Shenmue III will close one of gaming’s great sagas

22 Jun 2015

Artwork from Shenmue II

The always buzzing E3 conference took place last week, with the video game industry’s biggest players taking to the Los Angeles Convention Centre stage to parade their latest projects, not just to a live audience, but to the entire world via online stream.

The showcase is a vital propeller in powering the hype train surrounding marquee titles nowadays, though one that generally leaves me feeling a bit cold. Nothing highlights the unhealthy divide between the top-tier game developers and the almost entirely excluded smaller firms than E3. And with the astronomical cost attached to creating new titles right now, these large-scale companies aren’t fond of taking too many risks as they continue to lean on their established franchises (80pc of which must surely be first-person shooters) and focus far less on ingenuity. The hardware gets more and more powerful, but the creative thinking in gaming seems to decrease year-after-year. It’s sad, really.

But amid all the tired gun-toutin’ adventure games and well-worn ongoing series, we saw at this year’s event at least one announcement to get excited about – a title we have, in fact, been waiting 14 years for. Many had assumed it would never come to be and, for those of us who had doubted it, the maniacal joy of journalist Michael Huber – who, while covering the event for, leaped up and down uncontrollably upon hearing the amazing news – was completely understandable.

I’m talking, of course, about Shenmue III, the (presumably) final instalment in game director Yu Suzuki’s masterful open world series that by appearing on PC and the PlayStation 4 will finally bring to a close one of gaming’s greatest sagas. Suzuki himself was on-hand to unveil the game, launching a Kickstarter page to help fund the long-lost project.

“Since the release of Shenmue 2, now 14 years ago, I have been greeted by the passionate outpouring of dedicated fans and Shenmue community members wherever I go,” wrote Suzuki via the Kickstarter page. “They all want to know one thing: ‘When will Shenmue 3 be coming out?’ With the advent of games using Kickstarter during these past few years, the new and now frequent demand from the fans has been, ‘Do a Kickstarter for Shenmue 3!’

“If Shenmue 3 was going to get made, I wanted to make it with the fans. Through Kickstarter, I knew that could happen. Together, with Shenmue fans everywhere, I knew we could build the game that the series deserves.” The project quickly became the fastest game to raise $US1m on Kickstarter.

The journey begins

The series was always conceived as a trilogy, and Shenmue II, released way back in 2001, ended on a cliffhanger. Protagonist Ryo Hazuki will now finally complete the journey players began in the original game. But this also marks the end of a long journey for Suzuki himself, who – by setting out to create an almost undefinable experience – wrote a lot of the rules that many developers have since utilised. Economics outside of his control brought a premature end to Suzuki’s vision, while others have piggybacked on his ingenuity to help forge many a classic since.

Released on the Sega Dreamcast (my beloved Sega Dreamcast) in 1999, the first Shenmue was the most expensive video game ever made, with a production budget of US$70m. Suzuki was likely considered a safe pair of hands for such an investment. The Japanese developer had spent his entire career at Sega and was considered by many to be the company’s answer to Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto (who, with Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda on his CV, is universally recognised as the greatest game developer of all time). Suzuki’s arcade hits included the racing classic Out Run (1986) and combat flight simulator After Burner (1987), while the nineties saw him pioneering polygonal 3D games such as Virtua Racing (1992) and Virtua Fighter (1993).

Shenmue was something altogether different, though. An out-and-out console game (as opposed to the arcade-suited games he’d previously found success with), Suzuki wanted to create a complete non-linear experience set in a living, breathing, fully-functioning world. The first Shenmue presented a 3D open arena a full two years before Grand Theft Auto 3 came along and really popularised the concept. But, unlike GTA3 – which which was set in a fictionalised version of modern day New York with car chases, Mafia bosses and general mayhem – there was nothing loud or overtly Hollywood about the quiet, deliberate Shenmue. Instead, it seemed to revel in the mundanity of daily life.

An original

The unique story of how the series has come to be is pretty apt, considering Shenmue itself is still one of the most wholly original, wholly bat shit games you’re ever likely to play. Most open world titles allow the player to rush through the story mode if they wish – taking the time to explore surroundings is more of a choice. With Shenmue, immersing yourself in this world was sewn into its ethos. Set firstly in eighties Yokosuka (a small Japanese city) and, later, Hong Kong, gamers play as young hero Ryo, on a quest to avenge his father’s death at the hands of gangland overlord, Lan Di. To do so, Ryo’s investigation requires him to follow leads around his hometown, but tasks that need to be completed to push the story along often required deep exploration to find the right person to chat to, and this can’t be done until certain times of the day, meaning players were often left killing time and waiting out the in-game clock by hanging around the town’s arcades playing games (including Suzuki’s own coin-op classics Hang-On and Space Harrier), practising martial arts in the gym, or just exploring the surroundings.

Rather than just presenting a 3D world, Shenmue really makes you feel a part of it. Forget to feed your cat and the pet eventually disappears. Your mum tells you off if you come home late. When Ryo gets a job driving a forklift in the first Shenmue, you’re not spared the turgid motions of going to work everyday and completing your daily tasks. It’s really crazy stuff, and yet there’s something oddly soothing about the experience. It’s funny too – the somewhat irreverent gameplay is only added to by the terrible translation job on the English language version. Believe me, the acting here really is world-class bad. The child characters sound demonic. Ryo himself responds to every statement thrown at him with the words “I see”, while his quest to find a bar frequented by sailors provides a few giggles (“Excuse me, do you know where sailors hang out?”). It’s reminiscent of old kung-fu movies, when the the poor dubbing actually becomes part of the fun.

But Shenmue is far from brainless. Suzuki wanted eighties societal change to be a theme of both games, and the settings – Yokosuka in the first game, Hong Kong in the second – bear the markings of the cultural shift that occurred in Japanese and Chinese culture to a more Americanised sensibility. So, while Ryo comes from a traditional Japanese background, his more free-spirited nature (not to mentioned Westernised sense of fashion) reflects the shift of his generation’s mindset. The subtlety in which this sea change is depicted helps make Shenmue as admirable as it is enjoyable.

The wait begins

The Dreamcast version of Shenmue II didn’t even have an English-language version, though. The console was sinking fast, leading to the cancellation of the North American edition of the game and a European release that featured the original Japanese audio with English, French and Spanish subtitles. The later Xbox version did include an English dub featuring most of the original cast but, with the series deemed a financial failure, it was discontinued. And the wait began…

Like many masterpieces across all forms of art, Shenmue isn’t perfect. It has a sticky control system (a strafe button would have been welcome) and not everyone is going to buy into the goofy charm of the flawed dialogue or incredibly slow pace. Plus, it holds the entirely dubious honour of being the first game to utilise Quick Time Events, a method of gameplay in which the player performs actions on the controller shortly after being prompted on-screen. In Shenmue they work quite well. In the wider context of gaming, they are rightly hated.

There are a few gnawing questions surrounding the new project. Some have pointed to that original price tag and asked just how much Suzuki can do with the US$2m he hopes to rake in. There’s also the presence of Sony, confirmed as partial financer of the project, leading some cynics to question whether the whole Kickstarter thing is just a marketing ploy.

Regardless of its path to completion, though, Shenmue deserves to bow out how Suzuki intended. It was a true original of its day – a game created by an industry maverick who didn’t let the weight of its price tag compromise his vision. Games are so samey nowadays. Shenmue was like nothing at the time or since. Its revival feels like a bright flag on the increasingly desolate landscape that is mainstream gaming.

Dean Van Nguyen was a contributor to Silicon Republic