Shenmue: A Lost Legacy

In the seven years since its debut on Western shores, Shenmue has become something of a forgotten gem; a relic, a promise of lofty ambitions that never quite met up to expectations going by the severe lashings it received from the gaming press at the time. Yet for some, the USD 70 million epic (dubbed by its creators as “F.R.E.E” – Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) inaugurated a new era in videogame interactivity and storytelling, with its Hollywood-esque production values, gripping narrative and sheer volume of characters and environments in which to converse with and explore.

Despite following on with an inevitable sequel in 2001, the franchise on a whole has been suspended on a seemingly indefinite hiatus ever since, kept alive only by frequent speculation and conjecture emanating from what could only be described as a tenaciously loyal fanbase. Indeed, the elusive Shenmue III soon became something of an urban legend in itself, frequently neglected to monthly rumour columns in various magazines and websites in the post-Shenmue II years. Sega’s only endeavour to keep the series afloat – the ambitious Shenmue Online – collapsed after three years of development, prompting many to question whether the series had any future at all, let alone in the form of a physical sequel.

^ And thus the saga, begins…

And so, with the future of Yu Suzuki’s epic hanging in the balance, PSU takes the opportunity to look back at the series and explore just what made the original so significant for its time, and speculate on the possibilities (some more realistic than others) to what Sega could take with a final instalment utilizing the latest hardware with Sony’s PlayStation 3.

Released at the tail end of 1999 in Japan and a year later in the west, the original Shenmue kicks off in November 1986, focusing on the journey of a young martial artist named Ryo Hazuki, who resides in the peaceful Japanese community of Sakuragaoka, Yokosuka After returning home one cold November evening, the 18-year old Hazuki’s life is soon thrown into turmoil, after witnessing the brutal murder of his father, Iwoa, at the hands of a mysterious individual named Lan Di; a practitioner of a particularly deadly and elusive marital art. After slaying Hazuki-san and crippling the young Ryo in the process, Lan Di makes his escape, taking a family treasure, the Dragon Mirror with him. And thus, as the game appropriately states, the saga begins.

What follows is quite clearly a straightforward revenge saga, as gamers control the determined, if slightly brash Hazuki on his quest to obtain clues to the mystery surrounding his father’s death. Inexorably lead by this thirst for revenge, Hazuki bumps into all manner of brutes, thugs and low life criminals on his path, and must thwart a number of obstacles if he is to track down the elusive Lan Di. It may seem overally clichéd, but ultimately, its execution as a videogame was unlike no other its time. Indeed, Shenmue feels like the precursor to the Yakuza’s and Oblivion’s of today, from its sheer number of characters on display, to the level of detail put into each and every location available.

^ Shenmue kicks off when Iwoa Hazuki (pictured left) is killed by the mysterious Lan Di (pictured right)

For the first time, gamers were able to immerse themselves in a bustling town, converse with literally hundreds of individual NPC’s (some more distinguishable than others) and interact with dozens of key characters. Though hardly comparable to the prestigious ‘Radiant AI’ of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, characters maintained a somewhat primitive daily schedule, going about their business such as opening up shop for the day, browsing stores, chatting among themselves and returning to their apartment once the day is up, creating the illusion that you were part of a living, breathing community.

Other innovative uses of the Dreamcast’s hardware allowed for the developers to incorporate what is known as the Magic Weather System, which allowed players to experience real-time weather change as game hours ticked by, along with a number of other high profile graphical accomplishments, such as realistic facial expressions and real-time shadows.

As mentioned, the level of interactivity at the time of Shenmue’s release was unprecedented. Players were now able to examine numerous everyday objects such as drawers, cupboards and closets, in addition to collecting numerous figurines and other assorted goods found in shops and toy capsules. All could be further scrutinized in real-time at the player’s discretion, and Hazuki was even able to collect and listen to a variety of different compositions found throughout the game on his personal walkman. While not pertinent to your quest as such, it created a sense of escapism to the actual story, further expanding on the game world beyond the main quest (not to mention the fact it was a fine way to pass the time during some of the copious amounts of waiting required)

^ One of the many ‘Free Battle’ sequences in the game

The core premise of gathering clues, talking to residents and examining objects is frequently punctuated by bouts of action, coming in the form of either QTE’s (Quick Time Events, which would later go on to achieve critical mainstream success in the likes of God of War and Resident Evil 4, among others) or the games Free Battle system, appropriately breaking up some of the more monotonous tasks required. Free Battle, as the name implies, allows players to take part in real time battles, employing a variety of martial arts techniques to surpass legions of foes, sometimes outnumbering the young Hazuki 6:1.

This system was further complemented by the ability (and indeed, necessity) to train your moves on a daily basis, in addition to acquiring new techniques either by learning them from other characters or purchasing move scrolls in stores. Indeed, Free Battle’s mechanics were reminiscent of Virtua Fighter’s tight, precision-based combat, which is no surprise considering Shenmue was originally penned to revolve around a prominent character in the Sega’s flagship fighter, most likely Akira (in fact, similarities between early concept footage of Ryo and Akira are strikingly apparent)

Shenmue II, released in 2001, further expanded on these ideas, but by this point it was more than obvious the creators had endeavoured to fix some of the problems with the original title, most notably the frequent bouts of waiting, placing more emphasis on action. As such, QTE’s in particular became far more abundant and varied than its predecessor, ranging from traditional fight and chase sequences, to spicing up some of the more basic game tasks, such as aiding you in Hazuki’s daily job routines, avoiding obstacles in the game environment, controlling your balance or even lending you a hand in some of the Free Battles. Furthermore, a lot of these sequences require the player to enter more than just one button to complete your task, such as a succession of both the D-pad and another button, or pressing both simultaneously. This not only increased the challenge fairly significantly, but also opened up more than one possible outcome for (nearly) each event – if you failed, the game would continue onwards, rather than having you just restart the sequences again until completed.

^ Shenmue 2 introduce a plethroa of new characters, including Ren (left) and Joy (right)

The sequel also increased the freedom given to the player, allowing gamers to find work on their own accord, as opposed to having it integrated into the plot line as with the original Shenmue’s infamous fork lift sequences. This time around, players could choose to apply for a number of different vacancies to earn cash, either by finding honest work in local warehouses or ‘Lucky Hit’ stands, to the slightly more unethical world of gambling your cash in various street fights, arm wrestling, etc.

Other key areas expanded on included the flow of conversation allowing you to develop a number of topics with NPC’s, focusing on either gathering information, asking for directions or enquiring about any jobs or gambling available in town. To the relief of many, the developers also implemented a ‘wait’ option when necessary, circumventing the need to walk around aimlessly for any number of game hours required to reach your objective.

^ QTE’s and Free Battles became more abundant in this action-packed sequel

By this point the narrative had progressed substantially, incorporating a number of characters and back-story into the overall core plot; proverbial lines became decidedly more blurred, relationships were fleshed out and new ones formed, and what seemed like a simple revenge scenario had apparently formed the start of a destiny preordained hundreds of years ago, dating back to the very bowels of ancient history. In fact, the series had seemingly taken an almost supernatural twist, as evidenced by Shenmue II’s ambiguous conclusion played out in the depths of a cave in the remote settlement of Guilin (floating sword, anyone?) Indeed, with that final, iconic image of Shenmue II’s ending sequence forever lodged in the minds of fans around the globe, its no wonder Shenmue addicts have been craving for some kind of closure to the series six years on.

So, what of the elusive Shenmue III? Though rumoured to have flirted with the idea over the past few years, Sega has not explicitly nailed down the concept of a third instalment, nor even so much as hinted at what to expect from the plot itself. It now appears that the company has no interest in resurrecting the series anytime soon, though no reason has been given. However, it is almost a given that the Japanese software giant is simply not willing to financially “risk” another Shenmue title, given the hard fact that both the original and it sequel failed to break even. As such, the possibility of another instalment in the same mould as the full-blown epics of past games seems highly unlikely.

A lost legacy? Only Sega can decide…

In the event of this, it is possible the developers may be willing to compromise their efforts in order to see the game on store shelves, in one form or another. Though Shenmue I and II may be perceived as one whole release, they are in actuality comprised of multiple chapters in the Shenmue saga, each one based on a particular location in Hazuki’s journey. Given this, it is conceivable that Sega may opt to split Shenmue III up into individual, chapter-specific releases, thus making the project more suitable for mass-market consumption whilst retaining some of the core elements of the series. Naturally, the large, exploratory aspects may have suffer largely due to this, although there is still the possibility of containing them to a specific chapter; each one completely disparate of the other in terms of core gameplay, but equally woven together in a cohesive manner thanks to the driving narrative. A possible example of this could be having the first release in the Shenmue III saga focusing on more action-orientated gameplay, such as QTE’s or Free Battle, while another may focus primarily on information gathering and exploration, with less emphasis on action sequences. As mentioned, it’s simply the ability and willingness to compromise, even if this means deviating somewhat from what we are expected of the series.

Alternatively, if a fully-fledged sequel did materialise on PS3, gamers can expect nothing short of a sumptuous affair. Utilizing the added graphical and technical prowess of Sony’s latest piece of kit, Sega would be able to expand on and improve in virtually every area that was simply not possible on the company’s ill-fated Dreamcast, or indeed Microsoft’s original Xbox machine. Looking at Bethesda’s achievements with Oblivion, it’s perfectly conceivable that Suzuki’s final instalment may include an AI system similar to that of the mammoth RPG, enabling characters to go about a capable, functional daily schedule, complete with fully accentuated facial expressions, mannerisms and expanded conversational element for players to interact with.

Of course, Sony’s Blu-ray technology would be the perfect accomplice in facilitating such an epic, a feat that would be considerably more difficult on the Wii, or even Xbox 360. This combined with the sheer raw processing power of PS3 would allow for a far more expansive gaming environment, more locations, heightened interactivity and, of course, an improved combat system. Perhaps AM2 may wish to take a leaf out of Oblivion’s book, and place more of an emphasis of side quests, allowing players to earn cash by completing various tasks for local residents, in addition to your standard job hunting, street fights and other means of generating income.

In closing…

The possibilities as they say, are endless. Either way, for now at least, the future of this venerable franchise looks set to take up permanent residence under the ever-hazy skies of speculative wishful thinking, at least until Sega decides otherwise. On the other hand, bosses at AM 2 towers may have already been surreptitiously planning the fate of Suzuki’s lavish affair for any number of years now, waiting for whatever they deem as the right time to unleash Ryo Hazuki’s final chapter upon the gaming community in one form or another.

We can only hope that Sega does the smart thing and gives the series the send off it rightly deserves, whichever form that might be.