So then, welcome to Shenmusings! This introductory post serves to give you an idea of what to expect from the blog, as well as a little about why I am so passionate about this series, and how I first discovered it and became part of the fandom and online community (surely there can’t be a more persistently hopeful fanbase than ours?). I honestly consider both Shenmue games to certainly be up there as among some of the best games of all time (and criminally overlooked and underappreciated), and as writing just happens to be another passion of mine, I thought it high time to express my love of these games, and offer a blog that explores thematic discussion of the story, little known facts and tidbits from both games, and also posts like this one, about my own personal history with the series.
I had already grown up on a steady diet of Sega games before Shenmue’s arrival at the turn of the millennium; this had begun when I obtained a Mega Drive bundled with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (the Sonic series is the other great passion of mine in video gaming, even if the blue blur has had an admittedly checkered history over his 25+ years). Me and my brother must have spent countless hours playing that game, certainly past our bedtimes in some cases. Though I had messed about with Pac-Man and a few other games on my parents’ old Atari, this was my true introduction to video gaming. I stuck with Sega loyally from then on, even keeping faith in my trusty Saturn despite the dawn of the PlayStation in the same era, and of course with the similarly troubled Dreamcast; before Sega bowed out of the hardware game completely. One of their last hurrahs, however, was of course the Shenmue games (the sequel truly being one of the Dreamcast’s very last games), developed by their Sega AM2 division, headed by the great Yu Suzuki. Suzuki, of course, had been responsible for some of Sega’s most notable and ground-breaking arcade experiences up to that point – Hang-On, Space Harrier, After Burner and Out Run all making an impact through the 80’s (and all later playable in the Shenmue games)– and then of course, the arrival of Virtua Fighter in the early 90’s, one of the very first 3D fighting games, and another Sega series I ended up becoming a fan of. In fact, Shenmue started life as Virtua Fighter RPG, Ryo’s role as main character originally belonging to Akira Yuki, the poster boy of the VF series.
After it was later changed to be a unique IP, a sprawling epic of a game was planned out – to be split into multiple chapters and games (it would appear the first two games were initially planned to be one, given the amount of early screenshots that depict scenes and characters that wouldn’t appear until the sequel) – with a budget purported to be somewhere around $70 billion. Ambitious was certainly the word, with promises of open-world gameplay, a full time of day and weather system, NPC’s with fully fleshed out daily schedules, while marrying various genres of gameplay such as role-playing, fighting, action and adventure. While unfortunately commercial failures, these games did pave the way for open world games in the future, and considered by many, in hindsight, to be truly ahead of their time. There really wasn’t anything quite like Shenmue; for better or for worse.
I first became aware of Shenmue after reading a preview in Computer and Video Games magazine (a UK publication, now sadly no more), and the screenshots shown just wowed me instantly, as did the concept of open-world gameplay. (Thanks to the good folks at RetroCDN, I was able to track down scans of the issue, #208 from March 1999 – see for yourself here on pages 6 to 8!) I followed magazine coverage of the game intently from then on (remember, this was in the very early days of the internet – something which I didn’t possess until shortly after completing the second game!), so when I was finally able to play the PAL version on Christmas Day in 2000, I was enthralled. The level of detail, the realism of the characters and the environments, was something that almost bordered on ridiculous at the time. I clearly remember watching that opening sequence and being taken aback by the fact there were actually fish – detailed, moving fish! – in the pond at the Hazuki Dojo as Ryo wandered through the grounds to ultimately witness the death of his father. My awe then continued as I got into the game proper – the sheer number of unique NPC’s wandering around, the simple yet crucial touches of an in-game clock and a proper day and night system, watching snow and rain realistically fall as passers-by whipped out their umbrellas; not to mention the many distractions the game offers alongside the main story, such as collecting the toys from the capsule toy machines, stopping by the arcade to play those old classic Sega games – and simply wandering and soaking in the rich, living breathing environment that Sega AM2 were able to create.
The ‘feel’ of these games is something I have often found myself struggling to adequately describe; but series creator Yu Suzuki has been able to express it in his choice to use Unreal Engine 4 for Shenmue III – as he feels it would be able to express what he calls ‘The Shenmue Colour’ – which he defines as “The atmosphere, the humidity, a world with ‘smell’” – which I feel sums up the ‘feel’ of the games perfectly – the first game presents the sleepy, often grey neighbourhoods of Yokosuka – the fact that the game takes place in winter is obvious even without consulting the in-game calendar, it just somehow manages to convey it, as well as the idea of the world being ‘lived in’. All of the imperfections and rough edges of real life are there; tattered posters and graffiti on walls, the odd closed down and boarded up shop here and there; Shenmue prides itself on the little details, the background noise to Ryo’s quest for revenge– you’ll see people drunkenly wander home after hitting the various bars in town, dogs are heard barking in the distance– and best of all, you hear the satisfying ‘crunch’ as you step on a bit of snow, pieces even lingering on the ground the day after. This continues in Shenmue II’s Hong Kong, which immediately and effortlessly presents itself as a strange and frightening land for our unsuspecting protagonist; from the irritatingly persistent tour guides to shady gambling dens, and later a breath-taking recreation of a dilapidated city lost to history, culminating in the more peaceful greenery of Guilin, which even so never feels artificial or idealised. In short, the ‘Shenmue Colour’ as Suzuki calls it, is able to create a convincing environment that you really can truly lose yourself in, which I personally believe very few games have ever been able to match, even now.
Going back to the sequel – Shenmue II of course, was a game I was very much eagerly awaiting after the first one. And naturally, on Christmas Day of 2001, I received it as a present, and proceeded to spend most of the day in my bedroom completely immersed in it (as I am in the UK, luckily I was able to buy the Dreamcast version – I can only imagine what a blow it was for American fans to discover it had been cancelled there). I remember being completely amazed by the sheer scale of it, even by the Wan Chai area alone; games were not supposed to be this big! (of course it is miniscule compared to the worlds in games like Breath of the Wild now, but it was truly a marvel in 2001). The more streamlined and slightly more action-focused feel from the original was appreciated too, even if some of the finer details and nuances of the open world were lost. The fact that the PAL Dreamcast version had a Japanese voice track and English subtitles helped add to the ‘stranger in a strange land’ feel as well (the original Shenmue had an English dub, the quality of which is perhaps questionable in places but it is undeniably a part of the charm, and later nostalgia for those of us who first experienced the game in this way). I still consider it an amazing game even now, but of course it was something of a bittersweet one at the time. It came at the same time of Sega’s announcement of the discontinuation of the Dreamcast, and indeed their end of producing hardware altogether. But, my goodness, what a bang to go out on. The game literally pushed the console to its limits, and if the original was something of a gentle introduction, the sequel is where things got serious and really kicked off the saga properly…
Join me next time for Part 2, where I talk about my history with the online Shenmue community and fandom, as well as the long, agonising wait for any word on Shenmue III...until next time folks!