It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? That it’s been nearly twenty years since Shenmue was released on the underappreciated Dreamcast. Still, even to this day, there’s just nothing quite like Shenmue and Shenmue II. I think the healthy reception for the recently released HD collection stands as a testament to that. Sadly, Shenmue III has yet to be announced for Xbox One and last we spoke to the team, there are no plans (currently) to bring it over, so for now, Shenmue and its sequel will just have to do unless you own a PlayStation 4 as well.
But, what is that makes Shenmue such a one-in-a-kind experience? That’s not at all hard to answer, but it’s not a singular answer either. Shenmue, in all honesty, was just way ahead of its time and even today, its mechanics and its systems don’t fail to impress. The story is set in 1986 Yokosuka, Japan, when teenage martial artist Ryo Hazuki returns to his family dojo to witness a confrontation between his father Iwao and antagonist Lan Di. Ryo intervenes, but is easily put on his ass. Lan Di demands Iwao give him a mysterious stone artifact known as the dragon mirror.
When he threatens to kill Ryo, Iwao tells him the mirror is buried under the cherry blossom tree outside. It’s as simple as that. As Lan Di’s men dig up the mirror, Lan Di mentions Zhao Sunming, whom Iwao allegedly killed in Mengcun, China. Lan Di delivers a finishing blow and Iwao dies in Ryo’s arms. Thus starts the beginning of Ryo’s quest to avenge his father’s murder, taking him to some wonderfully created environments alongside a stellar cast of characters. Many argue that Shenmue featured a level of detail that was considered unprecedented for games at the time, and I would certainly wholeheartedly agree.
By today’s standards, this is nothing more than a simple revenge plot, but back in its time, this was hailed as one of the most intriguing plots available to soak up. Though, it’s not the story nor the great visuals that stand out, it’s the gameplay’s mechanics that truly stand the test of time here. You see, Shenmue was (and is) very distinct and unique. Let’s face it, we would expect nothing less for one of the most expensive games ever made, right? But what exactly is it that puts Shenmue several steps ahead of its peers? The answer, its innovative systems.
Within the sizable open world, characters would all go about their daily routines. Shops would operate at specific times, NPCs would change how they answer and offer information at set-times and so on and so forth. It’s easy to assume that Shenmue is a life-sim, and for the most part, you would be correct. Players would need to earn money and spend it wisely; on food, gambling, gaming, information finding and so forth. Though even in gaming today, these systems are every bit as impressive as they were back nearly two decades ago.
The games open up later in and enable players to get a job at the docks, granting the possibility to work shifts and partake in some forklift racing. Again, think of the time that this game was released, pretty big stuff, right? I cant think of a single game that really captures the essence that Shenmue effortlessly relays. It’s always going to haunt me though, the fact that the death of the Dreamcast spelled the end of the series, but at least Shenmue III is set to finally release, albeit on just one console platform unless the devs change their stance.
Jamie noted in his review of Shenmue I & II that the visuals have dated to some degree, and I would completely agree with him, but back then, these were as impressive as any game could get. In fact, it took years for anything to come quite as close in my opinion. However, despite its age and despite its few dated aspects, after putting some time into both games, I can hand on heart state that in the last eighteen years, I’ve not played anything like them. Shenmue will always have my respect, and the respect of many others, for its depth and its distinction.
I’ll admit, the games can become quite a grind later in when you’re forced to be at certain locations at certain times or interact with people in a very specific way, but even with these aged-flaws in mind, Shenmue is well worth your time and attention. I’m very curious as to how Shenmue III will be handled in regards to comparing with the original two, but I hold hope that the devs in charge will keep things as inline as possible. This isn’t a saga that the die-hard fans have allowed to stay buried, and as a result of their passion, the story will continue.
I only hope that it continues in a way that makes sense and fits in. There’s hours upon hours of playtime to be had in the first two installments, and if you’ve only ever merely heard of these games in passing, I cannot recommend enough that you go on ahead and pick these up. It’s a gaming treasure that refuses to stay in the past, and for good reason too. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the series is that its functionality is so multi-branched. Shenmue merges several different genres and elements together to produce its identity.
Its this very identity that has stood the tests of time and although I’ll admit each aspect of play has been done hundreds of times since, there isn’t a single game that I can recall that blends so many functions together to achieve the same high quality result. I’ve said it a hundred times already; Shenmue, nearly twenty years later, is one of its kind, and I have no doubt I’ll be saying the same thing in another twenty years from now. Have you played these games? Would you agree? Would you disagree? Hit the comment section below to get involved.