The recent Shenmue collection was my first hands-on exposure to the series. I had heard so much about it over the years, admiring Yu Suzuki’s vision; one which began life as a Sega Saturn title. Talk about ambitious. I’ve seen development videos and interviews, finding myself enamored with the tragic story of a meaningful franchise that would find itself hanging on a cliffhanger for eighteen years.
The fact that this collection exists, along with Shenmue 3, is nothing short of miraculous.
Unfortunately, it was borderline torture for me to get through. I knew going into this collection that Shenmue would be slow. There’s nothing wrong with slow games. I love narrative adventure games that let the player linger in lovingly-crafted spaces. Hell, two of my favorite games of the generation are walking simulators. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and What Remains of Edith Finch encapsulate what I love about settling in virtual spaces, leisurely absorbing their splendor.
Shenmue‘s inherently slow-paced design is not the root-cause of why I loathed the experience so thoroughly.
Yu Suzuki and F.R.E.E.
I can fully understand that under the original release’s context, much of my contemporary nagging would have been deflected by the shock and awe at its interactivity. It feels and looks archaic now, but the fact that you could rummage through drawers and examine completely random objects, often realized as fully rendered models, was mind-blowing. You could even walk into grocery stores, examining shelves lined with run-of-the-mill grocery store stuff.
This level of interactivity, despite most of it serving no purpose, falls into Yu Suzuki’s vision. The concept of Fully Reactive Eyes Entertainment, even with Shenmue‘s influence on later open-world games, never fully came into its own. It’s a subgenre with a lot of promise. If Yakuza hadn’t branched off into its own brand of “video games as hell” design, it might have more fully realized that promise. Unfortunately, we don’t live in hypothetical spaces.
With all that said, I’m taking a closer look at some of what I perceive to be Shenmue‘s failings.
It’s Not 1999 Anymore
Admittedly, one of Shenmue‘s biggest issues directly correlates to its age. As a basic HD conversion with no work done aside from turning up bloom, D3T leaves us with an extremely ugly set of games. While it’s still the best way to play Shenmue and Shenmue 2, the outdated visuals leave a lot to be desired.
Recent Yakuza games like Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami 2, while lacking some of the more mundane interactions Shenmue is built on, feel more lived-in on a surface level. Sure, once you dig deeper, it’s got a few less interactive elements than Shenmue. You can’t talk to every npc or knock on every door as an example. At the end of the day, though, I feel more connected to Yakuza‘s environments.
Technological advances allow the Yakuza team to fill Kamurocho and Sotenbori with more detailed assets. These assets add so much more to creating a convincing city than people understand. When I go into first person in Yakuza Kiwami 2, I’m able to fully make out relatively high resolution artwork on posters in addition to text. Is there a sign? I can read it. Is there an image plastered somewhere? I can see it.
No need to squint my eyes or say “what the fuck” because I can’t make out the miscellaneous details.
The same can’t be said of Shenmue, though. Examine the bottom drawer in Ryo’s room and you’ll find stacks of magazines. Normally, this kind of incidental detail would add to the impression of a lived-in setting. Unfortunately, the magazines consisted of such low resolution texture work that they all meshed together as a garbled mess. One of them may have been some sort of music magazine? Maybe? How could anyone know when D3T went through no trouble at all to update such horrifying assets
I’m not asking for a wholesale remake. At the very least, I expected low-resolution textures on the level of those magazines to be updated. It’s extremely telling when, a week after the collection’s launch, modders have already released HD texture packs for both games. That should have been D3T’s job from the beginning, but they were all too content with the absolute bare minimum. Fuck D3T and fuck Sega. An experience like Shenmue deserved more love and attention paid to it.
That’s to say nothing of the lack of 4K support for the mid-gen consoles despite the PC release offering native resolution options up to 3840×2160. The Shenmue collection is as basic as they come.
Setting the Controller Down
While Shenmue 2 added a time-skip feature for many story missions, the original title didn’t. If a character asks you to meet them in front of the arcade at 8 pm, you have to wait until it’s 8 pm. Yakuza doesn’t fall into this camp because it lacks a dynamic time of day system, settling on predefined times of day for specific story beats. This works in Yakuza‘s favor because it doesn’t care if you spend 3 real-world hours on karaoke without progressing the story.
Yakuza is as much about dumb fun as it is about the gripping human drama. With that said, IF Yakuza featured an in-game clock like Shenmue, waiting wouldn’t be much of an issue because it has so much more to do. Once you move past the novelty of examining things that serve no purpose, Shenmue becomes an empty shell.
Training in empty parking lots and hanging around the arcade are your only real options. Training, while a cool concept, feels unsatisfying without at LEAST a training dummy of some sort to communicate the impact of Ryo’s moves. The arcade, while fun at first, quickly loses its luster. I can only play Outrun and Space Harrier so many times before I long for something with more meat. The other distractions in the arcade, including the darts mini-game, and QTE machines, won’t have you returning very often.
Once all is said and done, there is practically nothing to do in Shenmue while waiting for the story to progress. Every time I had to be somewhere at a specific time, I just set my controller down and did something else. If this were Yakuza with a time of day system, I could waste time at the arcade with more meaningful games like Virtua Fighter 2 or even Virtua Fighter 5 in Yakuza 6‘s case.
Beyond that, I could:
- Hit it off at the batting cages
- Engage in off-the-wall phone sex
- Rub one out at a porn shop
- Sing some karaoke (Shenmue has a karaoke bar, by the way, but you can’t do shit inside it. Surprise!)
- Manage multiple cabaret clubs
- Enter bowling tournaments and obtain a live chicken
- Use said chicken as part of a business management simulator side-piece
- Much, much, more
Give us More
The Yakuza team has certainly learned a lot from Shenmue, with many key staff members involved on that project. Yakuza, while an entirely different franchise with a different set of design principles, wouldn’t exist as it does today without Shenmue laying the groundwork. However, it’s the year 2018. Shenmue isn’t the only kid on the block anymore.
Shenmue 3 has the potential to fill its world with more meaningful distractions, leading to a more fulfilling realization of the original game’s concept. As it stands, however, in a world where Yakuza can have an entire business management simulator tucked away as optional content, it’s difficult not to see the limits of Shenmue‘s age.
I don’t want it to adopt Yakuza‘s brand of wackiness because that’s not what Shenmue is. It’s a young man’s pursuit of revenge. Shenmue should keep being that. As long as Shenmue 3 fills its world with more fun, albeit grounded, activities beyond the endless luck-based gambling featured in Shenmue 2, it’s on the right track.
I admire it’s concept more than the execution. I may have thought Shenmue was a good game in 2000. In 2018, it’s a mindless slog replete with waiting for stuff to happen and talking to people that tell you to go someplace only to be told to go somewhere else. It’s an endlessly boring goose-chase.
Don’t even get me started on the six in-game days I wasted on that forklift job. Shenmue‘s got potential. It was just held back by its era’s technical constraints.