Shenmue - My first trip to Japan (シェンムー)

Fans of the Dreamcast adventure Shenmue have been begging Sega to remake the game for modern consoles for over a decade now and a recent interview by Sega suggests that they just might be ready to release HD versions of Shenmue and as well as other Dreamcast fan favourite, Skies of Arcadia. While this is undoubtedly good news for fans who have been salivating about the possibility of a conclusion to the saga in the form of Shenmue III, it may be better to head caution as we've been down this ill-founded road of caution before, with countless false hopes culminating in the cancellation of Shenmue World, a few years back.  

Personally, I am quite happy to enjoy what I already have, and appreciate the experiences in which  Yu Suzuki practically bankrupted Sega for - my first visit to Japan. Please allow me to explain how this obsession with a virtual Yokosuka, a town on the outskirts of Yokohama, Japan began.

The original Japanese release came with a nice soundtrack CD

As I sat watching the demise of my virtual father in the opening sequence of one of my very first Japanese import games, all the way back in January 2000, I knew I was experiencing one of the most ground breaking, culturally significant forms of digital entertainment ever created. I had been made aware of Shenmue through the official Dreamcast magazine, reading its propaganda and claiming that this Yu Suzuki project "Project Berkley", would be something very special indeed. Like many gamers at the time, I was sceptical of how Yu Suzuki's grandeur vision would be realised. After all, I was reading about it in the same magazine that gave Sonic Adventure a very generous review score of 9 and yet for some reason I remained engulfed by the hype and waited feverishly in anticipation for Project Berkley. The game did not dissapoint. Here is an example of a typical Shenmue experience.

Looking around at the impending reason I realised that I'd been stood talking to a bloke called Hattori-san for the past 5 minutes or so. He always seems to be stood around his sports store lately. The shop can’t be doing too well these days; I say to my self like it holds any significance. I turn to the reference section of my Prima guide, anxious to learn more meaningless information on this non-essential, prosaic appearing character. 

"Role: Owner of Hattori Sporting Goods 
Gender: Male
Age: 50 
 Weight: 132 lbs 
Birth Date: 26th May
Sign: Gemini 
Where: Hattori Sporting Goods The owner of Hattori Sporting Goods, Hattori-san was born and raised in Yokosuka, so he is a true-blue Yokosuka man. He knows Ryo and Iwao because he sellsa them their gi used for jujitsu practice. He was very shocked by Iwao’s death. He is also the coach of a boy’s baseball club in the community. He is a kind person, but he sometimes gives too much advice, so the children think he is too bossy (Ryo agrees.) His son works for a company, and his grandson is a surfer. His daughter has married and left home. He lost his wife many years ago so he feels lonely sometimes. When he can afford it, he sometimes closes the shop early to go see baseball games."

                                   My Prima guide, as you can see has seen better days, still an awesome addition for those seeking extra info about the Shenmue world.

Now, after reading this detailed, but rather needless biography for a few seconds I feel some kind of basic emotion towards this lonely old gentleman; however I’m a busy man, and make I my excuses and leave. Besides I’ve got things to do, I’m on the trail of a senior member in the Chinese mafia, a man who murdered my father right in front of my eyes. But first, a quick game on the slots is in order as I’m only 800 coins away from the elusive Mitsuka Certificate! This is when I, a gamer in a ‘real’ world of my own realise that this game had taken control of me far more than I would say is healthy. I was spending hours at virtual slots, torturing myself with virtual reels after virtual reels, all in an attempt to attain a virtual certificate with which I could do virtually nothing with.

The game also didn't come easy to me. The major stumbling block at the time was that the PAL release was what seemed like a lifetime away and my Japanese ability stood between sushi and shit for brains. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to get through it, nevermind enjoy it. Yet, that’s where part of the romanticism was unintentionally induced. Just watching the introduction itself was enough to tell me this game was graphically on another level to any game that had preceded it. The way the characters spoke, moved, and acted convinced me that this was the future of entertainment yet it was now, and I was experiencing it before most people were even aware of it. Even if my lack of Japanese language skills hindered me from understaind the finer points as to why this man, Lan-di had just killed my virtual father, the performance and emotions of these digital characters left no doubt in my mind that I would probably be finding out. 

Beating down Fuku-san's ugly mug is reason enough to practice your moves often!

The sheer amount of detail in the game was unprecedented at the time. Almost every item in sight seemed to be examinable, touchable and could be rotated in real-time. For the most part, doing so had absolutely no bearing on the game, but the simple fact that I had the choice to interact with my environment in this way gave me an incredible feeling of immersion. Just as in our lives, not every decision or action needs to result in a significant meaning, not everything in Shenmue had a reason. Additionally, while most RPGs at that time relied on a fantasy setting to hide their bland plot, Shenmue opened itself for all kinds of criticisms by placing itself in a real world. The world of 1980’s Japan; a place where many people would have expectations and experiences of what should be and this must have been the challenge that spurred Sega into making such a masterpiece.

So anyway, after leaving the impressive looking Hazuki abode I took a stroll through the neighbouring areas not having much of an idea what I was specifically looking for, and came across the whordes of locals, all moving around not especially interested in my actions at all. These characters all seemed to have a life of their own, Megumi-Chan is attending to her orphan kitten, Liu Gong-san is taking a break in the park watching the young children, and the local goths hang around the arcades being depressed. Japan, as far as I was concerned was a crazy place where incomprehensible games and really bad TV shows came from. This blinkered view changed literally within minutes of placing the GD rom in my Dreamcast. The subtleties and differences that this once alien culture had to offer were being beautifully and clearly illustrated through a computer game. 

A typical Japanese home, as modelled by Ryo. 
Shenmue not only introduced me to Japan before I had ever been there, but it also allowed me the opportunity of walking through Japans narrow, beautifully clean streets. I was afforded the experience of being able to talk to Oba-san’s; whiny little Japanese kids who wanted to wrestle, and School girls who made chavs look like members of the Brady Bunch. So through my daily adventures I eventually found myself being able to memorise simple but effective Japanese.

こんにちは Konnichiwa - Hello
 聞きたいことあるんですが Kikitai koto arun desuga I've something I would like to ask you 
これをください。 Kore o Kudasai - I'll take this please
 じゃまた Jya mata - See you later. 

I was acquiring this knowledge not through hours of monotonous repetition, over polite BBC styled educational programmes or internet sites created by geeks who want to understand their latest hentai anime, but by processing the information and putting into enjoyable and practical use in my virtual Japan; something five years of GCSE German never managed. I really think this perfectly highlights the advantages that gaming can offer over other types of digital entertainment. Unlike movies, TV and music; gaming and more particularly Shenmue allowed me the opportunity to appreciate and experience the people, location and the story in a time in my own living room and at a time frame that suited me. I was afforded the ability to react with the characters, I was given some sort of influence in the inhabitants “lives” or I could spend my days trying to win that virtual certificate in that virtual. Or if I was feeling particularly generous I was able to purchase cans of soda for poor Chinese delivery man, guide old biddies to there desired destination. If I was feeling particularly adventurous I could search around seedy nightclubs for sailors! 

In the Japanese version, the vendors all featured authentic 'Coca Cola' logos
This is one of the many reasons I love Shenmue, there are so many other things I could tell you about this wonderful game but it don't wish to spoilt the experience. And to put it simply, Shenmue is a game which should be experienced.

I’ve tried to as clearly as my limited vocabulary would allow, share the passion which I experienced from this “code”; a passion the people who obviously worked so hard on it hoped I would feel. Shenmue taught me more than by mixing a red and blue herb; I could cure a poison wound. It had helped me develop a skill; a language for heaven's sake - an appreciation for a whole different culture that previously I had little interest in, and much more significantly a new focus and a new chapter in my life.

Finally 12 years on, I now find myself living in a town similar to that of Doubita, Sakuragoaka and Yamanose. I am able to speak reasonable Japanese; I even had a boss the spitting image of the foreman from the Yokosuka docks once! I’ve witnessed women like Kondo and Sumiya-san chatting on street corners, children like Megumi and Rika playing and skipping, I have even seen old ladies like Mishima-san religiously sweeping their front porch every morning! I have even met a reggae styled, Japanese speaking, all singing all dancing American hot dog seller! So if you’ve never picked up a copy of Shenmue, or even worse did and detested it and traded it in for a copy of FIFA 500; I hope this article gave you slightest interest in the series or even better made you consider giving it a go. Everybody should at least, for one time in their life experience this great adventure for themselves.

.... and no, I never did manager to get that bloody Mitsuka Certificate.