I was a huge Shenmue fan back in the Dreamcast days. I played both the first and second instalments many times over, and I loved the modern, real-world setting, and the cinematic storytelling. Before I played Shenmue, my experience with video games was limited mostly to 2D titles on the SNES and Sega Mega Drive, and while I had played 3D games before on the Nintendo 64, most of those were titles like Super Mario 64 or Donkey Kong 64, neither of which you’d describe as particularly story-driven, cinematic, or realistic. My favourite N64 games, by the way, outside of Super Mario 64, were probably Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire and Jet Force Gemini, both of which managed to have decent stories. But I digress.
Shenmue represented a colossal leap in gaming for me, showing me that video games were more than just digital toys and could tell stories that would be equally at home on the big or small screen. And Shenmue was a genuinely groundbreaking game in many ways. Its large world, with short transitions between areas, was as close as it was possible to get to an open world in 1999. Characters felt real, they had jobs, they had schedules, their place of work was open during some hours of the day and closed in others. Almost every shop and restaurant in the game was accessible, even if many of them played little or no role in the main story. It was possible to spend hours and hours just walking around town, soaking up the atmosphere, talking to people, and yes, playing mini-games. To call the mini-games “mini” is a bit of a stretch, because contained within Shenmue were two full games of the 1980s – Space Harrier and Hang On – as well as a darts game and two QTE games. This alone was enough to draw me in. I spent hours playing Space Harrier and Hang On, first at the in-game arcade, and later when I realised it was possible to win copies of the games to play at main character Ryo’s home (on an anachronistic Sega Saturn), I tried to do that too.
While we’re talking about QTEs or quick-time events, Shenmue was the game that invented them. While QTEs get somewhat of a bad rap nowadays, thanks I’m sure to their misuse and overuse in other titles, in Shenmue they added a sense of tension and drama to what would’ve otherwise been a simple cut scene. Shenmue had even found a way to make its cut scenes interactive, and again that was a huge deal in 1999 and one I really came to enjoy. It kept the gameplay going during those moments. Sure, there were still cut scenes (a large number of them) but the QTE sequences were something new and exciting, and because you had mere seconds to respond, added a great deal of tension to the sequences in which they appeared.
Shenmue described its world in the manual as F.R.E.E – “Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment”. For some reason I still remember that two decades later! It was the term for describing an open world before anyone had invented the name “open world”. And though Shenmue‘s world may seem small in comparison to some titles today, it really did let you do a lot. It’s easy to understate nowadays just how much the game fitted into its four Dreamcast GD-ROM discs – there was walking/exploration, fighting, QTEs, driving (both a forklift and motorcycle), examining both the environment and objects in first-person, mini-games and arcade games, fully-voiced characters, a day/night cycle, randomised weather patters (and day-accurate weather for that region of Japan based on real-world weather data) which included snow, rain, overcast, and sun, and other elements which I’m sure I’m forgetting. For its day, Shenmue was incredibly ambitious, and while the finished product might not appeal to everyone (I’ve heard some describe its slow pace as “boring”) it blended together all of those elements successfully into a single experience that really felt like a real, lived-in world. No other game before had come anywhere close to this, and I was awed by what I was playing.
Some aspects of Shenmue and Shenmue II have not aged well, and it’s worth admitting that up front. The controls for the fighting sequences are essentially taken straight from the 2D beat-em-ups of the early- and mid-90s, complete with complicated multi-button combos, and don’t translate well to a fully 3D game. I would often find Ryo flailing around, swinging kicks and punches at mid-air because an opponent had moved to one side or the other. And the lack of a difficulty option is noticeable nowadays, especially speaking as someone with health issues who usually will play games on whatever the easiest setting is! And the controls, even on last year’s remaster, are clunky and awkward by today’s standards. I lost count of the number of times Ryo would get stuck halfway up a staircase because there was no fine control, or how he would find it difficult at times to successfully navigate a doorway. Much of the recorded audio in the first game is also of relatively poor quality, and on a decent set of speakers or a soundbar today sounds like listening to an amateur YouTuber who’s just upgraded to their first $15 microphone.
But despite these criticisms, when I replayed the games last year, for the first time in well over a decade, nostalgia hit and I was really enjoying myself again.
So why haven’t I bought Shenmue III now that it’s finally out?
It’s been eighteen years since I left Ryo in a cave in China, and as a huge fan of the first two games, I should’ve been first in line on day one to pick up the third title and resolve that cliffhanger. But I wasn’t. Shenmue III has been out for a few weeks now, and I still haven’t picked it up either on PC (my primary gaming platform) or PS4. As the third part of a game which was all about a single story, Shenmue III was unlikely to pull in a lot of new players, which means it really needed older fans of the games, or people who’d become fans by playing last year’s rereleases, to step up and buy in. And while early sales put Shenmue III somewhere in the top ten PS4 titles in its launch week, it doesn’t seem to have sold like hotcakes.
That matters because if the game doesn’t sell enough copies for the likes of Sony and Epic Games (both of whom pumped money into the title well above its $7m that it earned from Kickstarter) how will it get a sequel? But wait, isn’t Shenmue III the sequel I’ve been waiting eighteen years for? Nope. Because it doesn’t conclude Ryo’s story.
I genuinely don’t understand how Yu Suzuki and company could have made such a monumentally bad decision. Shenmue as a series was as dead as dead could be. And it died because it was a failure. It managed to have a very vocal fanbase, but that fanbase was tiny. Only around 100,000 people bought Shenmue II in 2001, a drop-off of more than 90% from the 1.2 million players who bought the first game. And Shenmue lost an insane amount of money for its companies. The reason Sega was totally happy to part with the rights to the franchise in 2013/14 is because they knew then that it would never make them any money. So when Shenmue fans raised a whopping $7 million in 2014 to make a third instalment, Yu Suzuki and his team should’ve recognised what a miracle that was. Finally, after all these years, the story could be complete.
But Shenmue‘s story, which had been planned out in 1999, was supposed to take place over multiple games, five, six, perhaps even seven titles being necessary to complete all sixteen “chapters”. The first game, by the way, contained only the first chapter, with chapter two taking place between games in comic book form, and three, four, and five encompassing the second game. So on the one hand, Ys Net – Yu Suzuki’s studio responsible for making the third game – had raised $7m to make another game, while on the other hand still having perhaps ten or eleven chapters remaining.
The sensible thing to do would’ve been to make cuts. Whole sections of the story could’ve been cut out, or alternatively released as novels or comics. And Shenmue III, so eagerly awaited by fans, could’ve rounded out the story and given Ryo the conclusion we’ve all been waiting for. It didn’t have to be a perfect ending by any means, but it did have to be an ending, because the chances of getting lightning to strike twice and being able to make another Shenmue game after this one were always slim to nonexistent.
And that was before Ys Net managed to upset many of their core fans with delays and the now-infamous Epic Store exclusivity deal on PC.
When that news broke last year, that Shenmue III wouldn’t complete the story, I was gobsmacked. I’d never imagined that they’d make such a horrible decision, and while I’d avoided donating to the project when it was seeking crowdfunding (as I do on principle for every project – I just don’t have the money to waste) I was certainly planning to pick up a copy when it released. But upon learning that the story wouldn’t draw to a close, I became increasingly sceptical of Shenmue III. For me, the worst possible outcome would be getting drawn back into that world, only to be left on another cliffhanger like I was in 2001. And with slim prospects of a sequel any time soon, that would be like reopening an old wound. And under those circumstances, it might be better to wait and see whether a sequel can be developed before deciding. At the end of the day, I don’t want to waste my time on another incomplete game. And you can bet your boots if Shenmue III doesn’t get a sequel, in another fifteen years there won’t be anyone around willing to stump up crowdfunding cash to try. It’s now or never.
If Yu Suzuki couldn’t bring himself to make significant cuts and changes to the story to get it to fit into a single release, someone else needed to be brought in to make those changes for him. Realistically, this was probably Shenmue‘s only chance to conclude its story and Ys Net blew it.
As a fan from the Dreamcast era, I’d rather leave Shenmue there, an incomplete masterpiece, sadly unfinished, rather than drag it into the modern era where it would become a still-unfinished game and a colossal disappointment. I hate becoming jaded, bitter, and negative about a series I used to really love. But I just can’t understand the decision-making that led to this. And I’m so very disappointed that still, eighteen years on, Ryo’s story is unfinished. They had a golden opportunity – handed to them by the fans – and they didn’t take it. If Shenmue III is disappointing for any reason, it’s that. And I honestly don’t know whether I want to bother with it again, because right now Shenmue IV seems like a very unlikely prospect. It’s disappointing to have waited so long only to get another unfinished story.
Sorry Ryo, but I think you’re on your own.
Shenmue III is out now on PC and PlayStation 4. Shenmue I & II are available on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 as a single title. All copyrights are owned by Ys Net, Sega, Epic Games, DeepSilver, and Sony. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.