Shenmue: 6 things that defined Yu Suzuki’s cult classic

The announcement of Shenmue 3 at Sony’s E3 press conference was probably the biggest shock reveal of recent memory. After all, Yu Suzuki’s beloved arse-kicking, sailor-searching franchise has been dormant for the past 14 years, and up until June 14, fans had pretty much resigned themselves to the likelihood that Ryo would never be back.  Then Suzuki-san and Sony got all chummy, put the game on Kickstarter and in less than 12 hours, Shenmue 3 breezed past its $2 million goal—not to mention setting a new record in the process.

Of course, we couldn’t talk Shenmue 3 without looking back at the original Dreamcast classic and remind ourselves—and those who haven’t played Shenmue—why Suzuki-san’s ambitious adventure title is so revered among gamers.

Join us now as we take a look at how Shenmue was such a groundbreaking release back in 1999…

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1. It defined the QTE

Quick-Time Events have become a ubiquitous (and often loathed) feature in gaming since Shenmue’s release, but back in 1999, they were relatively new. However, Ryo’s tale of vengeance is not only one of the first games to incorporate the feature, but more importantly, it did it right. Unlike some games, which seem to arbitrarily apply QTEs to the most mundane of tasks, Shenmue makes them feel pretty engaging, and typically keeps players on their toes in the middle of a frantic chase or fight scene, where the use of QTEs feel natural and rewarding. They never outstay their welcome, and merely punctuate action scenes rather than overwhelm the player during key sequences. Indeed, everything from God of War to Resident Evil 4 has Shenmue to thank for the QTE, although it would be disingenuous to say that every game that uses them have been as successful as this Dreamcast classic.

2. Unparalleled authenticity 

Shenmue wasn’t a true open-world by today’s standards, but it’s attention to detail in realising the sleepy village of Yokosuka was unrivalled. Even today, it’s clear just how much work went into creating Shenmue’s game world, from the grimy backstreets and bustling harbor docks, to the tranquil residential areas beyond the high street. While dated in terms of raw visuals, Suzuki’s grand adventure oozes character and atmosphere, with nuanced details seeping into every building and character, creating an unparalleled sense of realism that modern games have struggled to achieve. It’s this sense of authenticity that has made Shenmue such a respected title among gamers and industry folk alike, and something that we hope Suzuki maintains for Shenmue III and beyond.

3. Games within a game

Fed up of looking for sailors or training your moves in the local park? Then why not head down the local arcade and fire up a quick game of Hang-On? Yep, Shenmue not only told its own tale, but it also allowed gamers to play full versions of SEGA’s much-beloved coin-up classics, many of which were masterminded by Suzuki himself. Sure, it’s nothing more than a bit of fun, but back in 1999, there wasn’t really anything that had done this before. Furthermore, it only helps to perpetuate Shenmue’s sense of realism; after all, arcades were and still are pretty big in Japan, and back in the late 80s, were a popular hangout for the local youth.


4. You can examine almost everything…your own sock drawer!

Okay, so having a poke about in your underwear drawer may not sound exciting on paper, but somehow, in-game it is. Let’s put things into perspective, though: Shenmue allowed for such a level of interaction with the game world, that players were able to investigate just about every conceivable object in the Hazuki household and more. Fancy snooping around in your wardrobe? You can do that. Feel compelled to look in the kitchen and see what food is in storeage? No problem. Or maybe you fancy scrutinizing Ryo’s SEGA Saturn console in the living room. Whatever you fancy, Shenmue probably allows you to look at it, interact with it, or pick it up. It wasn’t just for show, either; Ryo would often have to search for clues and examine objects in the environment to solve various puzzles to progress, so it paid to have a nose around at whatever you could find. More than anything though, it just made things feel that much more authentic.

5. A day in the life of…

From a purely aesthetic point of view, Shenmue’s world is intricate and believable, but what good would that be if it didn’t feel alive? That’s where the game’s application of a Night/Day cycle comes in, which ties in with local residents all having individual schedules, which they keep to on a daily basis. Folk go about their daily tasks, open and close up shop, natter by the bus stop, hit the arcades, hang out in bars at night, and then head home—everyone has a place to rest their head—to a well-earned kip. Considering the fact this is a game that came out in 16 years ago, it’s nothing short of impressive, not to mention a testament to the horsepower of SEGA’s ill-fated Dreamcast. PS2 would take a fair few years to beat anything that rivaled Shenmue on a technical level, and even today, it’s not hard to see why Shenmue was such a groundbreaking title. 

6. It coined its own genre: FREE

It’s not everyday that a video game manages to kickstart its own genre, but Shenmue did just that. Yep, while it may seem a little pretentious in this day and age, the game pretty much had no competition in its realm at the time of release (just look at our points above), and thus the concept of FREE was born: Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment. Not bad for a cult hit, wouldn’t you say?