Studio Ys is bringing Shenmue 3 to PC and PS4 on November 19th, and many gamers are not quite in the loop about the title. In this article, I’ll share with you some details of what made Shenmue a cult classic, and explain why I think the kickstarted Shenmue 3 should absolutely be on your radar.
Why Shenmue 3 Should Be On Your Radar
- Title: Shenmue III
- Genre: Action Adventure
- Developer: Ys Net
- Publisher: Deep Silver
- Platforms: Windows PC, Playstation 5
- Release Date: November 19th, 2019
What Was So Special About Shenmue?
The year is 1999. Graphics have just made it to 3D and are starting to shine in this new way, featuring the releases of now-classics Counter Strike and Silent Hill. But a title released only in Japan pushes the boundaries of what’s possible, creating what would become to be known as “Open World”. Woah, wait! This can’t be? “Open world was invented by GTA (2001)“! or maybe “There was Wasteland and Mercenary in the 1980s!”, etc.
Well, it is my opinion that Shenmue’s unique features are what actually defined what we consider open world, by creating the first Sandbox with characteristics that are now a staple of the most modern titles. Of course with the game being launched only in Japan and by Sega, the exposure in Western markets means its commercial reach cannot rival that of larger titles, and thus the impact can be said to be more on the developer than the consumer side.
Here are some of the things that Shenmue innovated
Sandbox World – Explore anything! Go into anywhere! Talk to random NPCs! The expansiveness of this title was comparable to GTA, Fallout and such games that came long after. Stores, arcades, parks and streets are packed with exploration options and little rewards for your interactions.
Day / Night cycle with Weather and Seasons – other games had introduced the concept of flags changing the time of day, real time affect in-game events, etc. But Shenmue was the first one to actually deploy this in a coherent and game-changing fashion for gameplay via its persistent in-game clock that was typically used by text-based games like trendsetter Avalon. Just so you get an idea of the extent of detail: as your game gets to December, you’ll see Christmas decorations pop up to match the festive season.
Autonomous and voiced NPCs – The idea of voiced NPCs is a rather common one nowadays, but we still see many sandbox games without NPC depth. Shenmue had skyrim-like cycles for NPCs, who would get up, go to work, set up holiday decor and change stock based on the season. They have routines that include visiting the arcade, going to get food, and even stopping to pray before bedtime. There was also a disc-based online feature that let you read backstories on all the NPCs of the game.
Quick Time Events – Some form of these had been around before, but the well-known term “QTE” is actually credited to Shenmue’s director, Yu Suzuki. The format became popular due to the implementation on this title and subsequent adaptations lend the term to make it all the way to acclaimed games such as God of War, Uncharted and Heavy Rain.
Mini-Games and Interactivity – Minigames have been a gaming feature since the original Playstation, but the way that Shenmue incorporated them into the expansive environment was fresh and new. Further, the open world allowed you to interact with it in innovative ways, letting you pick up items, break objects and even do a forklift race.
Online Portal – Back before everything was Always Online, Shenmue had a special physical disc with the “Shenmue Passport”. Using this and the Dreamcast technology, you could dial up to the game’s online portal and receive news updates about upcoming events, submit your scores to a minigame leaderboard, review your gameplay records and access lore about the game.
But Is Shenmue 3 Groundbreaking?
“Alright, they sound innovative enough, my interest is piqued. But… that was then, it’s twenty years later! What’s new now?” – This is a valid concern. The glories of yesteryear do not guarantee a good upcoming game, and players who have no attachment or nostalgia are likely to be baffled by the dated feel of the title.
The kickstarter for Shemue 3 was blown out of the water, triplicating its original goal and thus securing many special features, including a cinema view of the events of Shenmue 1 and 2, which I’m not spoiling for you here as I hope you’ll pick the game up. The game continues from where the story left off, and promises to keep the “retro” feel through – down to having the same English voice actor.
Built in Unreal Engine 4, Shenmue 3’s main feature is to continue a saga for a groundbreaking game that had left its fans hanging. The game does not look amazing, and the style certainly feels like we’re looking at a Playstastion 2 game, but that is no reason to ignore the good parts of “retro”. Attention to detail is highlighted in the smallest of things, and during the pre-release previews we’ve seen things that you do not expect to be surprised by. For example: when you go up steps, you actually walk up each step naturally. When you pick up an herb, your character actually grabs that specific herb. That unique herb will not respawn, but the field is large enough that you’ll find other items to loot as you explore.
What is gameplay like?
In true Shenmue spirit, you are meant to live as Ryo – from taking on a part-time job to earn cash, to opting to use some of that cash to buy a capsule toy and maybe get lucky to add one to your collection. You will have to do what is now known as “survival elements” – you must eat regularly to stay strong, you must be in bed by a certain time to avoid fatigue, and there is a set amount of in-game time that must pass in-between plot events, giving you freedom to explore and live as Ryo, and polish your martial arts skills that must be leveled up.
Gameplay focuses on experiencing daily life while honing your skills in preparation for the many battles you must fight to achieve your goals.
So Why Should I Play Shenmue 3?
Modern games have most of the features pioneered by the original Shenmue, and have since added many more plus exceptional graphics, talented actors and compelling gameplay branching into multiple choice story or multiplayer titles. In contrast, Shenmue 3 is a continuation of an old title you likely never played, with outdated graphic designs, no conversation choices and a rather dated set of dialogues, activities and combat.
My appeal is this: Give it a chance, and grab the opportunity to experience a historic game and support the developers that contributed so much to a genre you likely enjoy. Encourage products of love and passion, rather than the never-ending microtransaction chains of bang, flash and outstanding marketing spend. Consider that Shenmue III’s entire budget is about 10 million USD – less than 10% of the 140 million that GTA V used in its development cycle before thinking of marketing and distribution (the game’s total budget was 285 million USD).
Even without the nostalgia goggles, you can enjoy the comings and goings of a Japanese icon in modernized graphics, and revitalize the idea that games can be quirky and still be fun, and that the focus groups don’t have all the answers. Revivals like this one have successfully encouraged developers to return to Metroidvanias and Isometric CRPGs, and I think there’s a distinct and unique market for a more chill approach to action adventure that delivers a livable story.
Living as Ryo was fun when all of this was new, and it will still be fun today. The mechanics don’t need to be groundbreaking or mindblowing to be engaging, dialogue can be cheesy and your jacket can be outdated. The important thing is that when you walk away from the game you feel like you had a great time – and that’s something I truly believe we’ll be seeing with Shenmue 3.