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The Importance of Shenmue, and Why it Still Matters

Rossko digs deep and shares some thoughts on the upcoming Shenmue repackage.

So then, Shenmue. You’re back eh? For me, I guess you never really went away.

I’ll never, ever forget the day I bought the copy of the Official Dreamcast Magazine which featured the Shenmue review. I remember rushing with my Dad to my nearest corner shop, barely unable to contain myself, finally being able to have my suspicions absolutely confirmed that Shenmue was going to be the greatest moment in video gaming history and that any rating less than a perfect score was going to do the game a spectacular disservice. Fortunately for them (I’m not sure what I would have done at fourteen years old, but they would have known my displeasure in no uncertain terms with a stern letter. Oh, I’m glad I’m not that person anymore), the game was scored a well deserved 10/10 and the second coming of videogames was upon us.

But it wasn’t even about that for me. That particular issue of ODM (RIP, sweet prince) featured, as it did every month, a demo disc which featured trailers for upcoming games. This particular issue featured an extended trailer of Shenmue, exclusive to the magazine. I remember watching it over and over and over again. I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing. Being able to traverse a living, breathing world that only got bigger the more I explored it. Real-time elements that made everything seem real. Being able to buy a drink from a soda can machine and have my character drink it before my eyes (‘ah, good’) and buying tiny Sonic toys. Going to an arcade and to actually play the games that were set up there. These moments that now seem so minimal, considering the breadth and landscape we now play our games in. But wow, there was so little that could touch the sheer imagination, wonderment of Shenmue at the time, and the trailer showed every glorious moment off in spades.

But then, it wasn’t even about that. Sitting with me watching this trailer, his eyes wide and his jaw nearly hitting the floor when he saw the majesty of what Yu Suzuki had envisioned come to life, was my Dad. My Dad always enjoyed watching me play games, seldom joining in. He is a techy person, the same way I am. He loves seeing advancements in technology whether it be in televisions, VCR/DVD, spectacular movie magic or even in video games, he was there, bewildered at how in just a few short years we went from playing Sonic 2 to something like Shenmue. He’s a huge James Bond fan, so he bought me GoldenEye for my N64. I don’t think he ever realised just how special that game was, but he loved watching the Bond-ness of it all, and marveled at the character models, no matter how terrible they look these days.

My Dad would look at something like Shenmue and not shrug it off because he wasn’t interested in video games but instead be rather blown away by what he was seeing, something which was rarely happens nowadays, perhaps we’ve been too spoiled (we have). He would never sit down and play the game, but it was enough for him to even sit down and watch this trailer which convinced him that it was probably worth picking up.

He would have had me pester him about the game for months before that, though, to be fair. It’s not like it’s a habit I’ve particularly gotten myself out of. It’s not just Dad now, I’ll tell anybody I know about Horizon Zero Dawn, Spider-Man, The Division. The kind of games we use to show off our systems. Shenmue was that game for my console brownie points. Whilst all my friends had PS2’s like chumps, I was bathing in the luxury of knowing Shenmue was around the corner and telling everyone I know about Power Stone and the majesty of Quake III Arena. The Dreamcast itself, whilst ultimately doomed as a tragically under-appreciated console, was the only console at the time capable of Shenmue, and being able to say I had one was pretty damn cool. I still have the exact same launch system to this day and it bloody works a treat. The white has faded somewhat, mind.

#blessed

Anyway, count down to Shenmue’s release date: December 1st, 2000. A tricky release window if you’re a kid that has the patience of a hungry puppy. My Dad had told me he had pre-ordered Shenmue for me. I was so excited I may have jumped up and down on the spot. Greatest Dad on earth. For about thirty seconds. It was after this he told me I wouldn’t be allowed to have it until Christmas Day.

What.

Nah, son.

December 1st, whilst great for SEGA and their accountants, ensured that most kids who would be getting the game weren’t going to be able to play it for the first 24 days it was on sale. This was an outrage and no matter how utterly entitled this makes fourteen year old me sound, I simply wasn’t having it. Release date arrives and Shenmue, apparently, is ready to collect at EB (yes, Dad pre-ordered at the almighty Electronics Boutique) and I’m at school. I know the game is out, I know it’s awaiting collection and I know damn sure that Dad is going to taunt me for the next three and a half weeks. There’s a chance I’ve never wanted anything more. I HAVE to play Shenmue.

He’s got it. During his break at work – at the time a phone box installer for BT – he went and picked it up and that night I was going to his house to see him (my parents had divorced ten years prior). Long story short, apparently I asked too many questions and he told me, once again, I couldn’t play it until Christmas Day. I think I shut up at this point, purely because I didn’t want to dig myself an even bigger hole and not end up with the game until the following February or something. So I learned the art of patience – possibly too late, I was a spoiled little prick – and didn’t mention it again. Until my Dad did.

Christmas Eve. 2000. My elder sister Aimie and I were heading over to see Dad and after we had dinner he proclaimed that we could each open one present before we saw him proper on Christmas Day the following afternoon. My sister got something, I can’t remember, I was rather focused in my thoughts. Dad being the guy he is, didn’t tell us which ones to pick but we could only choose a ‘small one’. This is where an awful lot of my cunning decides to come into play. A few years prior to this I had got Super Street Fighter II Turbo on the Mega Drive for Christmas and Dad had packed the single game case into an enormous box that I could have fitted in at the time. I had to dig all the way down through smaller boxes to get to it. This is the kind of person my Dad was back then, he loved having fun with our presents.

Pretty much the look on my face as this all went down..

Knowing this, I had to be very stealth in regards to where my copy of freakin’ Shenmue was going to be. It honestly could have been any of them. After carefully studying each wrapped up box I decided on one.

Dad, smiling, passes it over.

I opened it.

There it was.

A copy of NOW That’s What I Call Music 47. Placed into a box to give it some girth. Or indeed, to make it look like the Shenmue case.

I learned not to be a dick, something I get from my Dad. I breathed heavily, and said thank you. I did want the compilation after all, the first disc was FIRE. I spent most of the night looking at the back of the case, and not playing it in Dad’s amazing Technics HiFi. I was pleased of course, I loved my music, but I did have the slightest bit sadness that I had chosen incorrectly. Dad may have noticed this, and he said ‘hey, Christmas Day is only tomorrow. Why don’t we have a listen to the CD?’. He was right, I’ve waited this long I could wait another night, right? Exactly. I decided to open up the case and have a listen at my new presen…wait, those aren’t NOW CD’s…

Dad replaced the CD’s with the Dreamcast Shenmue discs. The entire night I had Shenmue in my hand and I never even knew it. I don’t think I’ve ever been so annoyed and utterly overwhelmed at the same time before or since. Dad, under the guise of a pile of wrapping paper in front of the TV, had set up my Dreamcast on the ‘downstairs TV’ – a majestic moment for any young gamer – and we sat down and discovered Shenmue for the first time together on Christmas Eve. I think I remember crying, it’s more than likely.

And what followed is why Shenmue is so very important to me and why I imagine it remains in the hearts of so many players around the world. My Dad and I sat there next to each other, experiencing Yu Suzuki’s overwhelming world. Watching my Dad’s eyes widen as I explored. Hunting for fish to feed the homeless kitten, my Dad calling Lan Di a ‘bad one’ and telling me to ‘get em’. Him nudging my arm with his elbow when he saw Ryo drink a can for the first time. It’s a succession of moments like this, over and over again. Nearly every time I went to my Dad’s house and played Shenmue he was there next to me. He wanted to know what happened next, he wanted to see the story unfold. This had never happened before and it was so cool for me to see my Dad care about a video game as much as this.

Flash-forward to 2018, and I’m going to be playing it again, for the first time in nearly fifteen years. I still have the same Dreamcast I played Shenmue on the first time, and I still have my copy of Shenmue so I could have dragged it out whenever I wanted, but it wouldn’t have been the same for me. I now live in Wales and my Dad lives in Somerset. To play the game on my own in that same circumstance would, for whatever reason, not resonate with me. I’m sure I could enjoy the game and the experience of playing it but I know something would be missing. I’ve got hold of him to tell him it’s being re-released on new consoles and he’s excited for me to play it again. Though for him it would seem the moment has passed.

So, for me, where does that leave the ports? Am I excited for them? I most definitely am. The moment the pre-order landed on PSN I immediately threw my digital money to Sony and told them to hold it for me. It’s still Shenmue, after all.

I do have concerns. The fact we can get both of this majestic games for £22 does bring into question the quality of the ports and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this. From what we’ve seen they look little more than a resolution upgrade and whilst that’s not in itself a bad thing, I do struggle to wonder if a new audience is going to take to them as passionately as we all did when it landed eighteen years ago. You have to wonder if it’s going to survive the crucifixion of the modern game audiences. SEGA have been rather adamant that this package is purely and utterly for the fans of the original titles and that’s great, but as we’re all riding this particular hype train will anybody else want to jump on with us?

Objectively speaking, I know for damn sure Shenmue wouldn’t hold up against the God of War’s, the Horizon Zero Dawn’s and Red Dead’s of this world. You could argue the ridiculously successful Yakuza series has carried on the games blueprints and built its own empire with the instructions. It’s not a case of looking back at Shenmue and remembering it as something it actually wasn’t. Those odd gameplay decisions, using the D-Pad to navigate Ryo (thankfully remedied in this new edition).

My heart…

For so many people it’s about the experience of playing something like Shenmue at all. The story that has been left unfinished for over a decade and a half. The very moment you enter a forklift for the first time and when you finally find some sailors. Wondering what you’re going to spend your daily allowance on. Playing flippin’ darts. The shops that open and close and the bus schedule that stops and starts in accordance with the games clock. The QTE’s that you felt like a ninja the first time you pulled off without error. These are the moments that make up why the Shenmue community are so very excited for these new editions, no matter what.

Fandoms are a funny thing and I don’t necessarily count myself into them. I am a massive fan of a lot of things, but I rarely find myself engaging with other fans, writing on message boards or following hashtags, I kind of enjoy what I enjoy on my own time in my own company. For so many fans out there that feel this kind of overwhelming feeling towards a game because of personal memories, whether it be Final Fantasy VII, Super Mario Bros, GoldenEye, Half-Life, Portal, Sonic, Kingdom Hearts, whatever it is. I can imagine the majority of those memories are because of what you as an individual experienced whilst playing. They are connected to you in the same way that Shenmue is connected to me, and regardless of whatever these new releases may be, it doesn’t really matter because you’re simply back in that world once again.

Shenmue has that effect on you. Just ask Michael Huber. Just ask everyone who reacted in the exact same way. Ask the people in the audience at E3 when Yu Suzuki revealed Shenmue III.

Sean asked me the other day if I was actually excited for Shenmue 1&2 to land as, at the time of asking, it was exactly two weeks away and I said ‘yes’. These new versions may not be the shiny 4K remasters we may have been reaching for, but the simple fact is;

Shenmue is back. And so is every single memory I have associated with it. Every single dartboard. Every hungry kitten. Every forklift. Every arcade machine. Every tiny Sonic toy. Every can of pop. Every Lan Di death stare. Every QTE. Every sailor. Every reminder that my Dad is the best for ensuring I could experience any of this at all.

Maybe I should call him to see if he wants to come over?

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