Viewpoints

How Shenmue Laid the Foundation for Today’s Games

Yu Suzuki’s recent announcement that his studio have partnered with publisher Deep Silver (notable for publishing the Shin Megami Tensei series) and the release of the new Shenmue III teaser trailer has once again relit the passionate fires of many a Shenmue enthusiast. Then, there was the recent release of a few screenshots, showcasing the series’ main protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, in all his muscular, leather-jacketed glory. The Shenmue III train is still very much moving and, for those who have been awaiting its arrival for sixteen years, it’s a joy. Gee, has it really been that long? It’s enough to make one feel old.

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But the passion of the Shenmue fanbase is justified. For those who grew up playing the game and its sequel, they were more than just your average video games. They were an experience. Excuse the cliché, but that’s really the only way to describe it. While the main crux of the plot – young martial artist Ryo Hazuki is on a quest to avenge the death of his father, who died at the hands of Lan Di – is rather rudimentary in nature, the game’s exploration of East Asian culture was not. The game was the first to create a free-roaming, realistic depiction of Yokosuka, Japan and a number of areas in Hong Kong in the first and second games respectively.

So much painstaking detail had gone into the environments, each packed with hundreds of non-player characters, creating a truly immersive atmosphere. Before these games came along, there had never been in-game environments like these. What made things feel a little more real and down-to-earth was the fact there was a lack of reliable ‘fast travel’ methods (although options to fast-travel to certain locations was included at certain points in the sequel) and you were forced to ask various non-player characters where to go instead of relying on a minimap and indicator. In some instances, kind passers-by would actually lead you to your destination. A small detail perhaps, but it added up to the realistic world all the same.

There can be no doubt that the world of Shenmue led to the creation of such open-world sandbox-style hits such as Grand Theft Auto, although even games such as these have failed to achieve the same realism and detail that the Shenmue games achieved.

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But when it came to the realistic world, one cannot neglect to mention Shenmue‘s weather and time system. Nowadays, with the myriad of open-world adventure games out there, day-and-night cycles and weather systems are often taken for granted, but back in 1999, when the original game was released, it was something incredible and never-before-seen in a video game. A geeky fact is that the algorithmically-generated weather in the game was developed in accordance with the meteorological records of Yokosuka in 1986 (the year in which the first game’s story is set). But just as there are day-and-night cycles and weather systems, the games were among the first to implement scripted daily routines for non-player characters.

The most obvious examples of this being put into practice in modern games are, of course, the Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles by Bethesda Softworks. But the level of detail in Shenmue was stunning. Characters might leave their houses in the morning to head to the park and then head to the stores – and when it was raining, they’d remember to carry their umbrellas. They weren’t just mindless NPCs given a random walking pattern – they felt real and part of the game’s world.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the Shenmue games – the first, in particular – was discovering hidden dialogue and scenes just by being in the right place at the right time. It could be a scene with a fellow martial artist who teaches you a new fighting move or just a scene that further enhances the relationship between Ryo and another character. Either way, it felt satisfying, because, like real life, if you missed the opportunity to find those moments, they were gone for good. For ardent fans of the game, it just gave them another excuse to replay the game and find out what they missed.

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But while Shenmue‘s exploration is often heralded, its competence in mish-mashing various genres was what also made it great. During the course of the story within each of the two games, when Ryo encountered an enemy, the game would switch into a battle mode. Based on the Virtua Fighter fighting system, it was a great deal of fun due to the range of moves available and genuinely making you feel like a badass martial artist.

As has already been mentioned, Ryo could further expand his arsenal of fighting moves when encountering certain friendly NPCs or during the course of the game’s narrative. Trying out new moves on your foes offered that undeniable childlike “Woah, cool” sentiment. And when the games weren’t having you explore detailed locales and punching thugs’ faces, it was having the player engage in the famous (or ‘infamous’, depending on the person) Quick-Time Events, which have since become a common trope in video games. It allowed the player to actually take part in the games’ various action-packed scenes rather than being a mere spectator.

These QTEs were a true test of the player’s reactions, with many of said scenes often involving Ryo running along a set path and dodging people and objects in populated city streets. Perhaps what was most rewarding about these sections was that failing or succeeding them would often change the story slightly (although, in some cases, failure would result in the conventional ‘Game Over’ and force the player to retry). This is particularly evident in the second game especially. When a thieving kid steals your bag, you are sent to chase him. If the player succeeds in tapping in the correct button prompts at the right time, they will keep up with the thugs and thereby, immediately find their bag. However, a series of incorrect or poorly-timed button presses result in the player losing the kid and having to ask about town for his whereabouts and find him themselves.

Although not always implemented in this manner, QTEs have since been featured in such popular games as Resident Evil 4 and God of War. While it was classic games like Dragons’ Lair that originally introduced such a feature, it was Shenmue that introduced them in their modern cinematic form and it was the games’ creator, Yu Suzuki, who coined the term ‘Quick-Time Event’.

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Looking back at the Shenmue games, it’s amazing to see how well they have held up since their release in 1999 and 2001 respectively. The in-depth realisation of Asian culture, the impressive animation and the mixture of different gameplay styles were truly ahead of their time. Therefore, it’s just as impressive to see how these elements have been utilised in games that came out after Shenmue‘s glory days. Given that Yu Suzuki’s fan-funded (and long-awaited) Shenmue III is due out in 2018, it’ll be even more interesting to see what the game has learned from the sandbox-style video games of present and recent times.

Since the game will be playing on significantly more advanced hardware than the Dreamcast, in the form of the PS4, it will be amazing to see how such an incredible experience as Shenmue will be upgraded on it. Regardless, it will be utilising elements of gameplay that the series itself introduced to the mainstream gaming market. The games, therefore, should be remembered for doing so.

What are your thoughts on the Shenmue games? Will you be playing Shenmue III when it’s finally released? Discuss in the comments below.

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One comment

  1. I did not have the chance to play these and, frankly, did not understand the reasons behind its cult following. Now I have a much better idea and may even pickup Shenmue III when it releases. Thanks for the quick look-back.

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