I’ve stated before that one of my least favorite aspects about modern games journalism is the tendency to throw titles of a bygone era under the bus. We have such a desire to prove the growth of the medium that we often look back on those older games with mocking derision, as if we were naive to ever enjoy them. Video games, despite their relative youth, have a pretty rich history that deserves to be studied and, dare I say, respected.
All of that said, I’ve never thought at any point in my life that Shenmue was a good video game.
An interesting game? Sure. Ambitious? Undoubtedly. But good, even for its time? That’s a hard argument for me to make, the novelty of a lovingly rendered Yokosuka never actually translating to much in the way of captivating experiences. Most of Shenmue’s playtime is spent walking up and down the same streets, asking NPCs for information or waiting for an event to trigger. I downed my body weight in soda and played a lot of Space Harrier in the process, but I don’t actually need to boot up my Dreamcast to replicate that experience. Because the epic saga was originally conceived as a sixteen part series, this first chapter has also has the distinction of nothing actually happening. Ryo, fresh off of witnessing the murder of his father, gets a job and rides some forklifts before moving on to where the next chapter was originally going to be located. It’s a nonexistent story told at a laborious pace, broken up by the occasional mugging.
The grand irony is that the story of Shenmue, or its creation rather, is infinitely more interesting. Originally conceived as a Virtua Fighter spin-off for the Saturn, an inhuman amount of time and money was spent on trying to develop this real living world. Of course, the unfortunate side-effect is that the real world is often very mundane and full of people you’d rather not interact with, so in that aspect, I suppose you could consider the game a success. At no point does it feel like it actively fails in what it was trying to do, for better or worse.
And that’s why I still respect it. Shenmue isn’t a game that I want to really revisit again after this, but I get why it was so impressive for its time. I also have a bias towards games that really go for something, even if they come up short. I can’t say that I really understand the downright fervor some have for the series, to the point of making it the most successful Kickstarter of all time, but free of any nostalgia, I’m still curious as to what Shenmue could be in a modern context, in a world where everything it attempted to do back in 2000 has been iterated on to death. Part of me wants another ambitious failure, something that once again tries some new things but fails somewhere in the process.
I guess that sounds weird, but replaying Shenmue doesn’t give me a lot of faith in the greater vision – that part 14 or 15 in the narrative is when it’s going to get really good. I’d rather a new game be for the industry what the original was – an attempt to walk through doors that others less courageous (and/or smarter) weren’t ready to.