I was very glad that Shenmue and Shenmue II got a re-release in preparation for the forthcoming third game: I thought back on those two games incredibly fondly, but I didn’t actually remember so many details about them, and in particular I could use a plot refresher.

Maybe I was a little curious how well they would hold up, but honestly I wasn’t worried about that: in the past, when I’ve returned to old favorites, they’ve held up pretty well for me? And the specific ways in which the Shenmue games did well are still ways that I haven’t seen explored much in subsequent games; the Yakuza games have some similarities, especially in the care with which they treat their environments, but there are a lot of differences between the two series as well.

Having said that, I was a little taken aback at the start: old-style controls, and some of the graphics hadn’t aged well. (Though I liked the graphics more later, maybe the initial cut scenes were particularly rough or something?) But, once I got beyond that (and looked up how the controls worked, I miss paper manuals!): this is still Shenmue, and Shenmue is both great and unique.


At the time, there were very few games with environments that were crafted to the level of detail of those in Shenmue. Those detailed enviroments aren’t so uncommon today, and in fact I’m sure that there are lots of games out there with more objects in them, more places that you can stick your nose in.

Most of those games don’t treat those environments as living spaces, though: AAA games usually spend their crafting budgets on locations for elaborate set pieces. Not always: the city sections where the Yakuza games take place feel like characters on their own, and the Citadel and the ship in the Mass Effect games also feel lived-in. (Whereas the environments that Mass Effect missions take place in, elaborate as they are, are designed to funnel you through them instead of to make you feel at home in them.) And open-world games go in a somewhat different direction: huge amounts of space, space that you can return to, but also space that’s generally lacking in density.

But, even granted that, Shenmue is different: the spaces don’t just feel lived in, they’re spaces that you have to actually live in. Yes, there are the traditional game trappings of combat, of commerce, and of conversational unlocks; but it’s all embedded in a structure of daily life. And, to me, this turns out to make an unexpectedly large difference, and a difference that’s positive.


Take combat as an example. Most adventure games turn you into a killing machine, slaughtering by the thousands. And combat is very important in Shenmue: the whole plot is focused on martial arts, there’s a full fighting game mechanic there.

But you don’t actually fight all that often! This is completely different from Yakuza, a series that has people lying in wait for you multiple times on every city block: instead, Ryo can go for days in game without fighting enemies. Which would be a little weird if the game left it at that, but instead the game says: if you want to get good at fighting, you should put in the practice. So you can practice with one of your fellow students at the dojo, you can practice in vacant lots that are dotted through the environments.


That practicing mechanic could feel forced, and could run into level balancing mechanics, as so many RPGs do: part of throwing enemies at you constantly is to make sure that you get leveled up for the major battles, so you can feel like you’re progressing. With Shenmue, practicing is optional, so the game has to either make you not need to practice or make you want to practice.

Honestly, I suspect it does both: it’s not really clear to me how important it is to level up your various punches and kicks. But, at least for me, the daily life structure of the game makes it very natural to want to practice. Of course I’ll want to put in an hour at the dojo each day: my character is a serious martial artist, he would actually put in much more time than that! But also, it’s a game with a plot, so I’ll be wandering around town; I’ll spend some of that time talking to people, some of that time just poking my nose in places, and I’ll also usually advance the plot some each day.

But the plot advances usually take the form of “come to this location tomorrow and something will be there for you”. You can only do so much with the plot on any given day; so you’ve got time to kill, and it’s only natural to spend some of that time in a vacant lot, working on your technique!


And it’s also only natural to spend some of that time shopping. Not a lot of time shopping, though, because you only have so much money; you get an allowance, but that’s limited, so if you want to spend more, you need to earn it. Also, you’ll need to spend for plot-related reasons, not just for personal enjoyment.

Which is another one of the things that I both enjoyed and found realistic about the game was that it has you set a budget but where it feels natural to put most of that budget towards essentials and savings but some of it towards short-term pleasures. Like, yes, I have to make sure I can make my mortgage and utilities payments every month, and I want to put some money towards retirement savings, but it’s also nice to be able to go out to eat every once in a while? So it is in life; so it is in Shenmue.

So, in Shenmue, I have to get a job; and, in both the game and in life, the job is interesting enough. In real life, I’ll be happy enough to retire eventually, I’m not going to be one of these people who works forever, but I also do genuinely enjoy the challenges at work. And I don’t know that I would enjoy a game that was solely based on being a forklift operator, but it’s a fun way to spend parts of your day in Shenmue, there’s enough skill development there to be interesting, but I’m also happy to be finished at the end of each in-game work day.


Shenmue II has many of the same virtues; though, as the game went along, I realized that they played out in different ways, and in ways that didn’t work as well for me. You don’t have the same opportunities to practice your combat, for example; I’m not sure why you can’t practice in the vacant lots in Shenmue II, but that’s the way it is? (And, jumping ahead, towards the end of the game there are lots of arenas you can fight in if you want, but you’re forced to gamble, so you don’t want to do that unless you’re sure you can win.)

You still can earn money at a job in Shenmue II, but it’s one that I personally didn’t find as satisfying: you’re stacking crates through a button-pushing minigame, it feels much more artificial than forklift delivery, and there’s no reward for doing well. I literally never got credit for anything other than six crate deliveries the entire way through the game, no matter how badly or well I did. (I’m sure that if I’d intentionally screwed up, I could have gotten less money, but I would have had to work hard at it to screw up that badly, you can make a bunch of mistakes and still get credit for 6 deliveries.) And you can earn money through gambling, but the odds aren’t in your favor, and I wasn’t about to start save scumming.

I still enjoyed the environments, though; and on a personal level, it was nice to see so much Tai Chi, and even to have Ryo be surprised at the martial applications of Tai Chi and to have it explained that that’s because it’s Chen-style Tai Chi. And the plot is fine, too; a little less of a feeling of connection than the first game, perhaps, but that’s only natural since Ryo has uprooted himself, and he does make bonds in Hong Kong as well. So the core good feelings are still there.


Still, I was feeling that maybe some of the magic was missing in Shenmue II, that it wasn’t quite as good as either its predecessor or as my memories of the first time I played the sequel. But then I got to the final section of the game. And, yeah: I’d never seen anything like that before, I’ve never seen anything like that since.

Maybe the end of Shenmue II is the ur-walking simulator? Or rather, it’s a walking-and-talking simulator, because that’s all you’re doing: you spend two days walking from a harbor at the base of a river up the mountains to a village, accompanied most of the way by a girl who lives at the village. There are a few quicktime events, but mostly you’re just talking to each other while going along the path. And that conversation is perhaps the most natural conversation that I’ve ever seen in an adventure game or an RPG.

You’re not going through dialog trees and then waiting for the next set of trees to unlock, you just have a handful of topics to talk about at any give point. And these are topics that naturally flow out of the prior conversation: so, basically, what the game is doing is modeling being a human being who is good at being around other people, paying attention to what they’re saying and following up on their words and their interests. If that bores you, there’s an option indicating that you don’t have anything else to say, so you can probably cut the time in half and just quickly make it to the village.

But I was never even remotely tempted to take that option. It left me with a very similar feel to the daily rhythms of the first game: there’s enforced breathing space between plot points, but that breathing space doesn’t outstay its welcome, it’s just enough space to let you feel like a regular human being going through life instead of like a Video Game Hero. I don’t know that I would want a full game of Shenmue II conversation, but I’m sure glad to have experienced it here. I’m glad because of the uniqueness; I’m glad because I genuinely enjoyed it; and I’m glad because it gave a cooling down period after the climax of the game, to let the excitement of the final battle settle.


So that’s the first two Shenmue games. And, in a few months, I’ll get to play the third one! I was very excited about that prospect before the replay; and I’m just as excited after having revisited the first two games.

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