What "Shenmue" Means to Me

I had wanted a Dreamcast the moment I saw it in stores at Best Buy.  I had always been a huge fan of SEGA.  Specifically, I was a huge fan of Sonic the Hedgehog.  It was my love for this character that made me want to buy the little white box that was no bigger than a mouse pad.  I was 14 at the time (God, do I feel old) .  All I could do to save for the Dreamcast was to collect $3 dollars a day, walking old Wally's dogs.  It took months, but around May of 2000 I was able to buy the system.  With it, I also bought a couple of games and an issue of Dreamcast Magazine.  I played "Sonic Adventure," "Power Stone," and "Chu Chu Rocket" to my hearts content those first few months, all while enjoying demos I would get from the magazine.  Before the days of XBox Game Pass, to try out a game you would have to either rent a game from Hollywood Video or outright buy it.

Demo discs were a great way to test out the waters for new games.  One day the disk that came with the magazine listed a very strange game title: "Shenmue."  What was "Shenmue?"  What kind of name was that to give a game?  I popped in the disc to try and play a demo.  In lieu of a demo, there was a video trailer of this game that blew my mind; it featured a stunning 3D world that I had never seen before, with graphics so good they reminded me of a Pixar film, and an intriguing plot about a young man out to find his fathers killer.

I didn't fully know what I was looking at, but I knew I had to have it.  So I did something I rarely did: I pre-ordered the game.  I can still remember when I told my mom I wanted to pre-order "Shenmue," and the conversation that ensued:

Mom: What's "Shenmue?"

Me: It's a game?

Mom: What kind of game is it?

Me: ...I don't know.

It's funny in retrospect, but I really didn't know what I wanted to buy.  Today I might do more digging before buying a game that wasn't being very clear about what kind of product it was (the best example I can think of today would be Hideo Kojima's "Death Stranding"), but you have to understand that while I might not have known what I was getting into, I knew just by watching that video that this was going to be unlike any game I had played before.  The day came and my mom ultimately surprised me by not only buying it for me (money I got from old Wally was now free to buy another game), but getting a strategy guide for me as well.  I went home, popped it into my Dreamcast, watched the opening, and started playing it...or, at least, I THINK that's what I was doing!  Within minutes it turned out I was right: "Shenmue" WASN'T like anything I had played before, but I also wasn't sure what it even was!

I had grown up where my favorite games involving fast hedgehogs, plumbers that jumped on mushrooms, and cutting down monsters while look for three golden triangles.  Action games were in my blood.  But "Shenmue" was...well, to be polite, slow.  It was asking me not to run through towns, but to actually walk (you could run with the right trigger, but it wasn't the same thing).  It started out with a cold blooded murder, but then asked me - the player - to talk to a bunch of people rather than go outside and kick the butt of the first person I saw.  If it weren't for the fact that my mom had bought me the game, I probably would have stopped it and complained that it was 'terrible.'  I kept playing though.  I admit I was intrigued by the story, and wanted to see if justice would befall Lan Di.  So I walked through streets of Japan that were different from the anime I was watching at the time.  The small town had crooked roads, hidden stores in the valley, and tight, condensed houses.

There were people living their daily lives.  I could buy toys and drink soda.  They served no purpose, but it was fun to do.  When I got 'home' that night I went to sleep and spent the next day looking through my 'room,' discovering the joy of being able to open every single drawer in the house (with a couple of notable exceptions).  Before I knew it I wasn't playing a game, but experiencing a life through this game.  Specifically, I was getting deep and intimate with main protagonist Ryo Hazuki, getting to know his daily routine, developing relationships with his friends, and even sparring in the dojo to learn new attacks.  Some would argue he had a shallow personality, but I saw him as someone who had enough of a personality to understand him while giving the players enough room to make of his situation what they wanted to.  For the first several hours I didn't progress through the main story much.  Truthfully, I could have opened that strategy guide and started getting through the game faster, but I was enjoying experiencing it too much.

It was the first game I enjoying playing just for the sake of playing rather than moving things forward.  The simple joys of discovering a Sega Saturn in the room and then winning some games in a lottery later on down the road went a long way to just enjoying the experience (as well as being extremely meta in hindsight).  Forward things did move though, and soon friends were even coming over as we speculated strategies on how to make more money, get vital information, and oh how many more capsule toys do we have to buy to get that one missing Sonic figurine?  It took weeks to finish the game, and when the final shot was seen, I actually sat there in stunned silence.  I sat and contemplated what it was I had played.  It truly was the most unique thing I had ever played.  Not since I beat "Castlevania" had I had a more accomplished feeling before.  I hadn't merely played a game; I had gone through an experience.  One that gave me a Japan that was old fashioned, yet beautiful and poetic.

It was the first time I noticed the music of a game.  I was always happy to explore more of the world.  The story got more involving.  I rarely used the strategy guide (to this day, the final section has never been opened because I didn't want to spoil the ending).  What's more, I went through all of that with the promise that there was more to come.  The game actually had the nerve to stand up to me and say my reward for weeks of playing was a cliffhanger ending.  This was going to be a multi-year game project, so I might as well settle in for the long haul.  I could hardly contain my excitement.  When the credits rolled I decided to do something I had never done before: take note of who directed this.  I wanted to know who made it, how it was made, and what more was out there.  I had always played games for fun, but I had never played a game that challenged me to rethink what the concept of a game could be.  I had always been a fan of action games, passing over things like 'Final Fantasy' and 'Myst' because there weren't any monsters to beat up.

"Shenmue" made me realize that games could be art, and it set me on the path to explore games I had previous shunned for being too slow and 'boring.'  I needed to discover who made this, how they made it, and find out if there was more coming (like the ending promised).  I was grateful to discover that a "Shenmue II" WAS coming, but it would be another year or so before it came out!  I took that time to familiarize myself with Dreamcast games I had initially passed on, including "Grandia II," "Skies of Arcadia," and "Jet Grind Radio."  When I got a PlayStation later the next year, I decided to give "Final Fantasy VII," "Metal Gear Solid," and "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" a try.  These are games I likely never would have tried because they looked 'different' from what I was used to, but now actively wanted to play because the last game I played that was 'different' ended up being one heck of an experience.  In addition to trying out new games, I became obsessed with analyzing how games worked and why I found them to be so much fun.

I started writing video games reviews to explore those feelings more (something people with Asperger's Syndrome should do more often), and "Shenmue" was the first game I reviewed (a review that, sadly, has been lost to the sands of time and a computer crash or two).  Doing that made me want to become a full fledged game reviewer (until I realized movies were my true passion, and I pivoted to writing about those).  Of course, things weren't always so sunny.  While waiting for "Shenmue II" to be released SEGA dropped support of the Dreamcast and announced they were getting out of the console market.  It was a sad day and when I heard that my first thought was "what about the rest of 'Shenmue?'"  The second game was promised to be coming, but then another bombshell dropped: the game was cancelled for Dreamcast and would be coming out on the Microsoft XBox.  I was crushed, but I loved the game so much that this actually persuaded me to ask for an XBox for Christmas that year ("Halo" ended up being a huge bonus).

I played the second game much like the first: exploring the huge worlds, collecting toys, immersing myself in the continued life of Ryo as more information about the grand plot unveiled itself.  Unlike the first game, I ended up finishing this one in a week I played it so much.  The ending of the game was one of the biggest twist endings I remember seeing, and I started counting down the days until "Shenmue III" came out.  I had no idea I would be waiting for 20 long years for it.  In that time other games came and went.  New franchises grew in popularity while others faded to obscurity.  Yet every E3 I hoped and prayed for news about "Shenmue III."  My friends kept telling me to give it up.  The game was NEVER coming out!  I was either extremely optimistic or in extreme denial though, because I would always tell them that they were wrong; at some point - some way - "Shenmue III" WAS going to be made!  There is a video circulating YouTube of a group of game journalists jumping for joy when the announcement of a "Shenmue III" Kickstarter.

Five years ago when I saw the Kickstarter announcement I nearly wept.  I couldn't contribute right away for the mere fact that the announcement broke Kickstarter.  I didn't hesitate to drop $500 onto the project though.  It was the most I could afford without breaking the bank.  The funny thing was that I didn't have a PlayStation 4 at the time.  For the second time in my life, the announcement of a 'Shenmue' game was enough to get me to plop down money for a brand new system.  What is it about this series that makes me do that?  Is it the drunken sailors?  The Lucky Hit mini-games?  No, I think it's because the games are so well made, so confident in themselves, that they play by their own rules.  Some people say they don't have patience to play a game like "Shenmue."  That not enough happens for them to give it the time of day.

Personally, I think it's the other way around: "Shenmue" doesn't have patience for YOU!  Yu Suzuki has said there have been offers to continue the series.  Many of them, in fact.  However, he turned them all down because they wanted to add things like zombies and put more action in them.  This was unacceptable to him; 'Shenmue' was 'Shenmue,' and you were either on board with it or not.  Game reviewers are right now complaining that the game is old fashioned and outdated.  I won't pretend they don't have any merit to what they say.  I'm also playing it differently than I used to.  I have more adult responsibilities these days, and so I can only play a little at a time.  This seems fitting and poetic though.  I've waited so long for the game, why blow through it as fast as I can?  It also shows how the game was made to truly be finished at a leisurely pace.  It sort of makes me forget about the real world when I play it this way, and even though it's old fashioned, it now works on an entirely different level than last time.

It is strange to be playing the new game and feeling like it's bringing me back in time rather than forward.  At the same time, it is still a personal experience that no other series has really come close to replicating, and as such it touches on me on a personal level today just as it did all those years ago.  Welcome back 'Shenmue!'  I look forward to future games from you, just as I have been for twenty years and more!