Shenmue is Awesome: 20 Years of Yu Suzuki’s Dreamcast Masterpiece

Yokosuka, November 29th, 1986. A young man rushes uphill through the snowy streets of his hometown of Yamanose. He’s rightfully distressed and spots a black car parked next to his family house. Reaching home, the young man witnesses a clash between his father and a man named Lan Di. The man demands a certain mirror, but refuses to leave in peace even after receiving what he desires. Following a brief exchange of kicks and punches, his father receives a fatal blow and dies moments later. As for the young man, his name is Ryo Hazuki and he will have his vengeance. And that’s the phenomenal introduction to Shenmue.

Meanwhile, an 11-year-old me watched with eyes and mouth agape at everything unfolding on the screen. Shenmue has been out for two decades and I still haven’t played a game which balances an engaging narrative with an authentic open-world setting so well. It’s like being both, a spectator and the main character, in a martial arts movie. And the game employs its premise, characters and setting to reel you in from the first minutes. Right from the first moment of setting foot outside of the cozy Hazuki residence.

Ryo sets out into the living, breathing city of Yokosuka — a city steeped in traditional Japanese culture and architecture. As of yet, Ryo’s much weaker than his opponent, Lan Di, but he’s blinded by rage which soon becomes evident within his actions. He often acts on impulse, without considering repercussions for himself or those dear to him. And as a result, people are involuntarily drawn into his destructive quest for revenge. One of them being his caring housekeeper Ine-san, who loves Ryo like her own blood. She constantly worries about him getting into trouble or simply coming home late at night.

There’s also the sweet and innocent Nozomi who clearly has deep feelings toward Ryo. She attends the same class and wants to keep him from harm. But Ryo’s inconsiderate actions eventually lead to her being kidnapped by a ruthless gang known as the Mad Angels. Ryo redeems himself by rescuing Nozomi and taking her home on a bike in one of the most iconic scenes in the game. It all turns out well in the end, but this event paints a clear picture of where Ryo’s priorities lie. It doesn’t portray him as an insensible character. Quite the opposite — it makes him real; it’s how a real person would act after losing a loved one.

Ryo doesn’t avoid trouble while on his own, either. In his search for Lan Di, he frequently gets into fights with the wrong people: gang members, sailors and formidable martial artists. Sometimes even friends, like Guizhang, whose intentions, admittedly, are not clear straight away. But thankfully, Ryo isn’t just any typical teenager. Even though still at the beginning of his martial arts path, he’s a fairly skilled fighter.

I will forever remember Ryo’s encounter with the bullies at the Sakuragaoka Park and how he saves Nozomi and a kid from harassment. He later beats up thugs at the Heartbeats bar and completely thrashes the place. Shenmue popularized the now prevalent QTE sequences and at the time these events looked like impressive set pieces from Jackie Chan movies. And who could say no to an interactive “Police Story” or “Rumble in the Bronx”?

Some of these events only occur if you’re at the right place, at the right time. Some are entirely missable and playing the game repeatedly may lead to a completely different experience. And speaking of time, Shenmue features a full day and night cycle. Ryo wakes up in the morning and must get back before midnight, or else Ine-san might worry. Shops open and close their doors at specific times and there’s a bus schedule to follow. A bus which takes you all the way to the New Harbor District where Ryo could get a job or participate in unsanctioned forklift races.

This dynamic, along with the varied environment, prevented the game from becoming monotonous. While waiting for the next event to trigger, you would often partake in activities to pass the time and every district in Yokosuka had its own distinct feel. Walking along the quiet streets of Sakuragaoka, I would often stop by the Abe Store to spend a few thousand Yen on capsule toys. Afterwards, I would run through the alleys all the way to the busy Dobuita district and the “You Arcade” to play some classic arcade titles. During the tail end of the day, I would try to hit the jackpot at the Slot House until Ryo must go home.

But even at home, Ryo could play video games, pester people on the phone or practice new moves at the dojo. I particularly enjoyed the latter. Whether at the dojo with the friendly Fuku-san or at a secluded parking lot in Dobuita, mastering new moves felt worthwhile. It felt like you’ve spent your time wisely, perfecting Ryo’s skillset. It was a great way to take a break from progressing the story and battling sailors, especially during the evening. And once the sun set, the city lights went on and the shops closed, I often went for a practice.

These sessions conveyed that Ryo is preparing for his inevitable fight against Lan Di. And to showcase this further, Shenmue culminated in a massive battle against 70 people. That’s right, only you, Guizhang and 70 gang members prepared to tear you both apart. Ryo and Guizhang didn’t even like each other and often fought over trivial things. And because of that, it was all the more breathtaking to see them team up against a common enemy.

With Shenmue, Yu Suzuki achieved something that many developers struggled to replicate even many years later. He created a coherent universe which transcends time; a narrative so enticing that it almost feels real. A story which may seem like a typical tale of vengeance on the surface, but hides an astounding amount of substance and character underneath. But to truly understand its charm, you should take the journey yourself. Shenmue is awesome!

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