This fortnight Nick takes a look at Dreamcast classic Shenmue, it's celebrated sequel, and the pain of that elusive third instalment that never arrived...
SHENMUE 1 + 2
Release Year: 1999 (Shenmue), 2001 (Shenmue 2)
Original Console Release: Dreamcast, Xbox (Shenmue 2)
Developer: Sega AM2
By Nick Murray, Videogames Contributor.
In the world of entertainment there are some amazing trilogies. Just consider The Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars movies, or the recent Dark Knight series. All fantastic, and all follow your basic trilogy rules; the first movie introduces the characters and world, the second ups the stakes and implies loss of hope, and finally the third part is the final plunge for resolution. Not all trilogies follow this format, but this is the tried and true method for most three-part sagas. Now try and remember how you felt after you saw Empire Strikes Back - after the famous Darth Vader revelation, after the worrying fate of Han Solo – remember how excited you were, how you shook with anticipation, with complete wonder as to how it was all going to end, how the events would play out. Remember that? Well imagine there was no Return of the Jedi. No answers to your questions. A few years pass and you start to think to yourself 'Hmmm, they sure are taking their time with this sequel.' Then one day you read an article saying that they couldn't justify spending the money it would take to make Return of the Jedi. Then ponder the notion of Lucasfilm going into financial turmoil, with which the likelihood of Return ever getting made slowly diminishes. Occasionally a rumour might spark some hope, but then some guy in a suit will kill that spark. If any of this is sounding familiar then you were probably the owner of a Sega Dreamcast, and on that Dreamcast you probably owned Shenmue and it's sequel, Shenmue 2. This short lived series, and it's untimely death, are the focus of this fortnight's Friday Flashback.
Released in 1999 as a Dreamcast exclusive, Shenmue was the brainchild of Sega legend Yu Suzuki, and was to be the console's crowning jewel. It's difficult to place Shenmue into one genre. At it's heart it is an open world sandbox game, and while not the first in the genre, it certainly took the style to new levels, introducing an active weather system that changed randomly from day to day in accordance with the date of the in-game calendar, giving the residents of the town and it's surrounding areas innovative AI, which saw them go about their daily lives, acting out routine life of going to work, shopping and indulging in leisure activities. The fully realised 3D world was also innovative, boasting the best graphics of its, and indeed any, genre for the time. The gameplay that takes place in this open world ranges from puzzle solving to almost street fighter style fight sequences, with exploration, quick time events and mini games darted around somewhere in between. The most unique selling point of Shenmue though was its mature, heartfelt story that really asked the question 'can video games be as good a tool for storytelling as movies?' And for my money, that answer is a resounding yes.
The story begins in 1986 Yamanose, a suburb of Yokosuka, Japan. Ryo Hazuki returns home to witness the murder of his father at the hands of the villianous Lan Di. So begins Ryo's quest to avenge his father. Throughout the game you will encounter dockside Scarface's, motorcycle gangs and secret organisations, and learn of a mysterious plot involving two ancient mirrors, and a father's secret past. I hate to write the description of the plot in such a 'trailer-esque' manner, but it really can't be helped. The story just oozes with melodrama, and you're forever left with the feeling that you're so much smaller than what is really going on. By the end of the disc 3, and the end of the game, you will have forgotten that Shenmue was merely the first in a series, and that not all loose ends would be tied up.
The story continues in Shenmue 2, released in 2001, and finds Ryo exploring the breathtakingly vast Hong Kong. And it really is vast. With Shenmue under their belt, the developers really hit the sequel with confidence, creating a game that felt familiar, but with everything turned up a notch. The entire size of Shenmue's game world could easily equal only one area of Shenmue 2's Hong Kong. The characters are more colourful and seem almost otherworldly compared to the sleepy residents of Ryo's hometown, in both friendly and threatening ways. Of course there are characters you'll meet that will help you along the way, but Hong Kong also boasts a huge gambling scene, from arm wrestling to full on back alley fight clubs, and one upping the wrong opponent at one of these events could end nastyil. The villains are more interesting and memorable, and the plot has so many twists and turns you'll be relying on Ryo's in-game diary to keep abreast of what's going on. Shenmue 2 spans across 4 discs, one more than it's predecessor, and it's that final disc that to this day has never been surpassed in being one of the most agonising chapters in many a gamer's life.
The final disc feels less like the last chapter of Shenmue 2 and more like the first chapter of Shenmue 3. After an epic conclusion to the third disc, where certain plot points are tied up and discoveries are made, you are sent from Hong Kong to Guilin, where Ryo encounters Ling Shenhua, a girl who appeared in his dreams in the first game. Before long, Ryo learns that the Shenhua family have links to the ancient mirrors that have driven much of the plot, and Ling agrees to take him to see her father, who is more knowledgeable on the subject. Together you travel to an isolated cave where strangely her father is nowhere to be found, however you do discover a note and a sword, which combined with the mirrors activates a device that illuminates huge images of the mirrors themselves, and then...
That's it. That's how it ends. At the time everyone assumed that Shenmue 3 was right around the corner. I mean, these games were critically acclaimed, they were innovative and paved the way for many games to come. So what happened to part 3? Where's our Return of the Jedi? In short, the games were expensive to make, and sadly the number of people who bought them just wasn't big enough to justify another outing. Maybe if Sega didn't fall into such difficult times financially we would have seen the concluding chapter already, but it’s an unfortunate fact that Sega can't really afford to take much of a gamble on anything these days that isn't Sonic. Slowly but surely they are getting back on their feet, and they've never ruled out making the game, so maybe one day we will get the chance to play it. They clearly love the series, a sentiment that can be seen in the fairly recent game Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, where Ryo Hazuki is a playable character. The latest word on Shenmue 3 came as recent as early 2012, where it was revealed that Yu Suzuki, who no longer works at Sega, might be able to buy the rights to the game from them, allowing him to make the game with a studio who can afford to take the risk. It’s a nugget of hope that makes devout fans such as myself a little optimistic, but I've been on this rumour merry-go-round many times before, so until the game is actually out there on store shelves, I shall put it down as one of those great gaming tragedies, and enjoy the Shenmue games that we already have for the fantastic games that they are.
NEXT FRIDAY FLASHBACK will be live on Friday November 9th.