The Case for Shenmue

Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture and the Guilin area of China share something in common, a link that binds these places together, not only with each other, but with more than one million gamers from across the globe. A link defined not by its commercial success but rather its artistic triumph, an undertaking so epic in scale that the dream was only matched by its outlandish budget, and yet, despite technically being viewed as a colossal failure, there can in truth be no other way to look upon it except in contradictory terms. It has touched the lives of many, defined them as people as much as it would their pastimes and with that it has created the most passionate and fervent community on the planet-I am of course talking about Yu Suzuki’s incredible Shenmue.

In the late 1990′s, Yu Suzuki set out to advance video games yet again, Shenmue was originally in development for Sega’s brilliant, yet much maligned Saturn console, but focus shifted onto the next generation hardware and the numerous possibilities that it would offer them. Coining the term F.R.E.E. (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment), Suzuki set out to deliver a level of freedom unheard of in video games, a fully realised world of day/night cycles, realistic weather, complex AI and full voice acting for even non-playable characters. A world that would simulate other aspects of reality too, from playing games to working a day job. Shenmue was never going to be something that you played, but rather lived, and in that respect, it was a glorious success.

Whilst at its core, the story is a fairly simple tale of revenge ripped straight out of a kung-fu film, but this is also part of its inherent charm and beauty, ably assisted by the incredible Virtua Fighter style combat mechanics and stunning quick time events, Shenmue set the unassailable standard by which all other open world games should be judged. RPGs have always offered character progression, it’s key to the genre, but none have ever felt as personal as this, it wasn’t just the character of Ryo Hazuki that got stronger as the game progressed, it was the player too. They almost literally stepped into the protagonist’s shoes to make it their quest for revenge, their journey, and that is why the untimely cliff-hanger ending of the second game has been so colossally devastating for anyone touched by this masterpiece.

The case for a HD re-master of the Shenmue series is an open and shut case to me, not only is it a vital piece of gaming history, but it is a work of undeniable beauty and power, and it is only through the markets of the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade that there can be any hope to be found for the re-emergence of these gaming classics, but also for a future for the series. For too long, they have survived on the fringes of the gaming industry, residing under “cult”, but now it is time for them to earn their place in the spotlight for the right reasons.

The install base of the Dreamcast amounted to around just 10 million users, but between the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, there are more than 170 million consoles shipped across the globe, there are a huge volume of gamers eagerly awaiting the arrival of something that will demand their attention, and this it. Whilst the fan base clamour for a third entry into the series to complete the tale of Ryo Hazuki (or at least extend it), a more likely option for Sega is to opt for the more cost effective HD versions of both Shenmue and Shenmue 2, not only will these delight fans both old and new, but it will give us hope. Hope of a future for a series once seen as dead in the water, hope that one day, we may yet find ourselves with the opportunity to complete our epic journey and hope for an industry that has found itself devoid of any creativity. Shenmue came as a breath of fresh air once, and it can be again.

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