another three weeks or so, hell, I could wait.

Christmas day came, my grandad, Colin, had travelled over from Lancashire to join us for the holidays. He handed me a present, shaped like a game. “This is it”, I thought. Finally, I was going to be able to play Shenmue. I opened the gift eagerly; I saw the blue outline of the Dreamcast case. Get in! I finally had…Ferrari F355 Challenge…Thanks Grandad, just what I was hoping for.

It wasn’t Shenmue granted but to be fair I had fun with it, and I was grateful for him going out of his way to buy me something he knew I had an interest in. I was happy just to see him. Plus, it was directed by Yu Suzuki, so we were going in the right direction at least. As luck would have it enough money dropped out of Christmas cards to afford Shenmue and I walked to the shops with my grandad a couple of days later to get hold of it.

A Mue Day Has Come

It was everything I’d dreamed it would be.

It’s difficult for people who didn’t play it at the time to appreciate just how good that opening cinematic was. The crunch of Ryo’s footsteps in the freshly fallen snow as he runs towards his home, along with the stunning graphics and music score are etched in my memory forever. It was something I hadn’t experienced before, a true cinematic experience in a video game.

The biggest thing for me is that it was different. I’d never played anything like it before and I was hooked. It may harken back to the old point and click adventure games in some ways, but truth be told I hadn’t played many of them. I have done since and I have Shenmue to thank for me exploring some essential games like the Monkey Island series.

The gameplay loop of investigating and fighting really appealed to me as well. Considering where to go next to progress the story by remembering the faces and places you’d visited. I bet hotdog Tom knows where I can get a tattoo. The combat was well crafted and it felt satisfying to pull off the moves that you learned across your journey.

The music score is still one of my favourites, and one of the only parts of the game I will not hear criticism of. The main theme of the game is a haunting masterpiece that I still listen to today. Again, I think this may be the first game I genuinely appreciated the music of. Of course I love the music from earlier games, with Final Fantasy games springing to mind straight away. However, the music in Shenmue felt special to me; a beautiful piece I could sit and listen to without playing.

Fuck Lan Di. I’m all in on this revenge mission, Ryo. Let’s do this. The story pulled me in, the intrigue carrying me through the campaign. The characters you interact with I’d consider to be memorable. Over the top? You bet, it’s part of the charm.

How the game handled time was also something that at that moment blew me away, with the day playing out over 24 hours. What? I can’t go to the travel agency because it’s not open yet. This is unheard of! It added a sense of realism to the game and I’d happily whittle away the time playing darts at the arcade whilst waiting.

Of course, I could not write an article about Shenmue without mentioning a certain type of industrial vehicle. The Forklift, in all its glory. I can honestly say I’d never driven a forklift in a game before now and I’ve never driven one since.

I didn’t play Shenmue II until it appeared on the Xbox 360, preferring the English voice cast I was used to over the Japanese (don’t shoot me). Again I thoroughly enjoyed it. Being similar to the first other than some admittedly needed quality of life changes.

The majoirty of what I said about the first game applies to the second as well so I won’t repeat myself. Needless to say the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong made for a unique contract to the pretty rural area of China where you meet Shenhua for the first time. Closer to your goal of reaching Lan Di and avenging your father.

However, that is where the Shenmue story sadly ends. Unfinished and unresolved.

Or was it?

That Announcement

Oh boy.

It might not be what it once was, but I always enjoy the E3 conferences. Back in 2015 these peaked as Sony presided over what was for me the best conference we’d ever seen. I guess the PS2 must have done alright after all.

The conference started in the early hours of the morning here in the UK. Usually I’d stay up to watch them all, the sucker for announcements and hype that I am. Of all the conferences for me to decide that sleeping before work was more important, why did I pick this one…

When I woke up the day after, still groggy as I snoozed my alarm, I picked up my phone and went to a popular gaming website to see what I’d missed.

The Last Guardian! Finally, something people had waited years for was happening. That must be nice for them. Final Fantasy 7 Remake! What! What is going on here! As a huge Final Fantasy fan this was music to my ears. What a conference, this must be the end of the big…Announcements. What…The…Fuck…

I wasn’t feeling groggy or tired suddenly. I read the words multiple times. Was this real? Am I still asleep? I pinched my arm. Well that hurt, I must be awake. Shenmue 3…On Kickstarter. Take all of my money Mr. Suzuki. All of it. Well, some of it.

It was surreal to read the words “Shenmue III”. I couldn’t believe it, and I wasn’t the only one, people on the internet lost their minds. There is the famous clip from Game Trailers of the staff members losing their shit at the announcement. I don’t blame them, I wish I’d have been awake to watch it but hell, who cares, I was getting Shenmue III as long as it was funded. And it was, setting records in the process. Perfect, now all we had to do was wait.

The Wait and the…Hate?

And wait we did. It wasn’t until over four years after that announcement that Shenmue III finally saw the light of day. Was it worth that wait? That’s up for debate. Personally, I enjoyed the game as a throwback to the original two, but it was never going to really appeal to new fans. It captured Shenmue in the way I remembered 19 years earlier; pretty in what I can only describe as a ‘Shenmue way’, the music was as pleasant as ever and it had all the quirkiness I craved. It made me smile.

The thing that struck me most in this period of waiting was people’s attitudes towards the Shenmue series. In my naivety I believed everyone held it up as a pinnacle of gaming evolution, a moment in time that shaped the future of gaming as we know it. The cinematic feel, the moving music score, the popularisation of quick time events (QTEs). Well, ok maybe the last one isn’t a great example.

The friends I was talking to online were not fans of the game. Why? Is this possible? I realised quickly I’d been living in my own little bubble for years, along with a few close friends who also appreciated its magnificence.

The reasons they gave we varied and, to be honest, fair. The voice acting isn’t for everyone, even at the time. The time constraints of the game and the periods of waiting around veered towards tedious rather than realism. Not everyone enjoys asking around town for where they can find some sailors.

It was an eye opener to be sure, and at times I wondered if I was right to hold it up in the high regard that I do. Was I right to enjoy it as much as I did and consider it up there with some of the finest games ever made?

Of course I was, it’s me and I have my own opinions. Just as those who have fair criticisms of the series or its impact on video gaming have theirs.

Memories

I’ve mentioned how I found the game to be so memorable and why I love the series as much as I do, however I’d like to take you back to the beginning of the story.

The day my grandad took me to buy Shenmue back when I was still a teenager was the last time I’d see him. He had terminal cancer at the time and not living locally we didn’t get to visit him very often. He passed away before I’d had chance to see him again after that day. I will always feel a tinge of guilt for wanting to rush home that day as we sat in Debenhams café for a cup of tea. I sat transfixed by the new game I held in my hand rather than appreciating the moment for what it was.

There isn’t often a time I play Shenmue without memories of my grandad. It is a special game to me, yes. But not just because the impact it had on my gaming preferences or gaming in general. It will always conjure up important memories from outside the game for me and it will always have a place in heart for that reason.

Is that so…

I love Shenmue, I’ve made that abundantly clear. Some people do not love Shenmue, and that’s ok too.

Video games can mean a lot to us for a variety of different reasons. It might be because it was the game that got you into gaming, a game that touched upon real life that may apply to yourself, or perhaps it could be how you came about getting the game. Chances are it’s a mixture of various things. Friends and I, particularly on Discord have a lot of banter about the games we like. I take a lot of friendly stick for my enjoyment of the Shenmue series. But do not worry my fellow Shenmue fans, I give as much as I take with what people’s favourite games are. It’s all in good humour.

Does it have to be a good game? Not at all. Is Shenmue a good gaming series? To me it is but I accept it isn’t for everyone. I don’t think the half-arsed approach to the remasters, or Shenmue III being as faithful to the original concept as it was is going to change that any time soon.

I would honestly like Shenmue 4 to perhaps veer slightly more towards the modern if it were to happen. But not too far.

No pressure, Yu.

If you have any games or series that mean a lot to you for reasons that you’d like to share I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Or why not join us on Discord for a natter.


Enjoyed what you’ve read? Check out our features on Cloudpunk and My Time at Portia!

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Co-owner and senior editor at CountrCultur.com. Follow Rich on Twitter to learn all about the virtues of Shenmue.

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