Shenmue III

So, here we are. Yu Suzuki and Sony announced at E3 that they are going to make the long awaited third instalment in the Shenmue franchise. If that sentence means nothing to you, this post will mean nothing to you, and the internet's recent reaction to that announcement will mean nothing to you. It was just one of three bombshell announcements at E3 by Sony, the other two being that they are finally going to release The Last Guardian, a game first announced back in 2009 and is made by the creators of one of the best-regarded games of all time, and that they are actually going to remake what many consider to be the best game in Final Fantasy franchise, Final Fantasy VII, a wish that many had longed for.

I don't own a PlayStation. I have never owned a PlayStation. I wanted one - I asked for one so many times as a teenager it became a running joke between myself and my parents, and when I did get a new games console I picked the SEGA Dreamcast, a decision that I've never regretted in my life. I've spoke at length about the Dreamcast and my love for it over the past eight years of this blog, including this post specifically about it and what the console means/meant to me.

I Really Like/Liked Shenmue

Back in late 2012 I wrote a long series of posts about my Favourite Computer Games in five parts. You can read all five parts here (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) but spoiler alert - here's the list.

  1. RollerCoaster Tycoon and RollerCoaster Tycoon 2
  2. SIM City 2000, SIM City 3000 and SIM City 4
  3. Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure
  4. Half-Life 2
  5. Shenmue and Shenmue II
  6. Command and Conquer: Red Alert
  7. Mass Effect Trilogy
  8. Theme Hospital
  9. Crazy Taxi
  10. 007: GoldenEye

Notice that both of the Shenmue titles are in fifth place, usurped by Half-Life 2, regarded as a technical and conceptual masterpiece, five Sonic games (from the heyday of the series), three titles from the SIM City series, and two games from the Rollercoaster Tycoon series. Shenmue is easily one of the most important titles in my love of games, however, as it changed in my mind what games could be.

Before I get into the game and why I loved it so much, here's an extract from the above series of posts.

"If Mass Effect was my last great love, Shenmue was the first game that told me games could make you love" is a profound statement - and I meant it. I also qualified the entire list and the final positions with a final sentence... "Now, if Shenmue III were to be made on the otherhand…" which was entirely wishful thinking.

I also finished my short section on Shenmue with this phrase - "One day Shenmue III will be made, I know it". That day appears to have come.

It's Not Just Me, You Understand

I'm not the only one to have such a reaction to the game's announcement. I mean, I smiled wryly and shook my head, before the magnitude actually sunk in. I guess I always assumed that it would be made, just how and when was up in the air. But I guess I have been waiting for fourteen years to complete the story (and I'll explain the reason why that's been such a sore long time when we get to the plot and concepts behind the game). I didn't have the reaction that these fine people had, but once upon a time I might have done, and we'll also come to that. 

There's a lot to unpack here, so let's get down to it.

What Does Shenmue Mean?

I described the series back in 2012 in a very short few sentences that don't do the game justice. There are two parts to why Shenmue was and is held is such high regard, and they are key to understanding why this is a big deal and why it's important to so many people. It might also provide some context as to the screaming that takes place in that video above, but also why the game made over $2.8 million on Kickstarter within 24 hours.

The two parts are split as the story and the gameplay. These days, the story part might seem a bit dated what with all the massively expansive games that have existed since, and the gameplay certainly hasn't dated well, but for the time they were so far ahead of the pack of other titles it's not hard to see why even 15 years since the first game the impact is still being felt on gaming today.

The Story

The story of Shenmue is pretty simple, at first. Ryo Hazuki comes home to find his father being confronted by an old friend, Lan Di. They are arguing about something called the Dragon Mirror, and Iwao, Ryo's father, fights Lan Di, and is fatally wounded, Lan Di escaping. Ryo, who was hurt in the fight, vows to avenge his father. So far, so normal. But the storyline isn't just a quick set up - that's the start of the game, and from there... it's up to you to play to work out what happened though clues, interrogation, and finally travelling far and beyond to discover why Lan Di killed your father, and what the Dragon Mirror actually is. 

The story doesn't take place in a fantasy world. Nor does it take place in a present day world either - instead, it's set back in 1986, starting in Yokosuka, Japan, and ending up hundreds of miles away in Guilin, China, as part of the cliffhanger ending (we will get to that). The game world isn't punctuated by levels, bosses (not really) or anything resembling a traditional game. You have to learn fight moves, discover who to talk to and when you can talk to them (we'll get to time) and in the game world, which is still one of the most fully realised ever put in a game, you can spend your entire time spending money playing arcade games. That's right, you have to get a job - in the first game, it's as a fork lift driver, and later in II as a librarian and other small things.

The story expands and contracts beautifully - as you realise that you're going to have to leave for Hong Kong and later Kowloon, you have to save money for the boat trip and say goodbye to those you love and have loved - one painfully emotional moment being a goodbye with Naomi, who appears to be a love interest of sorts. Later in my life, during a play through of Mass Effect 3, I will say goodbye to many characters that I've enjoyed time with, some sacrificing themselves for the greater good, and it'll hit me hard. But Shenmue, with is crude animation and rudimentary voice acting, still managed to elicit emotions from me, a emotion-denying teenage boy who thought it was "gay" to cry. 

I don't know if they will do HD remakes, so this might be a spoiler, but the cliffhanger is unreal. After spending hours and hours kicking about Kowloon to find Lan Di, you finally confront him on the top of one of the towers. He escapes, but not before a massive twist - the reason that Lan Di killed your father? Your father killed his. But that's not important - what is is that the two mirrors, the original Dragon and the sister Phoenix Mirror, will bring back a massive mystical dynasty. In the final chapter, you head to China and meet Shenhua (from the title of the game) who Ryo has been seeing in his dreams. He finds a sword and as he picks it up... a cave opens to discover a massive version of the two mirrors.

And then it ends. Over 70 hours of gameplay that leads to the biggest cliffhanger in gaming... even if it had been resolved in a timely fashion by Shenmue III (and possibly IV at the time) completing the series. Instead, 14 years later, I'm still waiting.

The Gameplay

It's not just the story that makes Shenmue one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time, but for those of us who played it and lived it, it certainly stands as the main reason for wanting to go back. The gameplay of the titles were revolutionary at the time, providing a large open real world, with exploration and branched narratives that showcased what the new generations of games consoles could do. Remember, let's place this game in time - there was no PS2 when it came out, it was going up against the PS1 and Nintendo 64, as the Dreamcast's biggest foe was that it was just too early.

The reception to the game, unlike most, has actually been kind. Yes, it's dated a bit and the cut scenes and some of the graphics are a bit shonky now, but everything felt solid, something that games would struggle with for years afterwards. It presented a real world with real people. Conversations weren't cut scenes, you could chose to talk to them in different ways using the D-pad, with conversation options that would later be so powerful in Mass Effect appeared here, though not for the first time.

Where Shenmue truly innovated was in the QTE - the quick time event. This was invented for Shenmue and has since appeared in almost every major game since. In fact, the ending of Mass Effect 3, which was wholly shit, was boiled down to a three-way QTE. Since, they've been panned for basically being a cheap way to make a game (reducing actions to a single button press) but they're used sparingly and effectively in Shenmue, and at least had a novelty.

Other gameplay areas of innovation included the open world aspect. Prior to Shenmue, open world games were stuff like Mario 64, maybe the N64 Zelda series, and the exploration areas of some first person shooters. Shenmue gave players no time limit and a large number of side-quests to fulfil (like feeding an orphaned cat, or gambling your hard earned cash away on Pachinko games, or arm wrestling contests) that would later become the bread and butter of an entire range of million-selling games, like the Grand Theft Auto series post Grand Theft Auto III. 

Time featured too - there was a watch in the bottom corner of the screen showing the time, and you could only do certain things at certain times - you can't talk to that character because they're at work, or they won't be back 'til 6pm. Also, saving the game was mostly done at your home, in bed, and would advance time on a few game hours. In fact, because the game is actually set in a real place in a real 1985, the weather actually was the real weather for that time and day. I remember finding out about that and it blowing my mind.

The Music

I didn't mention the music before as a key part and to be honest, it's not that important or key in the longevity of the title, but the theme music, Shenhua's Theme, is one of the most beautiful game soundtracks ever. Seriously, just listen to it. 

Fuck yer Halo theme, that's the most emotive game music I've ever heard, and it just feels epic. The rest of the game's soundtrack is pretty good, with nice interstitial music and some good themes for certain characters, but the opening scene of Shenmue II, as Ryo stands on the bow of the ship that has taken from his home town of Yokosuka to Hong Fucking Kong... chills man, chills.

It's Place in Gaming Today

After reading all of the above you might now understand why people today (and some people of a certain age) might consider it to be one of the greatest games of all time. It's gameplay and design inferred one of the most influential popular culture events of my life, the rise of Grand Theft Auto and it's not hard to imagine what it might have been like if Shenmue had been made... maybe five years later. But it was expensive, being the first of it's type, costing in today's money somewhere around $67 million, and it was released on a console that had no hope of being able to support the sales it needed. Many call it SEGA's magnum opus, and it's not hard to disagree, as they've not done anything as ambitious or as successfully since (thought their Yakuza series is pretty close to Shenmue and it's famously successful in Japan and the Rest of the World, though I've not played it).

What Shenmue is today is fan-service, sadly, and that's why Sony were probably unsure if it was worth sinking millions into to develop. Considering SEGA lost millions on it it's probably not worth it, unless there is a big show of support. Which is where the Kickstarter came in - I'm not going to donate/pledge for it, as I have nothing to play it on these days, but I probably will come early 2018. 

That's my biggest sadness about this whole thing, though. I love Shenmue. It sits happily in my gaming life as one of the most wonderful experiences I had gaming on my Dreamcast. It showed me so much about gaming and what it could be, and overtime it's promise was fulfilled by other titles and other developers. It's a story that needs completing, but I am sad that it's happening at a time where I've completely retreated from gaming entirely. I don't play my Xbox any more, my Dreamcast is packed away and I have no idea where my Mega Drive is. I don't play games any more, and the announcement of Shenmue reminds me why that is the case - they don't make (many) games that I want to play any more.

I am happy to play Rollercoaster Tycoon on a six year old piece of shit laptop. I will one day hook my Dreamcast back up and play Shenmue again, probably. But, my reaction to Shenmue III was muted because I'm no longer excited by games at all any more. And... what saddens me the most is that even fucking Shenmue III has only got me excited a little bit. They even announced a new Mass Effect at E3! 

Sigh. The news is exciting. It is! But maybe, in my older age, I'm just less enthused by the prospect of spending £400 on a new console for one game. Or maybe two, who knows. I'll be watching for any appearance of sailors with close eyes.