The Unbelievable Joy that is Shenmue

With the third installment of a game that I have loved since I was a child out now after a 18 year wait I felt it is time to shine some love on the series as a whole because, specially if you don’t have that nostalgic love for the older games, what makes this series special might not come over well to new audiences.

So let me tell you why this magical series is so beloved.

I’ll start this off by the fact that this very much isn’t a review of any type, I have played both Shenmue I & II a whole bunch of times in my life but have yet to play Shenmue III and the person I’m watching playing it is possibly nowhere near the end to the game yet.

So what is the point of this blog then?

I have so far avoided reviews of the third game knowing that what the game actually is and what people will want from it is very different. Through the stream that I’ve been watching there have been people unfamiliar with the series that kind of feel confused by why a game with OK-ish but not modern graphics, terrible voice acting and no real sense of urgency is so beloved by the people who love it.

This is because three was made for the fans, it seemingly is a passion project by the creators who will not rush, modernise or reboot the series but instead wants to carry on telling the story at the pace that they had planned originally and to keep it as faithful to the originals as possible.

You don’t have to have played the final game to see that it is the perfect third installment to the series.

So if you love Shenmue you probably don’t need to read this but if you are totally baffled by the series let me try and explain why this baffling game is etched so deeply into its fans hearts.

For me my journey with Shenmue started when I was about 12 or 13, I had a Dreamcast passed down to me by my cousin and Shenmue was one of the many games that he gave to me. Whilst he liked the game I don’t think he ever thought that the game would be as big a deal to its fans as it was but it soon became a prized possession of mine personally and I’ve loved the series ever since.

There was just so much to love about it.

You were in a real town with real people walking around and talking. OK the dub was terrible but I was too young to care and even for older gamers it became something that they loved about the series because it was ridiculous but amazing at the same time. Characters might not be the most engaging at times, many tell us that they are too busy to talk or have strange and funny reactions to you, some will say roughly the same thing time and time again, the kids voices can be annoying as hell especially when they want you to constantly play with them but it all added to the charm.

Talking to people is actually the most important thing as well!

Sure you might have asked those gossiping women every question you could possibly ask and they’ve always not known but there could be that one time when they are actually the people you need to speak to so just ignoring them is impossible.

That is because Shenmue is a more realistic revenge story.

Ryo is a teenager, his father is killed in front of his eyes but that doesn’t stop the fact that he’s only a teenager. He can’t just chase after the bad guys, catch them up and beat someone who beat his father, a Martial Arts expert, to avenge his father. No. Instead he has to FIND this man first and how does he do that?

Asking questions.

Shenmue is all about talking to solve the mystery which is actually what solving mysteries is. It isn’t about finding clues luckily thrown on the floor but asking people till you find the right person with the right information to point you in the right direction. Most of the time it is luck, sometimes you need to be in the right place at the right time and there is so much you can miss if you just decide to rush through the main story at the fastest pace possible.

Thing is that isn’t all the game is about.

You get to know the people and live a actual life. Ryo gets dragged into random events, upsets people who stay upset at him, looks after animals and genuinely builds bonds with those around him.

Plus he can play games in arcades, buy stuff and to do all this means he has to work.

The best way I’ve heard it explained is that Shenmue is like a life simulator based around Ryo’s need to avenge his father. You end up living a pretty normal life just with dramatic things happening on the sides. In each game Ryo needs to get a job if he wants to gamble, eat, buy stuff for others and in the end kind of just needs to do it to get to places. He doesn’t get things magically given to him, tasks don’t tend to give you money as it is more to do with being a good person and if you want it you need to work for it.

Interactions with people are realistic, people understand why he wants revenge but they also try and talk him out of it pointing out very honest and realistic flaws in his plan. In the first game Ine-san, the caretaker who is now looking after you, refuses to help you buy a ticket to Hong Kong knowing that you want to seek someone out to kill them but knowing that you just can’t. Again if you don’t want to spend time talking to people and getting to know the world around you then you miss out on a bunch of moments in each game.

Honestly if you are rushing through the third game and don’t know who Mr Su is or why he is becoming a literal legend to some fans then you haven’t embraced what Shenmue is at heart.

This game has a little bit of everything in it too. Whilst the majority of the game is about world building and talking to people there is a fighting element to it as well as QTEs. Ryo lives in a Dojo that was run by his father, he’s a Martial Artist and obviously he needs to train not only in his quest for revenge but to keep himself safe from the thugs that line the path he’s travelling.

I can’t really talk of the fighting in the new game, it always confused me a little in the earlier games and from what I’ve heard from people playing it and what I’ve seen it looks so much more easier in the new installment. That being said it was just a Virtua Fighter style combat system and it did pretty much everything it needed to do, it broke up the game a little and added a new little challenge.

QTEs did much the same and Shenmue was one of the first RPGs to actually use QTEs in action scenes instead of just in mini-games and battle scenes like the Final Fantasy series did. It meshed a game like Dragons Lair into a RPG and unlike newer games that can be annoying with how much it is used it really was just there to split up game play and add to drama, they were never super hard either even if you did have to do them once or twice to get used to them.

Oh and did I mention that they have arcades for you to play games such a QTE the game, darts, random car games, whack a mole and in the older ones versions of things like Space Harrier.

You literally get to live Ryo’s life the way you want to including making him a gaming nerd which… I mean… Why wouldn’t you?!

So Shenmue isn’t perfect. Graphics aren’t the greatest, dub is hilarious and sometimes it can be just a bit confusing where you are meant to be going and what it is you are meant to do but it slogs on wards at its own slow pace that lets you live the life of Ryo as you slowly search for the man that killed your father. It is dramatic when it needs to be, hilarious more often then not but allows you to really feel like you’ve become part of something much bigger.

I can’t wait to play the third game myself and I know that Shenmue isn’t going to be for everyone but I also feel like people don’t really know what they are getting into with the game and therefore aren’t finding the true charm of it. Sure it is slow, sure the story isn’t complete and maybe never will be but if you take it for what it is and live the life of Ryo instead of rushing for the end of the game then you’ll find that this game is a small masterpiece that you’ll love and never really be able to explain why.

Plus you just get to talk to everyone, gamble your money away and collect crap that you don’t need.

What more do you really want in life?!

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