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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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Comments 17

  • Avatar for Roto13 #1 Roto13 5 months ago
    Apparently the Shenmue remasters have updated controls. I hope that means they're not so clunky this time, because I quit playing the first one pretty quick because moving around felt really bad.
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  • Avatar for nimzy #2 nimzy 5 months ago
    I still remember the heady days of Everquest. Being able to do things besides killing monsters and taking their stuff was a revelation to people playing games back then. Almost two decades later and we're still grappling with how to make people's virtual lives more like their real ones, without making things too boring.
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  • Avatar for manny_c44 #3 manny_c44 5 months ago
    I mean you can't rag on Shenmue that much-- I was able to get through it as a 13 year old kid, it actually wasn't a boring game on the whole, there were just a few parts where you were forced to slow down and poke around the bespoke virtual world (which I actually enjoyed very much even back then when it came out).

    The sequel on the other hand was a disaster.Edited April 2018 by manny_c44
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #4 NiceGuyNeon 5 months ago
    I have never understood the appeal of the Shenmue series. I played Shenmue II for a couple of hours and thought it was the most mind-numbing game in my collection at the time. That Christmas I got Shenmue II, Splinter Cell, and Metal Gear Solid 2 and the only good game out of that line-up was Splinter Cell.

    My sister got so wrapped up in it that she saw it to the end because she dug the story, but I couldn't stomach it at all. It gets all of this love, and people keep saying Yakuza is like Shenmue (I haven't played Yakuza because no PS system) but when I hear Yakuza is like Shenmue I'm immediately turned off. Shenmue II at least was so dull and I have a hard time getting excited for III or imagining the first was any better.
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  • Avatar for docexe #5 docexe 5 months ago
    The way I see it, until the dream of the holodeck is finally realized, the search for realism and inmersion in videogames won't stop. For good and for ill.

    I went to watch A Quiet Place over the weekend and was genuinely impressed. Definitely a great horror movie that uses its premise to good effect.
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  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #6 Flipsider99 5 months ago
    It's an interesting parallel how much Kingdom Come Deliverance (or whatever it's called; what a strange title!) is so much like what Shenmue in what they are trying to accomplish. Realism for the sake of realism really DOES have a certain appeal, and the newest example just goes to show that there are still people hungry for this niche of gaming that Shenmue pioneered. Personally, Shenmue is more my style, I prefer it's nutty charm to Kingdom Come's dirty dourness.

    It's a reminder that there is no such thing as the "perfect video game." No more than there is a perfect movie or book. What we want is to have a variety of possible experiences to suit different tastes. The realism for the sake of realism genre is one such niche that should be explored. And I don't think it's ever been explored with quite as much charm as Shenmue!
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #7 SatelliteOfLove 5 months ago
    And so was the game that Yu Suzuki tried to force a decade of game innovation at a breakneck technological cinematic level onto the shoulders of one company in HALF that time.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #8 riderkicker 5 months ago
    @Roto13 I definitely had a problem moving and driving around in Shenmue. But the fighting controls were pretty easy to understand, only confounded by the freaking Dreamcast D-Pad.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #9 riderkicker 5 months ago
    I did play through Shenmue one summer, and got onto the boat exactly on Christmas even though I had an idea of what was the actual time limit. I really wanted to get through the forklift job ASAP to buy the ticket, as I found the tasks as frustrating as that one mission on the army base in San Andreas. I did not maximize his fighting techniques and I ended up beating that Gollum using an arcade stick. The mundanity and fighting were fun in their own right but were they in such extreme quantities, it was jarring. Glad that some of the developers learned to smooth it out for Yakuza.

    Of course, the Rock starred in yet another good movie. It's like hoping Spielberg to make really awful movies, he doesn't.Edited April 2018 by riderkicker
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #10 VotesForCows 5 months ago
    @NiceGuyNeon Yakuza is roughly 27,000 times better than Shenmue. Its Shenmue through a hyper-violent, sweet, absurdist lens. It's so worth trying if you can, especially now the remake of the first one (yakuza kiwami) is cheap.
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #11 TheWildCard 5 months ago
    @NiceGuyNeon The comparison is mostly Yakuza is like Shenmue if they actually made a fun game out of it (or so I've been told, I've never actually touched Shenmue)
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #12 Vonlenska 5 months ago
    Shenmue was a game that disappointed me in its heyday for all the same reasons I came to appreciate it years later. I went into it expected an epic open world RPG with elements of murder mystery, martial arts and eerie light fantasy masterfully blended. And I guess it is that, but it never emphasizes it. My first playthrough, I missed almost all of the overarching story because you get most of it by talking to NPCs, many of whom are just unassuming old men dottering around tiny parks on warm days.

    In replaying the game, boredom turned into tranquility. I find the slow pace and emphasis on the everyday over the epic to be very relaxing, now. It's a really calming, almost ASMR-ish game. The music helps tremendously; those FREE themes were wonderful.

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  • Avatar for discohospital #13 discohospital 5 months ago
    The Shenmue games were made in an era when innovation and experimentation were prized - by both developers and gamers alike - above the so-called "quality of life" that is today exalted to the point of oblivion, wherein a kind of consumer reporting takes precedence over whatever equivalent of art criticism could be constructed around video games. It seems like many journalists and gamers are these days primarily obsessed with nitpicking what makes a Quality Video Game, to the point where innovation is boxed into an ever more convoluted and contradictory yet rigid set of expectations. It's not nearly as interesting a time as the late 90's and early 00's were.

    I’d argue that it’s exceedingly apparent today that ostensible beautiful, creative dreams too readily become mundane packaged goods. With that in mind I’d caution against cautioning against ambition.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #14 Kat.Bailey 5 months ago
    @discohospital You act as if there's no middle ground between Shenmue/Star Citizen and your semi-annualized franchise game. In fact there is! I've played many smart and ambitious games over the past couple years. I prefer tight, smart, and interesting design to grandiose visions of being The Everything Game. Many games that try to go that direction either never come out, or end up being badly compromised.

    I'm not cautioning against ambition or creativity. I'm cautioning against the romantic notion of the The Ultimate Video Game that has sunk many, many projects in the past.
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  • Avatar for discohospital #15 discohospital 5 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey I understand, and perhaps I should've phrased what I said differently. I do feel like there's a bit of a conservative subtext to this particular assessment of/argument against these games, but I meant what I said as a more general observation. In part I'm arguing that without games like Shenmue, you don't get games like Yakuza. Behind every Yakuza there's something in the past that took great risks, even if it meant alienating a lot of potential audiences. The mainstream of pretty much every art form is fuelled by an avant garde of more radical ideas later assimilated and made more palatable to wider audiences.

    I'm also not really sure I agree with the idea of these games - certainly not Shenmue - as attempts at creating some kind of ultimate video game. I think they're very conscious of the particular types of games that they want to be, and that they do exist in a niche or a genre. Some players will certainly treat them as their ultimate video game fantasies, but I think they'd be better served being seen critically as belonging to an edge rather than attempting to constitute a center, so to speak.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #16 NiceGuyNeon 5 months ago
    @VotesForCows Unless Yakuza ends up on Steam or Switch it'll be unlikely but I mostly hear great things about it from everyone.
    @TheWildCard I can see that. If I get a chance to play it I guess I'll know.
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  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #17 Flipsider99 4 months ago
    @discohospital Wow, I agree with you 100%. What you said is perfect. It does seem like as time goes on, we prize convenience more and more, and originality less and less. You can definitely see it in the progression games have gone, the increase of homogeneity. It's a shame.
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