Revisiting Shenmue: A First-Timer's Experience With The 15 Year-Old Classic
In July of 2015, I began what would eventually turn into a three-month journey to play the Dreamcast classic Shenmue to completion for the first time in a video series. I went in with few expectations (we didn’t even commit to finishing the game until a few episodes in) and walked away generally positive. I’ve had a few months to think back on the experience, and as we prepare for the ambiguous release of Shenmue 3 I thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on the game and discuss how it held up 15 years after release for someone who had never played it, or even been interested in it.
I did have at least one expectation going into the game before starting. I always assumed I would find the game dull. The idea of living out an average life and holding a job as a forklift driver seemed banal, and I never sought out the game for that reason. I was aware the story followed a protagonist seeking revenge for the murder of his father, but that aspect of the game is rarely discussed outside of fans simply stating they want to see the story resolved. Because of that single expectation, my biggest surprise about playing through the game was how engaged I was throughout. The well-realized world and interesting supporting cast kept me excited about starting a new day every time we recorded an episode.
I specifically call out the supporting cast of the game as being interesting because I did not find Ryo himself particularly interesting. His singular goal kept him from exploring just about any other aspect of his life and the romance with Nozomi was poorly executed. This may have been my own fault, as your romantic relationship with Nozomi develops based on how much you actively engage in with it, but the unavoidable kidnapping scenario and awkward motorcycle ride home (and even the game’s marketing campaign) expected the player to be a lot more invested in courting Nozomi than I ultimately was.
The game’s combat is one of Shenmue’s most confusing aspects, but not because of its depth. Since my playthrough is fully recorded, I could literally count the minutes so this sentiment may be inaccurate, but by the end of the game, I felt like I spent more time training to fight than actually fighting. There are a huge number of combos to learn and master and all kinds of depth to the combat (due to director Yu Suzuki’s Virtua Fighter background) but I only got into a handful of fights. Whether I truly did or not, in retrospect it feels like I threw more punches at the air while hanging around in a parking lot than I did faces. To build such a large combat base and barely use it is odd and made fighting feel like a test I had been feverishly studying for, as opposed to a chance to finally show off my practiced moves.
I don’t mind quicktime events in games. They create interactive stylish moments normally relegated to passive cutscenes. Shenmue’s were okay, but quicktime events have improved tremendously since 2000. I clearly struggled with some, and hope that the quicktime events of Shenmue 3 (assuming they will carry forward) are more forgiving and blend in better with the action. The days of large, immobile prompts in the middle of the screen are hopefully behind us at this point.
In 2015, Shenmue felt hammy, bordering into B-movie, so-bad-it’s-good territory. It was charming, but I highly doubt that was Suzuki’s intention. I imagine Shenmue’s core story and characters are meant to be taken seriously. Sure, there are some characters in place for comic relief, but they’re not zany goofballs – they’re just strange personalities selling hot dogs or hanging around the dock trying to find the best spots to take a leak. Actor performance in games has gotten significantly better in the past few years, so despite how players may have felt in 2000, in 2015 Shenmue comes off as being unintentionally silly at times. Looking forward to Shenmue 3, I hope actor performance examples set by developers like Naughty Dog are embraced for Ryo’s next adventure.
The biggest takeaway from spending so much time with Shenmue in 2015 is the understanding I gained as to why it is so beloved. Many aspects of Shenmue feel dated, but the fact that I enjoyed living out Ryo's troubled life, even with all its minutiae and slow pace, is a testament to how expertly crafted Suzuki's Yokosuka, Japan remains more than a decade after the game released. It makes me excited to see where the series goes for its third entry, and thankful that I will be able to play Shenmue II while I wait.