Understanding the hype behind Shenmue

Last Updated April 17th, 2018

Last Friday, Sega made an announcement that a small yet passionate group of gamers had been waiting years for it to make: both the original Shenmue and Shenmue II will be getting re-released on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 sometime later this year. Of course, Shenmue fans already had a lot to be excited about since the highly anticipated Shenmue III is also due to arrive this year as well. But why has all this Shenmue news gotten a small yet vocal part of the gaming community in such a tizzy? Well, being a passionate longtime Shenmue fan myself, allow me to explain.

Years In The Making

The original Shenmue was released for the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast console in Japan on December 29, 1999. Roughly a year later, it arrived on North American and European shores. Right from the very beginning, there was a lot about Shenmue that immediately caught people’s eye. Set in Japan’s Yokosuka region in the year 1986, the game put players in the role of a young martial artist named Ryo Hazuki who sought vengeance for the murder of his father, an act that was committed by an enigmatic crime boss named Lan Di.

In order to unravel the mystery behind the death of Ryo’s father, the player had to explore an expansive open world, track down clues, talk with a large cast of fully-voiced NPC’s, and, when necessary, engage in tense hand-to-hand fights. Even non-gamers had reason to pay attention to Shenmue since it was the most expensive video game of its time, having cost roughly $70 million according to Sega (the game’s creator, Yu Suzuki, argued that the cost was closer to $47 million and that some of those costs covered materials for the eventual sequel, Shenmue II).

The original Shenmue’s sales figures were impressive enough to greenlight a sequel, but there was also some trepidation on Sega’s end since the sales revenue wasn’t enough to recoup the game’s exorbitant development costs. Still, Yu Suzuki and his team pressed on and Shenmue II was released for the Dreamcast in Japan and Europe in late 2001.

In order to drum up appeal for its still somewhat-new Xbox console, Microsoft managed to secure the console exclusivity rights for Shenmue II in North America, and the Xbox version of the game launched in late 2002. The Xbox version of Shenmue II also included a bonus disc for something called Shenmue: The Movie which was basically a series of cutscenes from the first game that were meant to help catch players up if they hadn’t played the first game.

Sadly, Shenmue II didn’t sell nearly as well as its predecessor, and even though Yu Suzuki wanted to wrap the series up with a third and final game, Sega was unwilling to pour even more money into a franchise which, from a financial perspective, had been a complete failure. Fans clamored for the promised third game, and while Yu Suzuki tried to keep the flame of hope alive, that flame slowly faded as months turned into years.

From The Ashes

It’s somewhat fitting that part of the first two Shenmue games involves having to track down an ancient relic called the Phoenix Mirror since, in mid-2015, Yu Suzuki finally made the announcement that fans (including yours truly) had waited over a decade for: Shenmue III was finally happening. Currently, Shenmue III is scheduled to arrive sometime in late 2018, which means the recently announced HD re-releases of the first two games should be coming at the perfect time for those who want to revisit (or experience for the first time) the series’ humble beginnings.

It’s hard to quantify just what exactly makes the Shenmue series so beloved, but personally I’d say that it’s a mixture of the creative risks the series took along with its engaging combination of open-world exploration, mystery-style narrative progression, and finely honed fighting mechanics. Yu Suzuki is also the man responsible for the venerable Virtua Fighter series (in fact, the original Shenmue began life as a prototype game which would have starred Virtua Fighter protagonist Akira Yuki) and you can certainly see influences of Virtua Fighter in the Shenmue series’ fight sequences.

Shenmue’s combat mechanics aren’t very complex (at least compared to today’s fighting games), but they did help in establishing the series’ unique presentation. Especially since players could customize Ryo’s fighting style to a limited degree by learning new combat moves and even enhancing certain moves using basic RPG elements.

Another reason why the Shenmue series was seen as innovative, was for its use of quick-time events (also known as QTE’s) in which players had to quickly press specific buttons during cutscene sequences. Nowadays, the concept of QTE’s has become a bit outdated, but one could argue that Shenmue’s judicious use of QTE’s helped pave the way for similar uses in games like the original God of War or Resident Evil 4.

In terms of character presentation and voice acting, neither of the two original Shenmue games has aged very well. However, even with the wooden voice acting and dated character models, the unique aesthetic of the first two games allowed these characters to truly come to life, existing in a world that was part martial arts drama, part mythical epic, and part coming-of-age story.

I’m not sure if Shenmue III will give me the story resolution I pined for ever since I beat Shenmue II as a young teenager so many years ago, but I’m confident that getting to see characters like Ryo Hazuki, Shenhua, and Lan Di in action once again will be worth the wait regardless.    

Being able to play all three Shenmue games on today’s gaming platforms is something I honestly never thought I’d be able to do, but I sure am glad my patience paid off. I’m glad I’ll be able to play the first two games again before hopping into Shenmue III since it would honestly be quite jarring to revisit a world I haven’t explored in more than 10 years without being able to re-familiarize myself first.

If you’re a somewhat younger gamer, I can understand why the rebirth of the Shenmue series might not be such a big deal to you. However, if there’s anything about the series that looks appealing, I encourage you to give it a go once all three games become available later this year. It takes the right kind of mindset to fully appreciate the story that Shenmue is trying to tell, but there’s a very good reason why some fans have been waiting for so long to finally experience the series’ finale.    

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