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Shenmue’s Eccentric Slice of Life
BILL WOOD | NOVEMBER 7, 2022
I distinctly remember my first experience with Sega’s classic RPG Shenmue... it was not a good one. I was playing the much-anticipated game on my Dreamcast and was about two-thirds of the way through the main story when my Virtual Memory Unit went kaput. The VMU was Sega’s proprietary memory device, and the company touted it as the coolest thing since Sonic the Hedgehog popsicles. The plastic casing actually had a loophole so that hip kids could wear them around their neck as pendants. No one did this. In addition to being a fashion dud, Sega’s VMUs were also somewhat unreliable compared to Sony’s PlayStation memory cards, and when my VMU died unexpectedly, I lost all of my Shenmue progress. All those hours spent searching for sailors in seedy dive bars and taking fighting lessons from hobos... vanished in the blink of an eye. At that point I wanted to wrap a VMU around someone’s neck.
Fast-forward two decades later. Virtual Memory Units are a distant memory and cloud saves are here to stay, so what better time to put my disastrous first Shenmue experience behind me and play through the PS4 remaster?
For those who weren’t gaming back in 1999, let me tell you; Shenmue was a really big deal. Far from being a low-budget indie affair, it was actually the most expensive video game ever produced at the time, costing a reported $70 million in an era when big-budget Hollywood epics were just topping $100 million. The game took up three (count 'em, three!) discs and came with a bonus Passport disc that acted as a fan service kiosk. Years before Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto III came along and completely revolutionized the industry with its innovative open-world gameplay, Shenmue offered up a similar—although more linear and much more honorable—experience. Players were mostly free to wander through a virtual region of Japan, complete with day and night cycles, side quests, and a host of quirky-yet-charming NPCs. It's taken for granted that modern games deliver this type of experience, but in 1999 this was pretty special. As far as gaming experiences go, it felt like stepping into a different part of the globe.
Gameplay innovations aside, Shenmue is a thoroughly Japanese game experience, and I’m not just talking about the Yokosuka setting. There is a popular style of narrative in anime and manga called slice of life, which focuses on life’s more subdued moments. This style dates back at least to the postwar era, when Japanese readers were starved for cheap, escapist entertainment that promoted a degree of normalcy. Unlike typical shonen manga, which is akin to the traditional American comic book and features any number of superheroes rising to the occasion against the latest threat to our galaxy, a typical slice of life storyline might feature an emphasis on cooking, fishing, even daily school life. The concept may seem absurdly anti-climactic, but the uniquely Japanese talent of elevating normal everyday functions into the melodramatic makes it work. Case in point, my current favorite manga, Way of the House Husband, which follows the comedic exploits of an ex-yakuza on his mission to become the best homemaker in Japan. Small on explosive action and big on charm, this series is a brilliant breath of fresh air.
There wasn’t a name for the slice of life genre in 1999 (not one I was aware of anyway), but it is a massive part of Shenmue’s appeal nonetheless. At the heart of the story is Ryo Hazuki’s bare-knuckled quest for revenge, but it’s the more mundane encounters that gamers remember most fondly, be it feeding a stray kitten, helping an elderly lady locate a street address, chatting up patrons in arcades and dive bars, or wasting time by dropping yen into a Gashapon dispenser. A main portion of the story has Ryo spending his days working as a forklift operator, delivering crates to warehouses and picking up a paycheck at the end of the day. These ordinary instances may seem like uninteresting diversions, but it’s precisely these moments that give the game its distinctly quirky charm. Shenmue wouldn’t be Shenmue without them.
[Note: One of my earliest jobs involved operating a forklift, I can confirm it's every bit as mundane as Ryo's day job. Although I can't recall starting every morning with a forklift race.]
The game doesn't just encourage a slower, calmer pace; it literally enforces it. Checkpoints and events that are scheduled around an in-game clock, as a result you'll find yourself with time to kill as you wait for a shop to open or an NPC to show up at their home. Similarly, conversations are unskippable, so even if you're on your fifth playthrough you'll still have to sit through the same dialogue you've probably memorized by now (the sequel does have a dialogue skip option). Shenmue may be a speedrunner's worst nightmare, but the snail's pace has its benefits. Because there's no need to sprint from Point A to Point B, players can simply roam the streets, taking in the sights and sounds. It also gives players plenty of time to gab with some of the town's more interesting residents, including Tom the hot dog vendor, Mark the shift foreman, and a possibly inebriated Santa who only appears around the holidays. I've never bothered with the English dialogue option, but some of the Japanese voice acting is particularly corny by modern standards, especially the tough guy banter. But hey, it's all part of the Shenmue experience.
Sega re-released Shenmue in 2019 (together with its sequel, Shenmue II), giving those who never owned a Dreamcast console the opportunity to play this landmark video game. The PS4 remastered edition leaves the original game mostly intact, and the result is a mixed bag. Graphically, Shenmue's visual updates are uneven and feel unfinished in areas. For instance, the team smoothed out Ryo's facial texture but left his iconic bomber jacket looking like a pixelated mess. The result is jarring, especially since that jacket is onscreen for the majority of the game. Many key textures have been worked, and there are upscaling and widescreen options, but that’s about it. Also, the in-game clock locks the frame rate at 30fps no matter how much hardware you're playing with. Don't get me wrong, this is probably the best-looking version of Shenmue you'll ever play, but it also pales in comparison to similar remaster efforts.
Gameplay-wise, Shenmue still feels very much like a Y2K-era action video game, which means finicky camera control and collision detection, quick time events, and a fighting system that plays out like a roughshod version of Virtua Fighter 2. The in-game fisticuffs are kept to a minimum so the brawling bit isn't too bad, but I do wish they'd put some effort into fixing the awkward camera and collision issues. In the gaming world, nothing says "dated" like having to be perfectly aligned just to start a conversation, climb a flight of stairs or open a door.
I’m glad I revisited Shenmue, warts and all. It’s definitely rough around the edges and hasn't aged well in areas, but at the same time the game has lost none of its subtle slice of life charm. Like many old-school favorites, I can easily see myself coming back once a year to replay it. Spiritual successors include Sega's Yakuza and Judgment series, and while they are both brilliant franchises in their own right, neither reaches for the laid-back atmosphere of Yu Suzuki’s original open-world classic. It is certainly not for everyone, particularly those who aren’t willing to strap on the nostalgia goggles and ignore the game’s more glaring blemishes. But if you're up for a slower-paced RPG that is absolutely regarded as one of the essential pieces of gaming history, Shenmue cannot be ignored. - BW
P.S.: The 2001 sequel, Shenmue II, follows Ryo's exploits in Hong Kong and has received similar remaster treatment on PS4, but I’ve barely started on that game. There is also a follow-up, 2019's Shenmue III, which has received mixed reviews.