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Shenmue Remains a Cult Classic and a Cautionary Tale

STARTING SCREEN | Shenmue's dueling identities, Rampage, and more.

Feature by Kat Bailey, .

Amid all the excitement about Shenmue 1 and 2 being remastered for the PlayStation 4, I was recently reminded of something that Kotaku's Nathan Grayson recently wrote about Kingdom Come: Deliverance.

In talking about the fanbase's willingness to overlook Kingdom Come's jankier elements, Grayson observed that realism trumped everything for its audience. They wanted a real sense of agency, as if they had stepped through the TV and into 16th century Bohemia.

[I]t's the latest incarnation of the ephemeral, nearly Platonic ideal of The Ultimate Video Game, the game that contains all games and achieves Maximum Immersion by doing everything. Think what people wanted No Man’s Sky to be, or what deep-in-the-hole backers really, really hope Star Citizen turns out to be. Multiple genres. Colossal, open worlds. Systems and systems and more systems.

Kingdom Come is a game where everyday necessities like eating take on added meaning because you're in a medieval world. It's not just a game—you're living the life. Which brings me to Shenmue, maybe the most "immersive" game ever made. First conceived back in the days of the Dreamcast, Shenmue is a formative example of open world gameplay—by far the most popular genre today. But unlike Grand Theft Auto or Horizon Zero Dawn, Shenmue is about making you feel like you're living out your life in a virtual world. If you're an MMORPG fan, you could say that it's the Ultima Online to Blizzard's World of WarCraft—a game where any superficial notion of fun is subordinate to being as realistic as possible.

Shenmue is the ur example of a game valuing realism for the sake of realism.

In Shenmue, you're not so much playing a game as living out someone else's life in the tiny town of Yokosuka. It has a day and night cycle, seasons, and weather. It's one of the first open world games to feature NPCs with defined routines. When it was finally released in 2000, it was unlike anything that had appeared on a console to that point.

It could also be really tedious. In his "Gaming's Greatest Flops" retrospective of Shenmue, USG alum Bob Mackey talked about how about how it relied on routine to bring its world to life.

Shenmue's focus on mundanity offered a significant amount of appeal—remember, it launched just as The Sims taught us the sick pleasures of paying fake bills and queuing up bathroom breaks for our tiny avatars. Its world offered a level of unnecessary detail that's rarely been seen since: Even if you couldn't interact with every item you found, the contents of drawers, cabinets, and shelves could be inspected thoroughly. In addition, Ryo can nurse a kitten back to health—an act with no real purpose outside of the cuteness factor—collect capsule toys, play authentic Sega games at the arcade, and engage in several other pointless activities that didn't help the game's pacing, but gave the city of Yokosuka a sense of richness atypical for a video game backdrop.

Shenmue reveled in its mundanity. Compared to Grand Theft Auto 3, which launched a year later, it was basically moving in slow motion. But it had something Grand Theft Auto didn't: you could go inside every building. You couldn't drive a car off a skyscraper, but you did have a sense of something interesting being behind every closed door, even if there wasn't. In that, Yokosuka felt more alive than Liberty City or even Skyrim.

The flipside was that was Shenmue was, well, kind of boring. Everyone remembers the infamous job sequences and the interminable waits between story events. In Shenmue, there's no way to fast-forward time, so you just have to kind of wait. Some find that kind of experience fascinating—akin to living a life in another person's skin. It reminds me of the romantic attachment that World of WarCraft players have to traversing the whole of Azeroth or manually gathering players for raids.

But this fascination with verisimilitude can be unhealthy. Many games, from Battlecruiser 3000 to Jurassic Park: Trespasser, have ultimately been killed by a myopic focus on realism. We sometimes get so caught up in the idea of what a game could be that we forget about the mundane realities of crafting assets, bug testing, and programming systems. Just ask Star Citizen.

Shenmue was by and large a disaster for Sega. It cost $70 million to develop and was years behind schedule. In his GDC postmortem, director Yu Suzuki talked about the QA team being overwhelmed by nearly 300 bugs per day. It didn't come close to the all-encompassing game that Suzuki envisioned.

And yet, Shenmue's legend lives on. Maybe it's because there just aren't many triple-A games with the audacity to be boring. Maybe it's because we like to think of games as beautiful creative dreams rather than mundane packaged goods. Or maybe it's because we feel like the real Ultimate Video Game is still out there, and Shenmue and Kingdom Come are just a taste of what's to come.

When Shenmue 1 and 2 are finally released on PS4, Xbox One, and PC later this year, a whole new generation will get to discover the joys of driving forklifts for themselves. I think that's great. I recently observed that the point of making old games available on newer consoles isn't to be a major selling point, but to ensure that the classics are still playable. Shenmue and its sequel never saw a digital re-release, nor were they ever included in Sega's multitude of classic game collections. This will be the most accessible the series has been since the original Xbox.

Still, it remains a cautionary tale—one example among many of ambition run amok. And as we continue the quest for the Ultimate Video Game, we need to remember what makes a game good in the first place.

This Week's Notable Releases

  • Ys VIII [April 16]: One of 2017's most underrated RPGs arrives on PC today. Its localization was kind of a disaster when it launched last year, but a massive patch has cured many of those ills. Nadia really liked Ys VIII, and you probably will too.
  • Yakuza 6 [April 17]: It feels like this game has been out forever, but only because Yakuza 6's reviews initially dropped more than a month ago. That's a long time! It marks Kazuma Kiryu's final adventure (for real this time) and another opportunity to grow the franchise's enthusiastic cult following. Unfortunately, it's about to run into the buzzsaw that is the next game on this list.
  • God of War [April 20]: God of War won't be out until April 20, but it's already getting rave reviews. Mike said it was an example of how to make a (soft) reboot work. Sony's careful cultivation of its first and second-party studios has resulted in a mastery of what you might call "the prestige game"—the gaming equivlant of Oscar bait. Meanwhile, Microsoft is Squidward glaring down at Nintendo and Sony as they garner yet more accolades for their respective exclusives.
  • Nintendo Labo [April 20]: Of course, Nintendo is countering God of War with a box full of cardboard. Most Nintendo response ever? I think so.

Mike's Media Minute

Rampage dropped this weekend, with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson hoping to show that his star power was undeniable. 2017 saw the actor starring in ensemble piece The Fate of the Furious, the Baywatch flop, and the wild success of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Rampage is his first film this year and while the opening weekend was slightly ahead of estimates, it's just an okay one and another film is clearly stealing its thunder.

Rampage reached $35.7 million in its opening weekend, taking the number one spot. That said, it was almost beaten by the second weekend of horror thriller A Quiet Place, which came in at $32.9 million. Not only did horror film come in striking distance, its first weekend handily beat Rampage's with a take of $50.2 million. If audiences hold up, it's likely A Quiet Place will be over Rampage next weekend. That's some strength, especially given A Quiet Place's budget is only $17 million, vs. Rampage's blockbuster-lean $120 million.

Regardless, like Ready Player One, Tomb Raider, and Blockers, Rampage is joining a list of current films that are just doing fine. They're not wildly successful, but they are successful. It's a healthier picture of Hollywood, with everyone carving out their own piece of the pie.

Until two weekends from now, when the Infinity War comes…

Caty’s AltGame Corner

This game is extremely NSFW. In normal terms, that means extremely not safe for work on account of a giant dong. Marathon is a game inspired by a merritt k article (hey, she's written for us before too), where she profiled a man who has vowed to break the world record for masturbating for the longest amount of time. It's kind of insane. So renowned game developer Robert Yang made a game about it as a part of the recent Nordic Game Jam.

Last summer, I spoke with Yang about his game The Tearoom, which reimagines a 1960s "tearoom" where gay men would go to discreetly consent to hook-up with one another and were commonly raided by police, in the context of a video game. Oh, and all the dicks are guns, because everyone in America loves guns, right? Yang's newest game was only made in about six hours in comparison. Marathon is more of a one-off experiment with some unsettling sound design thrown into the mix. If you've been dying to play a game about keeping a penis erect, there's no better game around than Marathon. It's available for free on itch.io for PC and Mac.

This Week's News and Notes

  • Sega dropped a ton of news bombs on Friday afternoon: The Shenmue remaster, a new Sakura Wars game. But the news that really turned my head was the Sega Genesis Mini. At last, I thought, a proper answer to the NES Classic! But reports by Polygon that AtGames will be involved has slowed my roll a bit. AtGames is the company behind Sega's previous classic console efforts, which suffered from putrid sound emulation and other problems. It also won't have Sonic 3 due to music licensing issues. I don't want to cast judgment before the Sega Genesis Mini is even out, but AtGames' prior track record makes me doubt the prospects of the Sega Genesis Mini.
  • If you haven't been following the Billy Mitchell saga, you should be. It's a fascinating fall for one of the classic gaming community's most polarizing figures. Mitchell was accused of cheating and has had all of his records scrubbed by Twin Galaxies, but he's apparently planning to fight back. One way or another, it sure does cast King of Kongs in a different light.
  • With God of War reviews out in the wild, we've gone ahead and updated our 15 Best PlayStation 4 Games list. Spoiler alert: God of War is on the list. But if you haven't seen the rest of our picks, you should go check it out now.
  • Speaking of classic games, Mortal Kombat 2 celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. Go here to read about Mortal Kombat's motion capture techniques and the enduring bond it formed among its actors.
  • Does Persona 5 hold up? Nadia reflects on it with a year of hindsight. As for me, I'm still trying to get through it. I played it a bunch yesterday, but I somehow ended up shifting over to Monster Hunter: World. I just can't quit that game.
  • There are rumors of a new BioShock being in the works. If any series needs the "God of War" treatment of getting a sequel that also refreshes the whole concept, it's that one.
  • Spy Party is finally in Early Access after some eight years of development. I know, I'm shocked too! On the plus side, Caty really likes it a lot. It needs a lot of work... and a matchmaking system... but the core is extremely promising.
  • Random Monday Musing: I've been playing through Bayonetta on my Switch, and I'm just floored by what a pitch perfect action game it is. It has an incredible understanding of how to pace out its action scenes, building up until you get to the point where you're flinging a giant angelic head back and forth. It feels dated in some respects, particularly the QTEs, but it still holds up remarkably well. Bayonetta is a useful counterpoint to God of War, which had to go undergo a total reboot to be relevant again. It's proof that some great action game design is timeless.
  • The USgamer Podcast: On this week's USgamer Podcast, Caty, Nadia, and Mike talk Overwatch lore, Radical Heights, Mega Man X, and anime, of course. Subscribe here!
  • Axe of the Blood God: In this week's Axe of the Blood God, we carefully select the very best legendary weapons across RPGs. Subscribe here!

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