Shenmue: A Quiet Revolution

Shenmue is an intriguing series, and possibly a bigger deal in the game industry than you realize. You couldn’t be blamed for not thinking so, as it actually did quite poorly upon its initial release. The sad reason for this is that the Sega Dreamcast, the console upon which Shenmue was originally released, was up against some stiff competition at the time, and wasn’t ultimately fairing that well. Nevertheless, Shenmue remains one of those landmark moments in gaming. Let’s talk a little about why.

Though both Shenmue 1 and Shenmue 2 have relatively poor audio quality, bad voice acting, and from what I’ve heard, subpar graphics, the games achieved things that, though uncommon back then, are very, very common today. Shenmue was, for instance, the very first game to coin the term QTE, or Quicktime Event. These are defined as events that flow like a cutscene, but have moments where you must press a button within a certain time limit to succeed. Failing to press the button would result in something unfortunate happening, all the way up to the possibility of your character’s death. These things are ridiculously common today, and are in fact the basis for entire games in some cases. Look at Telltale and their library of games. Look at David Cage’s games, such as the recent Detroit: Become Human. That’s almost literally how the gameplay of those games works, and it all began with this little Dreamcast phenomenon.

Also, as hard as this might be to believe in this day and age, open world exploration games were also uncommon back in the day. The idea that you can explore the entirety of the game’s world, enter nearly every building, and interact with every citizen was astounding in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. It’s more the norm these days, but this kind of freedom blew the minds of Shenmue’s fanbase back then. Even now, playing its rereleased versions, it seems pretty impressive to me. The fact that you can ask any of the game’s many, many characters about the person or thing you’re currently looking for, and even if it’s not helpful, most of them have a unique response to the question, is quite amazing even by today’s standards. While most games today will allow you to have a unique conversation with their characters, it’s often specific to one event or place, but in Shenmue, you can focus everyone’s attention on your goal. Neat stuff.

I believe Shenmue and Shenmue 2 were part of a quiet revolution in what could be expected from a game. They may not have done well in terms of sales, but I believe the industry saw the accomplishments they made, and improved upon them over time. I believe Shenmue is the reason some other games exist today, and I think it deserves a lot of credit for that.

We now have Shenmue 3 on the horizon, due to be released in August of 2019. My thoughts on Shenmue 3 are a bit different. I do not expect Shenmue 3 to innovate as 1 and 2 did. I expect that Shenmue 3 is more about fan service, about continuing Rio Hazuki’s story, than it is about innovation. Keep in mind that this is a game funded by Kickstarter, and isn’t being made on a super high budget in comparison to many games today. Also keep in mind what it’ll be up against in the open world scene. You know, that massive open world RPG called Cyberpunk 2077? Based on the recent footage that was revealed, and the explanations that went along with that footage, I don’t think Shenmue 3 will stand up to Cyberpunk 2077 as a comparison. I believe Shenmue would get pummeled in that instance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since its predecessors were at least partially responsible for Cyberpunk’s open structure, but it is an interesting observation of how things have changed in the game industry.

Nevertheless, I do think Shenmue 3 will be good. I think it’ll be fun, and I think it’ll be a worthy conclusion to Rio Hazuki’s story. And hey, maybe I’ll be completely wrong and it’ll blow all of our minds with its crazy new ideas. Eitehr way, I’m still looking forward to it. Shenmue’s beginning was and is a great one, and I’m glad it found a new home on modern consoles. It is deserving of its legacy and its following. If you, dear reader, haven’t checked it out yet, give it a look or a listen. You might be surprised. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!