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Hold the ‘Shenmue 3’ Hype, Weren’t the Earlier Games Kinda Bad?

The reveal of "Shenmue 3" turned men into runny-eyed babies—but don't they remember how bad these games could be?

The answer to the headline's question is, I suppose: yes, sort of, but at the same time, no. It's not a simple case of "you had to be there," as any contemporary assessment of director Yu Suzuki's Shenmue series to date (two commercially released games proper, a canned MMO and a smartphone title that bombed without reaching the West) goes somewhat deeper than that surface-scraping assessment of the situation.


I was never "there" at the time of the original Shenmue's release, in 1999. Well, I was somewhere, most likely in the pub. It's not like I wasn't born, but I didn't have a Dreamcast back then and, even if I had owned Sega's swan-song console while it remained a going concern, I had very little interest in playing what, from the outside looking in, seemed to be a stilted, self-important, and entirely indulgent spunking of a then-record budget (discounting marketing) of close to $50 million. To read some of the reflections to have run in the years since its debut, you'd think it was Sega's greatest-ever achievement—but reviewers of the late 1990s weren't universally impressed, with Suzuki's creation criticized for its languorous pacing; tedious legwork and menial, money-making tasks; and some of the absolute worst dialogue in video gaming history.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves—or, rather, we're dawdling in the past rather than pressing towards the future, which is where most Shenmue franchise fans' attentions are right now. Sony's E3 2015 press conference (read more about it here) was, with the blessing of hindsight and the calmness that comes with emotions having finally settled, an extraordinary exercise in heart-swelling wish-fulfillment like I can't remember in the industry event's long history. But it also felt really old.

Coming to the company's PlayStation 4 in the (several) months and (next few) years ahead are the long-awaited, mostly-assumed-aborted Team Ico project The Last Guardian; a genuine remake of Square (Enix)'s original-PSone-era RPG classic Final Fantasy VII; the fifth installment proper in the iconic Street Fighter series; and a new/current-gen Uncharted game that's shaping up to retain everything you love from its PS3 predecessors while slapping on luxurious new layers of visual sheen. There was also footage of the next Hitman, and confirmation that Sony had pinched the exclusive rights to Call of Duty: Black Ops III extras aplenty from under Microsoft's nose. It was, with only a handful of significant exceptions—robo-dinosaur-tribesmen adventure Horizon: Zero Dawn and endless space epic No Man's Sky, mainly—a presentation that emphasized the past's influence on the future, relegating wholly new IPs to the sidelines. And absolutely central to proceedings was Sony providing a platform for Suzuki himself to officially confirm the development of Shenmue 3. VICE Gaming contributor Jake Tucker went as far as calling its announcement "weaponized nostalgia," two words that can equally summarize Sony's entire E3 showing.


Sony reveals 'Shenmue 3' to the world at E3 2015

How he did it, by announcing a Kickstarter campaign that temporarily downed the crowdfunding site ahead of achieving its target of $2 million in the amount of time it takes the average man to decide what to have for lunch, was a little dubious. After all, Shenmue 3's production costs will run to many, many times its initial Kickstarter goal, and the whole slot, lasting only a couple of minutes and causing fully grown men to cry real tears, was engineered to generate headlines more about the immense wave of public support for the game, rather than what it'll actually be—as evidenced by Motherboard's coverage and that of many other sites.

It turns out that Sony is funding most of the game's development, hence its arrival on the PS4 before PC, and Suzuki's Ys Net team is working alongside the Japanese software studio Neilo on the nuts and bolts stuff, after Sega freely gave up the series' license to the man who brought it to them in the first place. It's unlikely we'll see Shenmue 3 before (very late) 2017, with PC owners having the option of a physical or digital release, and PS4 users apparently only getting the latter. (Although I can imagine demand for a boxed PS4 copy, full of "special edition" extras, changing that situation.) The story will pick up from the end of Shenmue II, with monotonous, guileless, sailors-seeking protagonist Ryo Hazuki still in (very slow) pursuit of the man who killed his father, the villainous (or is he?) Lan Di. This isn't a reboot—it's very much a continuation of a story that's been on pause since 2001.


Bless you, Ryo, you gormless puppy of a protagonist, you

So, that's what the game will be, narratively—and as Suzuki conceived his story as spanning 16 chapters, with only six completed so far across the two full games to date, Shenmue 3 might not even be the conclusion of what some have perceived to be a trilogy. We shouldn't expect the gameplay to veer wildly from series convention (new "technique scrolls" aside), a mixture of free-roam exploration, conversational exposition, basic-yet-bruising combat, and mini-games, some of which are drawn from Sega's own arcade library. (Which, thinking about it, means we probably won't get in-game versions of Out Run or Space Harrier in Shenmue 3, will we? I suppose there will always be darts.) But, should we be demanding improvements in other areas? Graphics are a given for an upgrade, but would Shenmue still be Shenmue without its laughably abysmal dialogue?

Quite possibly not, which brings us back to the question of whether or not Shenmue and its sequel were, actually, a bit shit. I might not have played the first game in 1999—as I suspect was the case, too, for many in the auditorium, given their bum-fluff beards and ironic T-shirts—but I did in 2014, on Dreamcast, from its stiffly dramatic opening to sailing-over-the-horizon climax. I wrote about the experience at length for the Guardian, but to cut a very long story short: I ultimately enjoyed it, despite both time's inevitable effect on its sights and sounds and its myriad crimes against video gaming culture.


For one thing, this game as good as bankrupted Sega, never selling in quantities enough to make back its costs (mainly because, for it to do so, every Dreamcast owner in the world would have needed to buy two copies). The once-great developer, a force to be reckoned with beneath TVs across the world throughout the eight- and 16-bit eras, was forced out of the home market, discontinuing its console business in 2001. Secondly, Shenmue refined the quick-time event, a maligned yet depressingly commonplace element of action games ever since. Early on in Shenmue II, for example, the player must keep their twitchy thumbs primed over both the D-pad and the A and B buttons as Ryo pursues a little shit of a thief, who earlier made off with his backpack, through the alleyways of dockside Hong Kong. And when you do get it back, his mates have gambled away all of your cash anyway, which leads us to the next problem: work.

The first, Yokosuka-set Shenmue demands that Ryo becomes a forklift operative, in order to both raise money for his Lan Di–chasing ticket to Hong Kong and to gain information on the operations of a gang associated with the game's foremost antagonist. What follows are some of the most dreary, joy-destroying hours you'll ever spend in the company of a video game. You show up for work, you shift crates, you take lunch; you go back to work, you shift more crates, you sniff out some shady sorts, and then you go to bed. This goes on for what feels like an eternity, until Ninja Gollum shows up and you deliver him (what's presumably, but who knows?) a salty death.


Oi, Ninja Gollum, get in the sea (via another QTE sequence)

In the second game, since you're almost immediately down to zero dollars, you begin to make your money back by, again, shifting crates—only this time it's by hand with a coworker who grunts like he's birthing a gargantuan first-of-the-day shit, and is certifiably a wrench and two screwdrivers short of a toolbox. It's even less fun to be an active participant in than the forklift gig. At least it doesn't last long, and later on you earn a sufficient crust by hustling idiots out of their hard-earned by arm wrestling and playing Lucky Hit, or flogging stuff at any one of Hong Kong's pawn shops.

Given these games' quite obvious shortcomings, why is the hype for a third Shenmue not simply palpable in the here and now, but something that's been present for several years? The plot's so pedestrian that it alone can't be what fans are so desperate to return to, its cliffhanger more of a gentle gradient than deadly edge, which leaves the world in which Ryo and his allies and enemies alike inhabit. And, even when seen rendered on an archaic bit of kit, it's this that mesmerizes the player like no other aspect of the Shenmue games.

Yokosuka was a wonderful place to explore, to interact with the inhabitants of, and the second game's version of Hong Kong offers the same immersion, only bigger and with even greater attention to detail. Yes, everything's a little blockier than the open-world games we play today, but if you slip (the 2003 Xbox version of) Shenmue II into your 360 right now—it's backwards compatible, although you'll notice the music drops out on occasions, and the arcade games are a little glitchy—you'll see a quite beautiful city spread out before you. Colors are sharp, lines are crisp, and the noise of speeding cars and bustling markets seeps into the senses every bit as slickly as those of today's HD sandbox adventures.


Ryo controls like a three-legged dog with one good eye, a blocked nose and the runs, but you're soon enough over a turning circle comparable with an articulated truck and sprinting from one objective to the next like a faithful hound bringing its master their slippers. You'll feel a warm glow inside the first time you settle into the Pine Arcade's Out Run machine, despite your Ferrari handling like its having a supercar stroke, and even when you're punching trees for the perverse pleasure of wrinkly tai chi masters with fabulous eyebrows, everything feels uncommonly satisfying.

Our hero is a blank slate, a gormless vessel for the player to inhabit. He's a husk with a backstory but almost no readable real-time motivation, save for what you want to uncover through pestering townsfolk or blindly wandering until you trigger a cutscene. You can easily feel lost amongst the foreign signs and maze-like districts, but then, isn't that how you should be, as someone visiting a strange city for the very first time? Where Shenmue's setting felt appropriately homely, that of its sequel is alien and hostile, as we're warned of by motorcycle-riding, heavy metal-loving local Joy: "You'd better watch out, there're a lot of thieves here." Oh, Ryo, if you only paid attention rather than writing stuff down in that notepad of yours without properly taking the information in.

The Kickstarter trailer for 'Shenmue 3', which debuted at E3

Personally, I can't wait to see more of Suzuki's world of Shenmue when it's running with the power today's consoles and computers can provide, most likely using the Unreal 4 engine—and it's for the games' environments, these enveloping and inspiring clusters of intriguing corners and shadowy characters, that I'll be hanging off the back of the hype train for. And do I yearn for more convincing voice acting?

You know, I'm not sure. As dumb as Ryo sounds throughout the entirety of games one and two, he's endearing with it, like a puppy that was the runt of its litter but you can't bring yourself to send to the farm. To not carry over Shenmue's singularly shit exchanges might steal away one of its greatest worst characteristics, something that made the games all the more memorable. "I understand," Ryo says, repeatedly, without the first clue about what's going on around him. "I see," he offers, seeing nothing, fumbling in the dark for the slightest lead.

But we see it all, and now we've the chance to see more, which I am actually pretty excited about, albeit not to the same dreams-come-true extent as the tearing-up members of Sony's E3 audience. And while there's no guarantee yet that Shenmue 3 will deliver on years of passionate expectation, or that it'll even get finished given the huge amount of further funding required, I'm really happy for the many thousands of hardcore supporters who've been waiting for the events of June 15, 2015, ever since Phoenix Mirror met mysterious sword and Ryo's quest hit a Knightmare-like temporal disruption. They need only keep one hand's fingers crossed, now—which is good, as they'll need the other to tweet their displeasure at me for running with this article's headline.

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