Shenmue 3 is happening, and it’s coming to PC. As a fan of the series, I can’t believe I’m typing those words. But there’s a very strong chance you don’t give a shit. The first two games were only ever released on Dreamcast and Xbox, and there hasn’t been a new entry in the series for 14 entire years. Why should you?
There’s every chance this new game, which is being funded on Kickstarter and by Sony, will be a disaster. A pale imitation, cynically fueled by nostalgia. But if its creator, Sega legend Yu Suzuki, manages to conjure up even a little bit of the magic of those first two games, it could be something special. I want to believe.
We don’t know much about Shenmue 3 yet, and all that exists is some (admittedly dodgy-looking) concept footage. So instead of speculating about what the game might be like, or what I want to see in it, I thought I’d look back and tell you why I love the series so much, and why its return could be a wonderful thing.
See that guy up there? That’s Lan Di, and he killed your dad. Shenmue is a tale of revenge, following young Ryo Hazuki as he chases the shadowy organisation who murdered his father, Iwao. Lan Di, a Chinese martial arts expert with a sinister past, is their leader, and always seems to be one step ahead of him.
Ryo is so utterly driven in his quest for vengeance that he alienates his friends and family. Shenmue won’t win any awards for writing, and the voice acting is laughably bad, but you find yourself wanting to catch Lan Di as much as Ryo. It’s incredibly melodramatic, but that’s what makes it great. There’s not a drop of irony or cynicism in the game’s story: it tells it with absolute sincerity.
So far Ryo’s journey has taken him from his hometown of Yokosuka, Japan to the streets of Hong Kong and Guilin, China, where we’ll join him in Shenmue 3. He hasn’t caught up with Lan Di yet, but he was very close last time we saw him. Shenmue fans have been waiting over a decade to get their revenge. Will this finally be our chance? Not if the game’s a hit and Suzuki decides to make another sequel.
Live another life
When you play Shenmue, you aren’t just playing snippets from Ryo’s story: you’re playing his entire life. There’s a real-time clock running at all times. Months pass, seasons change, and you have to go to bed every night. But that’s only one part of its deep simulation, which was the game’s big selling point back in ‘99.
Yokosuka and Hong Kong are dizzyingly detailed, interactive worlds, letting you interact with almost anything. You can buy food from convenience stores, feed a kitten, talk to people you see on the street, play classic Sega coin-op games in the arcade like Space Harrier and After Burner. It’s still impressive, even though open worlds are now infinitely bigger and more complex.
That’s because, adjusted for inflation, the first Shenmue cost around $70 to develop. It’s seen by many as the game that killed the Dreamcast, and saw Sega leave hardware behind to focus on third-party publishing. But these lavish production values make for an insanely immersive setting, with loads to do. Anyone who played the original will remember being obsessed with collecting capsule toys from vending machines on the street. “Hey, Lan Di can wait. I wanna finish my Virtua Fighter set.”
Later in the game you get a job driving a forklift truck at the docks. You get up in the morning, catch the bus, do a day’s work loading crates, then go home at the end with some extra money in your pocket. You eat lunch, talk to your co-workers, and even enter forklift races when the boss isn’t looking. Shenmue is about living out the life of Ryo Hazuki, and it’s a world you can get completely lost in.
This is a big part of why I love Shenmue. It’s one of the most understated games I’ve ever played, with a moody, sullen atmosphere that reflects the personality of its revenge-driven hero. Wandering Dobuita Street in the rain and snow, or at night, is about as atmospheric as games get. Its recreation of 1980s Japan makes you feel like you’ve been transported to another time and place.
Mostly, though, it’s just really sad. Ryo is an angry, confused young man, and the way he unknowingly upsets a girl who likes him, Nozomi, is heartbreaking. If you like your games with extra helpings of rain-soaked melancholy, the original Shenmue is the game for you. The switch to the sunnier, brighter Hong Kong in Shenmue 2 lost some of the first game’s distinct atmosphere, however. Shenmue 3 appears to have a more rural setting, so I wonder if they’ll be able to recapture it.
Composer Ryuji Iuchi will be working on Shenmue 3, who wrote some of the original games’ music. This is excellent news, because the Shenmue soundtrack is one of the best ever. It perfectly captures the melodrama and melancholy of Ryo’s story. But rather bang on about it, I’ll just embed some of my favourite tracks.
I know, right? Beautiful stuff. Even if Shenmue 3 turns out to be rubbish, at least we’ll get another soundtrack like this out of it.
And finally, fighting. Ryo is a young lad, but he knows how to handle himself. His father was a martial arts expert himself, and passed some of his knowledge on. The battle system is loosely based on the combat from Virtua Fighter. In fact, Shenmue originally began life as a Virtua Fighter spin-off RPG.
On his quest to find Lan Di, Ryo beats up a huge variety of people, from thugs to sailors and, at one point, an entire street gang. Scrolls and wise old martial arts dudes teach him new moves, and the more he practices, the better he gets. The combo-based combat system is a lot of fun, and hopefully it’ll return in a similar form for the new game. Battles are bursts of excitement between all the slow-paced exploration, which is an important part of Shenmue’s very distinct rhythm.
And let’s not forget that the term ‘QTE’ was invented by Shenmue. The first two games are full of them, but they got away with it, ‘cause that was before every game ever decided they were a good idea. I hate QTEs personally, but Shenmue 3 wouldn’t feel right without them, so I’ll let it slide. As he gets closer to Lan Di, expect Ryo to be beating the hell out of increasingly experienced opponents.
Just ‘cause Shenmue was great a million years ago doesn’t mean it will be now. So even though I’m riding the Shenmue hype train, I’m still realistic and sensible enough to know that, possibly, it’ll just be rubbish. Whatever the case, I’m glad it’s happening—and doubly so that it’s coming to PC as well as PlayStation 4. I need to see Ryo finally come face to face with Lan Di. I’ve been waiting on that moment my entire adult life. Let’s hope it’s not a massive anti-climax.
Now, how about a game of Lucky Hit?