Year: Shenmue I, December 1999 – Shenmue 2, September 2001 – Remastered Edition I & II, August 2018 – Episode III upcoming August 2019
Developers: Shenmue I & II: SEGA -AM2 (Yu Suzuki, Yoichi Takahashi) – Remastered Edition I & II : D3T – Upcoming episode III: YS Net
Shenmue I (1999) is undoubtedly one of the best Video Games ever, a milestone that opened new creative perspectives, an innovative title ahead of its time; so much so that even today it is completely enjoyable and better than many other current games. Not to believe that a similar game was developed 20 years ago! Today playing Shenmue makes us think how little Video Games have evolved over the last two decades. Speaking of graphics, computational power and physics simulation, jump has been remarkable, but in terms of gameplay, mechanics, interactivity, narrative and expressive ambitions, progress has been small or null, especially if we refer to mainstream AAA titles; indeed in this case I would speak of regression! It must be clear, Shenmue is a mainstream AAA game, at the time it was recognized as the most expensive game ever: 70 million dollars for both episodes, approximately 45 million for the first one and the remaining for the second one. It greatly influenced later productions; it inspired all the titles by Quantic Dream and Telltale, as well as open world games like GTAIII (2001) and sequels, Mafia (2002) and Yakuza (2005) series, Fallout 3 (2008) , Deadly Premonition (2010), etc. etc.
Shenmue was conceived by the fertile creative mind of Yu Suzuki, also referred as Master in this article. At the time he was already an established and acclaimed game designer; he had already developed classic SEGA arcade games in 80s and early 90s: Super Hang-On, Space Harrier, Out Run, After Burner, Virtua Fighter. At the top of success and career Yu Suzuki decided it wasn’t enough: he wanted to break down the boundary between Video Games and Cinema! Opportunity came when SEGA produced the most powerful console of the time, Dreamcast, which inaugurated in 1998 the so-called sixth era of Video Games. Much more powerful than PS1, which was the epoch standard, it was outclassed a few years later by PS2 sales and suffered also Xbox and Game Cube competition; production was dismissed in 2001, just long enough to give birth to a masterpiece like Shenmue and its sequel. Exclusive link with an unpopular console like Dreamcast, selling only 9 million devices all over the world, was the cause of Shenmue’s scarce commercial success. At the time I was playing with PS1, PS2, Xbox and PC and knew Dreamcast only through gaming magazines; I remained unaware of Shenmue until the release of the first interactive drama by Quantic Dream, Faharenheit / Indigo Prophecy, which experts declared to be heavily influenced by Shenmue; that sparked my curiosity. Shenmue 2 (2001) was also released on Xbox in 2002 with a disastrous porting; it made no sense to buy it without playing the first episode, because they are two chapters that make up a single story. The first Dreamcast PC emulators arrived much later and with many flaws; meanwhile there were rumors about Shenmue remaster, so I decided to wait; then it passed out of my mind (mea culpa). Finally after many, too many years, the remaster for PC, XboxOne and PS4 arrived in 2018. While I’m writing this article, Yu Suzuki, no longer working at SEGA, is developing the third episode of the saga, upcoming on August 2019; which is why the first two episodes have been re-edited for the new generations of gamers. Because of the low diffusion of Dreamcast, these remasters are like first releases for the majority of players, even the less young like me.
Yu Suzuki wanted to break down frontiers between Cinema and Video Games. As consequence, narration is the starting and central point of Shenmue, coming even before challenges. In the last two decades we have become addicted to games developed starting from challenges and game mechanics, around which story is later glued, usually confined in passive cut scenes. There are plenty of challenges in Shenmue, but they arise from and are added to a central narrative nucleus. It’s a story of revenge and martial arts that features the young Japanese Ryo Hazuki; he helpless witnesses the assassination of his father by a powerful martial arts master; since then he decides to hunt down the murderer for avenging his father. I will say nothing more to avoid unpleasant spoilers. Obviously Shenmue wasn’t the first game to take story as the starting and central point; during the 90s, there were a lot of point & click graphic adventures, FMV games and 3D action titles developed around a strong narrative idea. Just to name a few on the fly: Alone in the Dark (1992), Resident Evil (1996), The Last Express (1997), Grim Fandango (1998), the Gabriel Knight series (1993-1999), etc. Compared to these and other titles, unforgettable gems of Video Games history, Shenmue took a huge leap; let’s see why.
Shenmue is a narrative action adventure in third person view fully developed with proprietary 3D graphic engine; the setting is surprising even after twenty years: an urban open world that at the time was extraordinarily realistic, detailed and really huge. Yu Suzuki used purely realistic cinematographic approach and reconstructed in 3D some areas of a Japanese city that actually exists: Yokosuka; more precisely, Yokosuka in 1986. The accessible locations are: the Hazuki house and dojo, two residential neighborhoods upon the hills, a large commercial area in the city and the big harbor. The Maestro manages to chisel atmospheres and peculiarities of those places so fine such to create a special emotional bond between them and the players. Finally a game that allows you to enter the everyday reality of the most westernized Japan, going beyond the folkloristic representations that have colonized our imagination. Even today there are people who prolong their stay in Japan to visit Yokosuka and the places immortalized in the game!
Shenmue Pilgrimage on Trip Advisor
Real Shenmue Locations Website
In 1999 Yu Suzuki, despite of graphic and technical limitations, succeeded in infusing atmosphere and expressiveness into an open world; which today open world games can only dream of! What is the secret of this creative alchemy and what can teach Shenmue to today developers? The secret lies precisely in narrative and expressive purposes. Open world is first and foremost the stage artfully designed for adding depth to characters and story, it is not the anonymous arena for heterogeneous challenges as the most recent titles since GTAIII onwards have accustomed us to. In the shoes of Ryo Hazuki, you go up and down the streets of Yokosuka all the time, enter shops to ask for informations and purchase items; you meet hundreds of NPCs and can make conversation with all of them if you like. Of course, there aren’t modern multiple-choice dialogues that titles like Life Is Strange have accostumed us to, they are really essential; sometimes you are able to ask for informations choosing from a small list of options, but choices are not influencing story so much, at most they introduce a few and negligible variations. However, at the time no one had never seen something like that before: talking to hundreds of NPCs within a 3D simulation of the real world with high graphic details. You estabilish even a special emotional bond with some NPCs, for example with your beloved Nozomi, the housekeeper Ine-San, the “half-brother” Fuku-San, the “freak” friend Tom; they come all with very realistic faces that for the time were rendered at the state of art just to favor empathy and get closer to cinematic realism. The same emotional bond is magically created with the iconic virtual places you live in, which take on the universal connotations of the places of our youth and adolescence.
Ryo is the typical boy from the Japanese province in the 80s; he follows western fashions, drinks coca cola, wears leather jacket, has punk-like hair. After the brutal death of his father, he is forced to grow and mature even faster, so that during the playing time he experiences a painful and unfinished transition from adolescence to adulthood; a critical passage that results in the choice of abandoning the places where he was born and his loved ones in order to chase the murderer of his father in China. A pursuit that reveals the metaphor of an existential journey in search of maturity and wisdom. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Shenmue himself can be seen in historical perspective as the pioneering attempt to pursue narrative and expressive maturity in Video Games! Right at the moment of departure, in the highlight scene where Ryo moves away from the city for going to the harbor, a feeling of deep nostalgia assails us and we realize the magic that Yu Suzuki has managed to create, the special bond with the virtual places where we lived for hours and days. Achieved realism, verisimilitude and expressive impact were surprising at the time, and they are effective still today; merit of the particular time management system. Our experience in the game world takes place following temporal scan similar to the real one, with alternation of day and night and of seasons; obviously time passes faster than the real one: 1 hour real time = 15 hours in game world. Weather conditions follow exactly the real weather bulletins of Yokosuka city in 1986! There are more than two hundred of NPCs and each of them runs a detailed scheduled daily agenda! No one had never seen something like that untill 1999!! Real time simulation helps you to immerse in Ryo’s family routine: you wake up every morning at 8:30 am and go to bed at 11:30 pm; at 5.30 pm it’s going dark and the street lights turn on, you can visit shops until 8:00 pm, then night bars open. Every day you can talk to your loved ones and friends and look for informations and clues. Your aim is to find informations about the murderer of your father; clue after clue you are involved in a sort of “treasure hunt“, with great moments of exploration and mystery; the few puzzles are worthy of the best graphic adventures.
Narrative details were inconceivable at the time, and they are associated with a big variety of interactions that leaves you astounded.
One of Shenmue’s secrets lies precisely in the attention to little things of everyday life. Reconstruction of family life in Ryo’s house is commendable; I’m was particularly impressed by Suzuki’s narrative inventions. With the left trigger you can focus on items and interact with them; if you focus on the dining table, a flashback is activated, a cut scene that shows Ryo as child sitting at the table while receiving wise teaching from his father; another flashback of his childhood starts when you focus on the cherry tree in the garden, father teaching Ryo martial arts. In this way the affective bond is deepened and motivation of revenge acquires greater consistency . How can we forget the long cycle of scenes where you have to help the children of the neighborhood taking care of a tender kitten day after day? Or the affective relationship with Nozomi always held back and never consummated, where the unspoken words matter most? Untill 1999 no one had seen action adventure games to pay attention at such expressive details, and we need to say that even today it is really rare to come across something similar. About the kitten sequence, let me point out the similitudes between the cat and Ryo; the kitten has lost its mother and now, under the care of children and Ryo, it must grow rapidly in order to survive and face the difficulties of life; once it is grown up, he would definitely move away from children and people who looked after him; the same as Ryo. No developers invested so many resources for similar narrative ellipses before 1999! Honor and glory to the Master! I hope today’s and future developers to take advantage of his teachings!
Realism of temporal scan involves more dilated times, but in my opinion this is part of the charm of the experience, which accustoms players to fluctuating and moderate pace, following the style of certain Japanese film directors (e.g. Akira Kurosawa). In moments of stagnation you can pass the time in many ways: attending to some secondary quests that you can access by interacting with NPCs, drinking cans from coin-operated vending machines, listen to music through Juke Box or Walkman, collect plastic dolls from distributors, playing slot machines, billiards, darts, loitering in arcade rooms where you can even play full versions of classic SEGA games such as Space Harrier and Super Hang-On. Speaking of two-wheels, in one of the highlight scenes you can really drive a motorcycle! The variety of gameplay leaves you astonished and does not end here.
Shenmue is a sort of martial arts RPG; Ryo uses kung fu to fight street gangs and boss connected to the murderer of his father; combat mechanics are reminiscent of games like Virtua Fighter, the number of moves and combinations is enormous. Ryo’s fighting skills increase as you train in the family dojo or in city parks; you meet several elderly martial arts masters teaching you new moves. Learning dynamic is very interesting: within a sort of tutorial, the masters show and explain the moves, but no one tell you movements and keys on your controller, you have to understand by yourself; a task that is anything but easy and that you can complete only after a few attempts. This is another one of the brilliant expressive and narrative inventions by Yu Suzuki, who manages to harmonize typical RPG mechanics with Ryo’s spiritual research and maturation along the martial arts path, a path that can also lead to the wrong way if not accompanied by patience and virtue. Contrast between Ryo’s/player’s impatience and the enigmatic and ironic wisdom of elderly masters is a real treat. To date, in 2019 there are no other action games where combat mechanics take on such strong content and existential connotation.
Shenmue is not just fighting. To pay for the trip to Hong Kong, Ryo is forced to abandon his studies and start working as longshoreman. One of the tasks that will keep us busy is to transport boxes with a forklift from the dock to the hangars. Here the Master really surpasses himself and shows the way for generations of developers to come: a game mechanic based on a work experience. Once again we are witnessing the perfect interpenetration between narration, content and game mechanics. Video Games becoming life experience! What Video Games Art has been preaching for years! In 1999, but still today, a similar concept was and remains bold and avant-garde, especially for a mainstream title. Who would have ever thought of using huge resources to create such an interactive mechanic, Ryo moving boxes with the forklift, in a sector where the most instinctive, elementary and cheap mechanics, shooting and killing without too much brain, have always been the standard,? My hats off to Master Suzuki, really ahead of its time! It is a pity not to have also implemented mechanics related to food, to the need of eating; idea seized by Swery in Deadly Premonition, which owes much to Shenmue.
RPG dynamics are also used to manage the financial resources of Ryo, who have to do the job at his best and transport as many boxes as possible to fatten his wallet. In addition, Ryo will receive a daily pocket money from housekeeper Ine-San. Money will be useful on various occasions and we will also have to pay attention to pickpockets.
Another intriguing feature is the non-linear narration, depeding on our choices and actions. We keep note on a diary of everything that happens day after day, but many pages remain blank. There are alternative ways to advance in our research, to which correspond different scenes and situations; we are not able to experience them all, unless we repeat the game several times!
You may think the plate is full, but I have not yet mentioned one of the main reasons why Shenmue is so celebrated in the history of Video Games. You know what QTEs are, isn’t it? Quick Time Events, right? Quantic Dream and Telltale games are full of QTEs. Well, it is Shenmue to introduce them in the form we are accustomed to! Yes, the genius of Suzuki, in search of the synthesis between Video Game and Cinema, has introduced such today abused mechanic. Be careful though! It is known that similar mechanic had already been used in Dragon’s Lair (1983) and in all laser disc arcades, and later emulated in some FMV games. But these are interactive films, clips of films that are visibly edited and glued; it is impossible not to notice the artifice due to the editing breaks that make action go intermittently. Shenmue’s QTEs are quite different, they are the same as in contemporary games; we find sporadic traces of QTEs in some earlier game, but nothing like what we see in Shenmue.
The long and numerous cut scenes are made entirely with the propretary graphic engine, without Motion Capture; yet they have cinema-level direction and editing, not to mention the graphic power that at the time had no equal. QTEs fit perfectly into the editing of cut scenes without breaks or slowdowns in the most dynamic scenes, making them fluid and interactive at the same time; an amazing result that has brought Cinema and Video Games together for the first time. Lesson immediately learned from David Cage at Quantic Dream that in 2005 released Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy! I am the first to say that today we have to go beyond QTEs and cut scenes and support storytelling with much more refined, sophisticated and immersive interactive mechanics such to not break the continuity of the gameplay; but hats off to Shenmue and his creator who 20 years ago anticipated and outclassed narrative ambitions of many contemporary games!
Of course it’s not all sunshine and roses. I have analyzed Shenmue taking into account that it is a game released in 1999. Even if it came out today, it would still be a very enjoyable and great game you should not miss; but I would probably not shout out it’s a masterpiece, because the value of innovations would be lost. Although Suzuki has enhanced narration and contents ahead of its time, Shenmue cannot be compared to current narrative games such as The Walking Dead S1, Life Is Strange, What Remains of Edith Finch, etc. It is not just a question of narrative techniques and mechanics, which in the mentioned games are obviously more refined. The limit of Shenmue lies in the level of maturity of the interactive medium; don’t forget it is a mainstream game of 20 years ago. Playful and disengaged moments, I would say adolescent and naive moments strictly focused on challenges with an end in themselves, sometimes they prevail over narrative and expressive intentions. To insert
challenges, fights and moments of brisk entertainment as much as possible, plot is sometime forced, exemplified, rushed, derailed, causing loss of cohesion, depth, realism and verisimilitude; sometimes we are involved in B-movies situations that are just a pretext for Ryo to fight. Depth and quality of scripts and dialogues are not always high, compromise with an entertainment product for adolescents or young adults is evident; the vocabulary of Ryo is really poor. Representation of some villains is quite weird, especially the grotesque bald and ever laughing karateka! Sometime there are secondary and negligible details affecting credibility of the narration and therefore immersion; let’s think for example of the forklifts race, a fun and entertaining moment, which inevitably breaks the realistic atmosphere and diminishes narrative and expressive purposes by forcefully bringing out amusement-park-like entertainment.
QTEs themselves have a main playful role, they represent the umpteenth challenge where you need quick reflexes for pressing the right button or moving the stick in the right direction as soon as possible. They are NOT designed to realize a more sophisticated interactivity in order to better integrate gameplay with narration and such to immerse player in story and characters; no, that was a later intuition of David Cage since Heavy Rain (2010) onwards. With few rare exceptions, Shenmue’s QTEs just tranform cut scenes in timed challenges. My last critic goes to the awkward and unintuitive “tank-like” movement control system; right trigger is used to accelerate and stick to give direction, a clumsy configuration that David Cage took up in Heavy Rain, and luckily it’s no more used today.
I feel almost guilty for highlighting such defects, which are at most atavistic limits of the way the interactive medium is understood and used still today. We are talking of a 20 years old game that, even in terms of storytelling, content and maturity, puts the majority of current mainstream titles out of doors. Shenmue is the 20 years old proof that Video Games can reach a narrative breath competing with movies; it is only a matter of submitting interactivity to narrative and expressive purposes; and if 20 years ago Shenmue has already reached a remarkable level that leaves you speechless, let’s think what developers could do with today’s technological possibilities. It is just a question of will, of vision: developers and artists have to create a new interactive language. As consequence, my final response is: MASTERPIECE. And you know, masterpieces cannot be valuated with ratings! By the way, Master Yu Suzuki is a genius! 🙂
Short anlisys of Shenmue II
In Shenmue II (2001) the game world becomes really huge in comparison to the first episode; our adventure takes place in two cities, Hong Kong and Kolown, and ends up in a remote corner of China, surrounded by rugged mountains and lush nature. Metropolitan locations lose the expressive features we appreciated in the first episode, they have not so much to transmit us, they are not so much detailed, they are gaming arenas, no particular emotional bond is created this time; indeed, in my opinion they are intentionally squalid, claustrophobic and oppressive in order to build contrast with the ending part of the game where we are immersed in the lustful nature of the Chinese mountains. Unfortunately empathy towards the supporting characters (Ren, Joy, Wong) is lacking, they are there just to make the action more interesting. There is no longer attention to little things, details, everyday life, relationships as in the first chapter. Shenmue II is strangely asymmetric and unbalanced, perhaps because Suzuki’s ambitions were not in line with the budget, this time smaller than the previous one due to the scarce sales of the first episode. Most of the game is set in the two cities and is aimed at QTEs, action and fighting; perhaps
challenges are too intrusive and sometimes even difficult and boring , yet necessary for going on. If you are looking for action, the pace is high, fun is granted, there are less downtimes than the first episode, but also less atmosphere because of more linear plot. I believe that Suzuki had to satisfy production requirements dictated by SEGA following the not encouraging sales of the first episode; however the simplification of the concept did not lead to an improvement in sales. I believe that the commercial failure of the saga was due not to the characteristics of the games themselves, but to the scarce diffusion of the Dreamcast and to the wrong marketing strategies by SEGA. However, I appreciated the long sequence focused on master Lishao Tao; here a particularly significant relationship is created, the only exception in this first long metropolitan part. Another highlight is the Yuan tailing scene; despite continuous interruptions by cut scenes, the mechanic represent a brilliant innovation and intuition that strongly drops the player in story and situation; not the usual playful challenge, but a more mature and immersive moment of interactivity, more integrated with narration, more similar to real life; thanks to the programmed AI of Yuan. We need more moments like this in contemporary games. Yu Suzuki once again demonstrates his genius and his ability to go beyond.
Just a curiosity: if you carefully explore the Phoenix Building, you can play the full arcade game After Burner! And in arcade rooms you can play the full original Out Run! They were both developed by Suzuki at SEGA.
The last part of the game is surprising, basically it turns into an interactive movie that lasts about two hours! To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into the details of the plot. We witness sharp change of setting and atmosphere, in order to create strong contrast with previous oppressive metropolitan settings where fightings were dominant. We find ourselves immersed in the most lustful, calm and poetic nature that the Dreamcast graphic engine could render at the time. Not so impressive compared to the current technological capabilities, today players could find graphics poor, but it was quite powerful to amaze players in 2001.
For two hours you are protagonist of a long series of cut scenes interspersed with several QTEs and some exploration quests devoted to the resolution of simple but significant environmental puzzles; no fighting and action, but a stream of dialogues with a few choices. And so many cut scenes where nature, mountains and animals have a major role; and also many flashbacks about the past of the protagonists. In the last two hours Suzuki focuses again on plot, characters, relationships, spirituality, poetry and magical atmosphere of the settings; however interactivity is weak because of an excess of cut scenes; the experience remains unbalanced and not comparable to the first episode. Despite this, I greatly appreciated such second part with a distinctly spiritual and cinematographic approach, which for the time had to seem at the forefront and outside the box.
Just like in the first episode, story does not end at all, in fact the game ends when the mystery reaches its climax and mixes with mystic elements! The final events foreshadow new exciting adventures and leave the player with more questions than those he started with and no answers. Again, Shenmue distinguishes itself from the rest of past and present games: I don’t know other games whose plot unfolds on such rich and long-term production; it is a bit like a story told through a series of very long and expensive movies distributed at intervals of several years; every single movie would not have a conclusion, but would end abruptly and foreshadow subsequent events as if it were a single episode of a really long term and ambitious tv series! Today we are at most used to games divided into 4 or 5 episodes of 2 or 3 hours each, released at intervals of two months; see Telltale titles. Just to be clear, play time is not fixed, it depends on personal experience, but on average Shenmue I lasts about 20 hours while Shenmue II takes about 30 hours !!! I saw something like this only in comics; for example Berlin (1996-2018, Jason Lutes) and Jonas Fink (1997-2018, Vittorio Giardino) are huge comicbooks divided into three full-bodied volumes written, drawn and published separately at intervals of many years apart! Shenmue is certainly the most epic and ambitious saga that Video Games can remember!
What to expect from Shenmue III
Dismission of Dreamcast in 2001 and not-exciting sales of the first two titles prevented Suzuki to complete the saga, leaving fans “starving” for more than one decade. After some aborted attempts to revive the series within SEGA catalog, in 2015 something started to move; SEGA transferred game license to the new Suzuki studio, YS Net; at E3 2015 Suzuki announced the development of the third episode and launched campaigns on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms, which earned a record amount of around 7 million dollars . This is the demonstration that Shenmue has increased the base of enthusiasts over time, perhaps thanks to the diffusion of PC Dreamcast emulators and also because it is often cited by experts as one of the best Video Games ever, a judgment I absolutely agree with. Shenmue III is currently in development and will be released on 29 August 2019; I believe that this time it will have a reasonable commercial success because it can run on the most popular systems, PS4, XboxOne and PC.
Shenmue III is not going to be the conclusion of the saga, it is not meant to be the last episode; according to Suzuki, he planned four episodes since the beginning in 1998! At this point I wonder if and when we can play the fourth episode!! It would have been better to close the saga here! The risk to remain incomplete is big, Suzuki is no longer a young man and destiny of Shenmue will depend on how much the third episode will be selling.
I would like the Master to replicate the expressive depth of the first title, recovering the nostalgic atmosphere of the locations as well as the poetics of small everyday things and human relationships, which were lost in most of the second episode. I hope he will be able to recover that mature, spiritual, cohesive and holistic vision able to integrate narration, content, interactivity and action, winning features of the first episode; preferably in an even more modern and adult fashion, not always and necessarily linked to challenges for adolescents. In my opinion the limited budget requires to pay more attention to certain expressive and narrative details, rather than creating enormous game worlds and repetitive action scenes and challenges for an immature public; let’s not forget that in the meantime fans of the saga have become adults and the artistic and narrative evolution of Video Games has reached interesting goals. I don’t expect particular innovations in graphics or interaction, I imagine it in line with the previous episodes, full of cut scenes with a cinematographic fashion. Maybe it is not going to stand comparison with today narrative games, time passes, what 20 years ago was innovation, today cannot be such. I wonder if it will feature more sophisticated multiple-choice dialogues like the ones in Life Is Strange (2015) ; or if it will introduce additional RPGs mechanics related, for example, to the need of eating. I think that we have not to expect miracles, just the third episode of a saga started 20 years ago; we must try to imagine it as it was developed 10-15 years ago. Perhaps I am underestimating the Master, perhaps despite the tender age of 62, he will be able to amaze us with brilliant innovations; but is the budget sufficient to eventually support such innovative ideas? Personally I would be satisfied just with a worthy continuation of the saga in line with quality and retro style of the first two episodes; I just hope in a more adult and mature approach. However, you never know, you can expect everything from geniuses!
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