Republished on Thursday, 18th August 2018: We're bringing this article back from the archives in celebration of Shenmue I & II's impending release on the PlayStation 4. The original text follows.
Originally published on Thursday, 16th July 2015: I don't remember the day that the snow turned to rain, but I do remember when I first learned about Shenmue. I must have been no more than 11-years-old at the time, and I'd been bought a copy of EDGE magazine. It had one of those customary end-of-year features spotlighting all of the exciting upcoming games, and in it was a small section on Yu Suzuki's magnum opus. There couldn't have been more than a paragraph of text on the title, but there was a screenshot of protagonist Ryo Hazuki looking up at an overhead plane. Call it instinct, but I knew right there and then that I had to play this game, and so I started the arduous task of trying to convince my parents that I had to trade every Nintendo 64 game that I owned for the recently released Dreamcast. I was lucky enough to acquire SEGA's shiny new system alongside a copy of Sonic Adventure just prior to the end of the year.
Even though I ply my trade with PlayStation these days, I'm comfortable admitting that Sony isn't entirely responsible for my love of games. Naturally, I grew up with the likes of Crash Bandicoot, WipEout, and Spyro the Dragon, but there were three particular titles that truly opened my eyes to what this industry could be: Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Shenmue. These were formative releases for me; all three changed the way that I think about games today, and I hold them responsible for the reason that I'm sitting here writing this article in the first place.
You have to understand, however, that my understanding of the industry 15 years ago was much different to what it is now. I didn't know who Yu Suzuki was – although, ironically, I was already a big fan of Space Harrier, OutRun, Super Hang-On, and Virtua Cop. All I knew back then was that Shenmue had utterly captivated me from the moment that I saw the aforementioned EDGE screenshot. And it continued to do so. I remember one issue of Official Dreamcast Magazine enforced my excitement, as it shipped with a demo disc that included a six-minute video outlying the scope of the title. It was unbelievable, describing a release so massive in scope that it would "transcend games". I must have watched the clip tens of times over, picking out every last piece of detail, and waiting patiently for the European release date to arrive.
The European release date did arrive on 1st December, 2000. I'd not long started at high school at the time, and had, of course, listed 'Shenmue' right at the top of my Christmas list. Disaster struck, however, when one of my best friends had saved up the money to buy the game on release day. I was thus forced to wait over three weeks before I could play my copy, while my buddy slowly worked his way through the campaign. Naturally, I was invited to come and take a look at the game in action – my excitement for it was well documented by everyone at the time – but I resisted the temptation. I wanted to play it for myself, and in my own time.
I can still quote much of Shenmue's first cut-scene from memory alone – it's become an absolutely iconic sequence for me
Christmas Day eventually arrived, and – as I'd anticipated – my copy of Shenmue sat under the tree. I don't remember the day in all that much detail to be honest, but I do remember booting up the title and watching the intro movie for the first time. It hasn't aged especially gracefully, I suppose – the voice acting was a source of amusement among family members even at the time – but its scope and ambition was unparalleled. I can still quote much of the first cut-scene from memory alone – it's become an iconic sequence for me.
But the thing that I remember really impressing me was just the sheer scope of the world. SEGA dubbed it Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment, a dodgy acronym spelling out the word 'free'. Grand Theft Auto III wouldn't arrive until a year later, so the terms 'open world' and 'sandbox' hadn't even been coined at the time. But unlike Rockstar's release, this was a game that made the mundane a core tenet: shopping, working, and heading home to bed were just some of the chief mechanics on display. And yet this is something that I appreciate in games even today; Life Is Strange, Heavy Rain, and, to a lesser extent, the Yakuza series all deal with daily life in different ways, which I find makes them more relatable than most other games.
Shenmue really was the master of embedding you into its world, though. Yes, the untimely murder of your father offered ample motivation for you to proceed with the plot, but the game never pressured you to rush. I'd spend a lot of my time just exploring, interacting with non-playable characters and kicking back in the Game You arcade. For those of you with memories long enough to remember Dream Arena, I was the holder of a Top 100 score in Excite QTE 2. But I was also hooked by the story, and so I did push on with the plot. And that's when disaster struck.
You're not going to Hong Kong
It took me a long time to finish Shenmue – too long. All of my friends completed it before me, but I got stuck. I bought every guide, read every website, and talked to every person who would listen, but I could not get a particular cut-scene to trigger. I re-started the game five or six times, and played through to the same point on Disc Three each and every time. Eventually, I gave up.
The issue is better documented these days. I would learn many years later that the title included a glitch whereby if you take the wrong route in the forklift it's impossible to progress. My Dad, who had always been intrigued by the title, decided to give it a go. And he got stuck at the same point, too. But where my youthful impatience had forced me to concede, he persevered. And he repeated the same day of work – the bug caused the story to loop – over and over again. I don't remember the exact details, but I'd estimate that he spent at least ten evenings enduring the same sequence. Eventually, he got the cut-scene to pop – and he completed the game.
It was a weird time for me. Shenmue was a game that I'd been waiting for forever, and yet I felt like I was the last person in the world to see the plot conclude. I avoided any spoilers from my Dad's playthrough and, once he was finished, I decided to give it one last attempt. I played through the entire game again, taking my time, and – much to my surprise – the cut-scene that had eluded me previously finally popped. My limited understanding of technology at the time led me to believe that my father's frequent playthroughs had etched out a previously irretrievable part of the disc; in reality, the hiatus that I took from the game must have led to me taking the 'correct' forklift path. Either way, I finally finished the game.
Looking back at it now, I actually think that the bug increased my appreciation of the release. I've never been the sort of person that replays titles multiple times, but I played through the majority of Shenmue seven or so times in the span of six months. I came to appreciate every single aspect of the game, and in trying to overcome the bug, the way in which I explored was elevated to a higher level. The problem soured me for a period, but once I'd seen the story end with Ryo Hazuki sailing to Hong Kong, it cemented itself as one of my all-time favourites, where it's still yet to really be replaced.
Maybe some other time
In fact, there's only one game that I'd put on the same pedestal: Shenmue II. The interesting thing was, during the period where I'd been stuck on the original game, SEGA had announced that it was ceasing production of the Dreamcast. This, alongside the release of the Game Boy Advance and the PlayStation 2, meant that once I'd finished the first game, my interest in the system started to decline. I stopped buying Official Dreamcast Magazine, and started to lose interest in the console that I had adored so much for the first year or so that I owned it. Shenmue II, ultimately, was not even on my radar when it launched on 23rd November, 2001 in Europe – but, given how much I'd played the original game, I still received it as a gift that Christmas.
Shenmue II was very much built upon the blueprints of its predecessor, but even at the time I was infinitely impressed by its much greater scope
I certainly remember being pleased with the game, but it was different to the year prior. I didn't rush upstairs to play it, and nor did I even start it until a few days later. Over the Christmas holiday we had a bit of a family emergency, which meant that I was left at home alone for much of one of the days. With nothing better to do I booted up the game, and worked through an enormous portion of it in one sitting. Whereas my consumption of the first title had been so protracted, I gorged on its sequel. I would ultimately get through the whole thing in a matter of days, and would go on to hail it as one of my all-time favourites, too.
Shenmue II was very much built upon the blueprints of its predecessor, but even at the time I was infinitely impressed by its much greater scope. Hong Kong felt gigantic compared to the tight city streets of Yokosuka, and while that made it tougher to navigate, it meant that there was more to discover. The sequel introduced several memorable characters as well: Ren, Joy, and Shenhua being the most obvious names. And, finally, the ambition of the narrative was much greater; looking back on it today, it makes the first game seem like a prologue of kinds. Of course, it all concludes with a cliff-hanger – one which we're still waiting to be properly resolved.
I would ultimately play through Shenmue II multiple times, too – but not on the Dreamcast. I picked up a second-hand copy of the Xbox version which released a couple of years later, and that's always been my 'main' version since – mostly because I like the English voiceovers. Over the years, I've taken the game on holiday with me many times, and probably played through it entirely on eight or so occasions. The difference this time around is that all of those subsequent playthroughs have been through choice – I never got stuck like in the original game. Considering that I'm not someone that tends to replay games, I know this series like the back of my hand.
And all of this brings us to the present day, and the announcement of Shenmue III. I really wasn't looking forward to E3 this year; the convention's meant to be Christmas for the gaming calendar, but the hours are long and the pressure is high. As such, I was willing it to be over before it had even started. I'd written an article on the morning of Sony's press conference writing off a couple of rumours regarding Shenmue III and Final Fantasy VII Remake, and I remember bringing it up during a chat with others prior to the Japanese giant's big show. I distinctly remember saying that the game "will never happen". But it did.
Some people were baffled by the reaction to the PlayStation presser this year. Sony didn't really announce any Christmas exclusives – I don't think it needs any, personally – so how could it 'win' the convention on the back of a Kickstarter and a CG trailer? Well, you have to remember what franchises like Shenmue and Final Fantasy mean. For a new generation of gamers, born in the late 90s, these series may not carry a whole lot of weight – but for me, with Shenmue in particular, it made me want to write about games. The fact that a sequel should show up when I'd long written off the idea of it ever happening at all was a dream come true. I'm still pinching myself today.
Don't get me wrong, I'm still able to maintain objectivity: I think Shenmue III may run into problems. For starters, I'm not sure how Yu Suzuki intends to make this game. If he returns to the campy style of the originals, then it's going to come across dated by modern standards – but if he tries to evolve it all, then he may lose the heart of the series all the same. It's almost an impossible project, and it's not helped by the fact that he's working with a wafer-thin budget after being out of the console development game for over a decade. But this is a series that means so much to me – and clearly to him – that I'm willing to take the ride whatever happens. I can't wait.
At the time of typing, you still have over 24 hours to contribute to the development of Shenmue III. There's certainly no pressure from me, but if you're interested in seeing the sequel get made, then remember to back the Kickstarter while you still have time.