Remembering What Made Shenmue Special

Over the years I’d steadily given up hope we’d ever get Shenmue 3 in any form. I even tweeted prior to E3 that the rumours of a third Shenmue game felt like the setup for more disappointment. Honestly I’m still stunned we’re actually getting a sequel. Stunned but thrilled that is, because Shenmue is one of the most memorable games I’ve ever played.

 

So what’s the deal with Shenmue?

I’ve noticed a few people around the internet lately saying they’re not actually familiar with Shenmue. The Kickstarter campaign has come and gone, making a fortune in the progress, but many are still scratching their heads about what the big deal is.

Although I was surprised at first, upon thinking about it I can certainly understand it. If you’re around 18 years old for instance and entering adulthood, then no matter how much you’re into video games you were still about 3 years old when the original Shenmue dropped on the Dreamcast.

I was an absolutely huge Shenmue fan back in the day. I have a very fond memory of unwrapping it on Christmas day and playing it obsessively over that week. Even now remembering it, Shenmue brings back memories of wintery days and stuffing myself with Christmas chocolate while working through its story. I also recall it being seen as a cult video game, it was something beloved by those who played it but surprisingly overlooked by a wider audience. Although that said, it did build up a much bigger fanbase over the following years. Like the original Deus Ex, it was a game that seemed to get bigger and bigger as time went on, but never quite reaching the superstar level of fame I felt it deserved.

At the time Shenmue was phenomenally unique, now it also stands as something incredibly ahead of its time. Fully voiced, with a slow steady pace and a huge open world, Shenmue was the most cinematic game of its day and an incredibly immersive experience. If you watch footage of it now, it perhaps doesn’t seem that remarkable, but remember this was releasing alongside games like Sonic Adventure (which was also considered pretty cutting edge at the time), meanwhile influential hits like Grand Theft Auto III, Knights of the Old Republic and Morrowind (that’s the precursor to Oblivion and Skyrim for you young ‘uns) were all still in development when Shenmue launched in 2000.

 

Those clothing textures may look laughable now, but at the time that was one stunningly good looking pair of jeans.

Those blurry clothing textures may look laughable now, but at the time that was one stunningly good looking pair of jeans.

 

All this is to say Shenmue was more than a modern game ahead of its time. It wasn’t just the new and shiny features that made it so great, it also had impeccably high production values. As well as providing an immersive open world, the music was exceptional and the story was great. On top of that Shenmue was full of variety with all sorts of activities and mini-games to get up to.

At the time critics were split on how to even categorise the game, “life sim” seemed to make more sense than calling it an RPG. Now though Shenmue has more in common with games like Life Is Strange (which I adore) and maybe even a dash of Telltale’s games, with its focus on story and quicktime events, but that still doesn’t do it justice. Shenmue had that focus on story but it also had the freedom of open world games, but without the exaggerated playground feel of something like Sleeping Dogs. Presumably Shenmue 3 will stick to that original style but benefit from modern gameplay innovations made since.

 

“Ambitious” doesn’t do it justice…

In hindsight the game was a colossal risk that unfortunately didn’t pay off enough to save Sega, which had been struggling for a while thanks to disappointing hardware sales. For those who don’t remember, Shenmue was originally planned as a huge multi-game epic storyline. It was a new flagship title for Sega that was intended to unfold over years. This plan was later downsized and then scrapped altogether, that led to a few years where a third game seemed possible, but unlikely. Finally Shenmue as a series seemed dead, doomed to only live on in cameos and nostalgic video game articles written by those of us who can’t let go of how awesome we thought the Dreamcast was.

Anyway, so the game floated into “What might have been…” territory, where it remained until this year. A big reason for the original plans falling apart was that Shenmue cost an absolute fortune to make. The $70 million figure was thrown around a lot upon release and at the time was unprecedented for a video game. Although now that number seems a lot smaller with video game budgets ballooning every year and the audience constantly growing. It does make me wonder about this new game though. $2 million was a very modest fee to ask for Shenmue 3 and it makes me wonder what’s going on behind the scenes. Are they making the third game they envisioned originally? Or is this a new alternative adjusted for a smaller development team? Are the planned sequels still on the cards? It sounds like they’re interested in finishing the story, but will it be to the original scope? Is this Kickstarter money going to be used just to begin development while funding is found elsewhere? I have to wonder if a publisher (Sony?) agreed to assist on the condition that they could prove the game had an audience first, which they’ve just done by smashing through their original $2 million target. It obviously makes the investment a lot safer this way.

Either way, whatever comes of this one thing is clear: Shenmue is coming back. I find this incredibly surreal and ridiculously exciting.

Author: Mia Violet

Mia has been blogging about comics and video games for several years from her home in merry ol’ England. She invites you to take a look around the blog before saying hello on Twitter, where she can be found tweeting about pop culture from @PanelsAndPixels

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