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Fried Take - "Shenmue" (2000)


For all the hype-mongering I did on social media over the still-shocking announcement of Shenmue III back in June, Yu Suzuki's ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) series of games has somehow eluded me over the years. I've always loved the series by osmosis, not through actually playing them. It sort of comes with the territory of being a dyed-in-the-wool Sega fan, which I very much am. If you love Sega, you love Shenmue. That just sort of seems to be how it works.

But now, after three failed starts, I'm finally discovering, fifteen years later, why people still care about these games.

I'm sure you're wondering what I mean by "three failed starts." Well, let me tell you a story, friends. See, I bought Shenmue for my DreamCast a year or two ago, at this point. I was super excited. I had gotten the game on a steep discount, and I was raring to play it. Finally, I could put the notch on my proverbial gaming belt. As soon as I got the chance, I sat down, played the first hour or two and...

The damn thing crashed.

Frustrated, I didn't touch the thing for months. I didn't want to wade through all the cutscenes and aimless wandering again. Eventually, I managed to set some time aside for it, with the infamous "fix" for Shenmue's freezing issues ready (it's turning your Dreamcast upside down, in case you were wondering.) I played through the opening bits again, and then... something came up, and in the process, the console got turned off.

One year later, I just decided to emulate it in the wake of the Shenmue III announcement. After all, legally speaking, I'm completely entitled to do that, since I own a copy and all. Because, you know. I would never emulate a game without owning it. Anyway. I did that. I made it pretty far. And then I went into the arcade, in-game, and... another crash, because Dreamcast emulators can't emulate the Genesis game ports... and because the universe hates me.

Now, on my fourth attempt, my fourth goddamn crack at playing Yu Suzuki's divisive opus, I've finally managed to make my way through it, despite a janky controller, and have some thoughts on it.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your forklifts!

Basically? On paper, it's a dull slog. And yet? It managed to suck away precious hours of sleep almost every day of the past week.

How is that possible? See, the deal with Shenmue that nobody ever cared to mention to me was that Suzuki obviously put a lot of time into crafting something that felt like real life. After all, this was the first 3D game with a day/night cycle, with real time weather shifts, with a city that players could roam around in. Only... it's not really a city. It's kind of a tiny little town on the outskirts of a city. And a super detailed tiny little town, at that. Want to go door-to-door through several apartment complexes? Chat up NPCs about the weather? Play with children? Drive forklifts to raise money? Buy a lightbulb at a department store? You can do all that, and more, in Shenmue. It's like all the day-to-day monotony of life condensed into a video game. Great, right?

Actually... yeah. See, I like the "real world" feeling of the whole package. In fact, settling into the repetition and rhythm of Shenmue's little world is one of the best aspects of the whole experience, I'd say. Plenty of games have open worlds, and plenty of those open worlds take place in the real world. But in my opinion, none of them have come close to actually simulating what real life feels like. Sure, you can't blow up whole city blocks or scale skyscrapers in Shenmue, but you can slip into a gentle, soothing rhythm of everyday life that sucks you in and doesn't let go. You start actually becoming convinced that this is a real, living, breathing world, magically compressed onto a GD-ROM.

And then the karate happens. Because, on top of being a straight-up life simulator, Shenmue is also a game that is very obviously by the creator of Virtua Fighter. By which I mean, after a relatively eventless first few hours, Ryo starts straight-up beating the hell out of people at an alarming rate. Whole crowds at bars? A motorcycle gang? Juvenile delinquents? A strange-looking dude who looks and acts like Gollum? Ryo'll beat the living fuck out of them all, and then some. Sometimes, he does it in Quick-Time Events (this is the first game to really use them in the way we think of them.) Others, players end up controlling him in a fashion very similar to a fighting game. Which is actually pretty fun. I dig it.

What I don't dig is having to wait around for shit to happen. As the game progresses, players have to wait more and more in order to do anything. Wait for a store to open. Wait for an item to be ready. Wait to meet somebody. Wait just... just because, man. It doesn't have to make any sense. What matters is that you're reminded, constantly, that this is a game that, indeed, has an internal calendar and clock. Which, admittedly, would have blown my mind when this came out, but now? It's a regular feature in a lot of games, and the ways in which it's used are often terrible. Sometimes, I just wanted to progress the plot, but couldn't, and had to literally kill time until I could. Like... just sit around and wait. And yeah, I know, it's like real life, but that's the kind of stuff that totally sucks in real life. Nobody likes to just wait for things to happen.

Just ask all the people who internet-begged for Shenmue III for all those years.

Thanks for that, actually.
Maybe it's a testament to how good Shenmue is, though, that I actually wanted to keep waiting. Much like Deadly Premonition, which had a similar system (although it was handled much better there,) the stuff that ends up happening in this game is so compelling, so fun, so goddamned cheesy that I kept wanting more of it. The whole plot is essentially an elaborate martial arts movie that spans three discs, and like the best of those kinds of flicks, everything is paced expertly. It's a total potboiler, even when things are slow. Narrative bits unravel at the perfect rate, and just when it runs the risk of exposition overkill, bam, a fight or a chase sequence happens. So... yeah. Even though waiting around for shit to happen is kind of a drag, Shenmue more than makes up for it with how arresting the stuff you're waiting to happen actually is.

So, basically? All these years later, Shenmue holds up. It has an endearing cast and an arresting plot. The gameplay is solid, and the world managed to suck me in and not let go, thanks to a stellar aesthetic and some top-tier music. And on top of it all, it just feels epic. Like I'm taking part of something bigger than you can even imagine. If you've never checked it out, it's worth putting up with some of the boring bits. Yu Suzuki managed to make a little world that still feels real all this time later, and that's no small feat.

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