The Art of Patience in an Age of Options: Why Shenmue Will Forever be Equally Loved and Hated
Night has finally rolled in, the February sky transitioning from beautiful new shades of pink and peach into the kind of dark blue that truly deserves adjectives such as ‘deep’. Clouds float gently above a city now bathed in colourful lights. After an eventful day that resulted in the naked exposure of his nativity and the total loss of his money, Ryo Hazuki spends a restless first night in Hong Kong laying atop a bed in a cheap hotel.
Sitting on a chair in the early afternoon in the Blue Mountains, Australia, all I had in common with Ryo at the time was age and limited world experience. Nonetheless, the restlessness of that sleep was as clear in my mind as the thankfully smokeless sky outside my window. It was the kind of thing that you know without even being aware that you know it; an unspoken detail of an experience, lost in the tapestry. That first night in Shenmue 2, despite it being the Dreamcast version and a continuation of my save file from only a year earlier, felt deeply alien and uncomfortable.
It wouldn’t be until years later – not until after the near-impossible happened and Shenmue 3 entered real, publicly-acknowledged development – that I would learn that, as a simple matter of professional practice, Sleep Scientists routinely dispose of the first night’s data. The reason? It is reliably and consistently useless, a spike that could, if anything, steer findings to become less accurate. It turns out that people tend to sleep poorly during their first night in a new location, and it doesn’t hugely matter if said location is a shack or a penthouse suite. This makes sense, and there are some pretty obvious evolutionary survival reasons for it. It also made me immediately put my book down and think about that first night at the Come Over Guest House.
Sure, the hotel where I (driven by narrative insistence) had Ryo lay his head was basically decrepit. The lobby was tiny, the receptionist rude and the room itself spartan. But this wasn’t the reason for unconsciously deciding that that first night wasn’t restful – the reason was simpler. Ryo was away from home. Perhaps more specifically, I was away from home.
The eventual release of Shenmue’s somewhat buggy, equally bare-bones HD remaster brought with it a lot of baggage. Excitement and fear held hands and walked forward. Shenmue’s reputation is legendary, but its overall sales figures are unimpressive by modern standards (and even at the time, they were well below Sega’s hopes and dreams), and as to why it’s legendary – that depends on who you talk to. A mega-budget adventure developed by an industry legend who used what appears to be near limitless creative freedom to produce a technically striking game that utterly enraptured some while causing others to find it simply too slow and lost in details, it was perhaps the Death Stranding of its time.
Close to twenty years on, with Shenmue’s technical achievements holding little remaining merit (and the poor quality of the voice recording standing out perhaps even more than before), revisiting a game that was once described as ‘fully-reactive eyes entertainment’ in order to create the tortured acronym ‘FREE’ to describe its genre, promised to, if anything, show nothing other than creaky joints.
However, despite being the most expensive videogame ever produced for its time, despite flexing the kind of visual grunt that could make people stop, drop a hot cup of tea on their foot and not even notice the pleas of the burning toes, Shenmue always had creaky joints. Character control was assigned to the d-pad, perhaps in part thanks to the Dreamcast only having one analogue stick (used to survey Ryo’s surroundings). The save system was somewhat beguiling. The sky was pixelated. All of the NPCs in the English dub were poorly voiced, to say nothing of the aforementioned quality of the recording itself, even for the Japanese release.
Because or in spite of this, Shenmue-the-reality and Shenmue-the-memory line up with surprising, delightful nearness. Design wise, nothing really seems dated, only different. All of those modern flourishes, that quality of life stuff, things like waypoints and auto-traveling all over the place? These things are antithetical to the very core of what makes Shenmue what it is, to what makes it feel so real – so ‘home’ – to much of its fanbase.
Shenmue’s storyline, which starts out as a straightforward martial arts revenge quest about a teenager on the trail of his father’s murderer before eventually growing into something greater, definitely has its fans. It actually does a somewhat admirable job of keeping its threads in line, but it certainly never reaches the top tier of videogame storytelling. It doesn’t need to. There’s no need to pretend that Yu Suzuki had somehow – has somehow – penned a literary masterpiece. The story does enough and has an important role in worldbuilding.
This is what really matters. What ultimately defines Shenmue’s core isn’t any key scene or narrative beat. Were that the case, it would have been an energetic Dreamcast showpiece that would perhaps be more widely-liked, but certainly not liked as much.
No. Shenmue is about all of the stuff in-between.
Released in Japan on December 29, 1999, Shenmue may well be the final game to have launched in the ‘90s. To be clear, this was a decade filled to the brim with silly interactions – you’d struggle to find an FPS title that didn’t include flushable toilets. Click that mouse button and watch that swirl texture magically appear and spin in the porcelain bowl.
Shenmue included possibility everything except for flushing toilets. No wonder – a short lifetime before people were complaining about animal skinning animations in Red Dead Redemption 2, Shenmue was obsessed with keeping its player character tangibly connected to its world. Once the opening cutscene has played out and the first day of gameplay begins, Ryo’s notebook appears on the screen, large and readable, for the player’s perusal. It contains a running record of Ryo’s thoughts that doubles as a story refresher, as well as phone numbers for friends and things like emergency and weather forecast services. It is also quite possibly the only object in the game that the player interacts with that Ryo is never animated actually touching.
From here, everything is painstakingly rendered – Ryo’s arms stretch out to pull draws and cupboards open, he kneels before the family shrine and rings a bell should you have him pray in the morning, he goes through the full motion of turning the crank on capsule toy machines, of opening and drinking a can of soda, of knocking on a door to see if anyone’s home. He even walks down stairs properly, rather than sliding down them in the awkward way that even some current generation games continue to do. With this level of fixation present, flushing toilets may actually have been supremely awkward.
Isolated from each other, no one of these things is hugely important, they’re just patches on a quilt, but their sum total slowly works to build something quite special: the muscle, sinew and skin on the frame of an ultimately straightforward premise. It is slow, however. Shenmue’s magic works at a crawl. It needs to. No sooner will Ryo have headed out into his hometown in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, circa late ‘80s, then he will meet a young girl who is caring for an orphaned kitten at the local shrine. In an immediate sense, the reason for the kitten no longer having a parent is a clue, a story beat to drive the narrative forward. This information is quickly used up and spat out, but the kitten stays.
Shenmue doesn’t force its players to live in its world, but it really wants them to. Bringing the kitten some milk from your fridge, or simply stopping by to pet it on the way home at night brings with it absolutely no gameplay advantage, no shot at an alternative ending, but falling into a kind of routine with it is one of the many small steps offered to the player that helps bridge the idea of a gameworld that you play in to one of a space that you live in. Yes, that means going to bed every night because a body needs regular rest, not because a HP gauge needs to be refilled. It’s the sort of stuff that results in an odd sense of digital homesickness once Ryo ends up somewhere else.
Spit and Grime
It’s here that the visual details become important. Sure, the effects are bare-bones by the standards of today’s multi-teraflop benchmarks, polygon counts are visibly limited and the textures were never created with 65-inch 4K displays in mind, but Shenmue’s visual presence has aged with surprising grace for a game that always had one foot dipped in aspirations of photo-realism.
This is largely down to a multi-faceted, hand-crafted attention to detail that must have been hugely inefficient from a production standpoint. The first game’s locations, centred around Yokosuka, are hugely evocative, and aesthetically spot-on, to the point where not only can you find a lot of thematic resemblance should you visit the area, but travelling around much of Japan outside of the major cities can bring about waves of recollection with no real warning or reason. While textures must no doubt have been repeated, this is hardly obvious; everything feels individual. It’s an interpretive recreation of a place in spirit, not a copy built atop of Google Maps.
The real kicker, however, are those low-polygon NPCs. Each one can be spoken to, and while their dialogue is quick to repeat, it’s worth noting that each and every person you meet is unique, replete with backstory and daily routines. It doesn’t take too long for the (literal) harsh visual edges to melt away. Being up at the crack of dawn and recognising that the guy who’s walking towards you as you’re buying your morning can of coffee is the guy who works the graveyard shift at the Tomato convenience store, now on his way home for some desperate shuteye, is the sort of quiet world-building non-moment that Shenmue’s staying power is built upon.
Things take more of a turn for the fantastical when Shenmue 2 moves the location to Hong Kong. A part of this is inevitable. Things like capsule toys and vending machines, mundane mainstays of Shenmue’s identity as far back as its marketing cycle, are scarcely present in the city itself (ironically, the Man Mo Temple, a place treated with reverence in Shenmue’s plot, is one of the few places in the city where you actually can find a Coke machine). Other aspects may have to do with technical limitations. Hong Kong is a truly sprawling, mind-boggling cluster of a place, bubbling with life, buildings, roads and walkways stacked atop each other as if a Lego fever-dream come to life and turned to concrete and steel. The Dreamcast simply never had enough polygons.
As presented in Shenmue 2, Hong Kong is visually more vibrant than in reality. Brilliant skies give no hint of pollution, streets that might be grimy concrete in reality are beautifully paved, arm-wrestling matches are held at the pier, and there is little evidence of traffic. As Hayao Miyazaki’s films have at times presented Japanese audiences with a custom-tailored spin on European-inspired locations, so Yu Suzuki’s interpretation of Hong Kong is at once alienating, foreign, somewhat postcard-like and intoxicating.
The lack of traffic is noteworthy. Cars and motorcycles are unavoidable should you take a chance on visiting the region (and honestly, it’s an awesome place), but Shenmue lingers on daily details, and vehicles represent some of the few instances outside of sleep where the game willingly skips time forwards. Shenmue 2’s Hong Kong smashes together districts that would otherwise be impractical walking distance from each other and, again, while it can’t force anyone to do so, it subtly encourages walking around town rather than running. There are details around every corner of the appropriately confusingly laid-out city. Save Ryo’s energy for work, have him find his way around like an actual person in an age where smartphones don’t yet exist. Literally any store clerk can give him surprisingly detailed directions.
There’s a Game in There?
For better or worse, Shenmue 2’s locations feel less rooted in reality than their Japanese counterparts. Likewise, its pace is hardly rushed, but compared to the previous game it can feel like a whirlwind. In Yokosuka, Ryo always returned home to his bed; in Hong Kong, he finds himself sleeping at a new location seemingly every few days. Meanwhile, his rush to improve his martial arts, to face his father’s killer, brings with it exercises in patience, and Shenmue drags its players along for menial tasks. Ryo – with player in tow – finds himself spending his mornings looking for work (moving crates, manning street gambling stands) and airing out books. Falling leaves must be caught between his fingers multiple times before he can gain one nugget of wisdom; he must repeatedly bash the trunk of a tree in order to gain another. It takes sitting doing nothing for hours on end for the game to justify skipping time forwards, and only when it reaches the point that Ryo must listen to multiple cassette tapes in search of a lead does Shenmue decide to provide relief in the form of a montage.
Nonetheless, Shenmue 2 finds a few moments to let its hair down. There’s duck racing, to say nothing of a bizarre showdown with the young woman who works at the convenience store. Not every arcade game is logically located. The core gameplay, in search of a way to gamify the experience, starts to mess with spaces, eventually building progression puzzles around some finicky elevators and abandoned buildings. Elsewhere, organised street fighting gets thoroughly entrenched into the brand by the final credit scroll.
If there’s a reason for this story to be a martial arts revenge tale, it is very simply another pillar of Yu Suzuki’s fixation on specific details. Shenmue is a game by the people responsible for Virtua Fighter and it is, appropriately, as obsessed with martial arts as it is with having players experience day-to-day life according to its world. Shenmue doesn’t contain martial arts because it tells the story of a Jujitsu prodigy. It is exactly the other way around.
Although inevitably not as deep as Virtua Fighter, Shenmue’s combat is tied to the core of its alternative rendering of the eighties. When learning new moves from various masters of varied social standings, Ryo is instructed as a person rather than a game character: shift your weight forward; rise as you kick; tighten your stomach and punch. Never are actual button prompts given. If you’re in need of short, tight examples of why some people love Shenmue and others loath it, these moments should do just fine.
In a rare and traditionally game-esque move, Ryo’s abilities actually have bars that display his level of mastery. Forget about gaining experience points to throw at upgrades to punches, throws, defensive moves or whatever else, though. Skill only grows through use and training. Head over to that there parking lot and get some practice in if you want that new roundhouse kick to reach its full potential. And no, drinking a can of soda won’t provide any kind of recovery or buff. That my time with the Shenmue 3 backer’s demo saw Ryo wolfing down numerous pineapples to maintain health and stamina was one of the few points of concern I was left with towards the game, softened only slightly by my undying love of Chungking Express.
Not Such a Young Man
Half way through Shenmue 2, Ryo comes to the realisation that he must leave the current region of Hong Kong in which his has been residing. Before he goes, he decides to give himself a day to say goodbye to all of the people who have in some way assisted him over the previous few days. With the exception of the first, which is played out through cutscene at the beginning of the day, and the last, which will bring the chapter to a close, these are entirely optional.
There is no overarching goal here. You can have Ryo simply go straight to his final farewell and the story will move forward. Should you stay to say goodbye, then the act of showing appreciation is left to be its own reward. There are no points to be tallied, no prizes to win. Just one final day to spend in Ryo’s current region and some people to thank. Revisited in HD on a modern system, saying farewell to everyone brings with it an achievement or trophy pop, a reminder of gaming’s frequent need to pop confetti, flash large numbers or at least play some kind of victory fanfare that Shenmue is so effortlessly divorced from.
Achievement and trophies are just one of myriad changes to game design than have taken place since Shenmue was last alive. Expectations are different now, and many of those expectations run counter to what makes Shenmue the experience that it is. Modern quality-of-life tweaks could greatly hinder the sense of discomfort experienced at the Come Over Guest House, might turn what could otherwise feel like a world into wallpaper. I’m glad I’m not the one having to make the call about which new ideas are for the best and which should be cast aside. Shenmue 3 is at a crossroads, then, at once needing to maintain its core while at the same time proving its financial worth. Where it falls on this scale, exactly, may not begin to clear up until weeks, if not months, after its launch.
I just hope that, more than half my remembered lifetime after Shenmue 2 made me feel truly away from home, Shenmue 3 can bring me back again.