shenmueheader3

Shenmue cover art (cropped)

I remember hearing of Shenmue when Dreamcast was all the buzz. This was back when there were TV commercials for Dreamcast. I was a teenager and working at a games store called Electronics Boutique at the time, before the manager there fired me without giving any reason. He was a strange and scary guy. This was the same man who made the awkward comment that “it will be nice to have some feminine touch around here.” I remember it made me feel like I was some wallpaper or lamp or some kind of decorative feature in the store, and it made me uncomfortable. I can’t say I was totally surprised by the flippant way he dismissed me, considering that’s how he felt about me working there. Around the same time, another unlucky member of the store was getting the boot too: Dreamcast. Stock was being cleared; the last remaining pieces, not only in my city, but all over New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. They were phasing it out.

But wait! My customers liked me, the assistant manager liked me, I got along with all my co-workers, what could have been the problem? It was the same with Dreamcast: the fans loved it and the games were great, where did it go wrong? Apparently marketing and sales. It had excellent games, but apparently not enough of them. Playstation was already the most popular console at the time, with an extensive catalogue of games, followed by N64. The Dreamcast came with higher specs, interesting peripherals (keyboard, maracas) and online capabilities, but it was either too soon or too late, depending on how you look at it. At the time, I also felt like I had good technical specs and interesting content, but that it wasn’t enough. I feel you DC, I really do.

Anyway, having left the company and seeing that Dreamcasts were on the way out, I was interested in getting a hold of what little stock they had left. I really wanted to go online on Dreamcast Arena and see what it was like. I had even heard some people had gotten married after meeting there. As for me, I just wanted to chat and play games on my TV online; that was something fascinating for me, even when I was playing online games on my PC. Nowadays, they are talking again about disruptive entertainment, with Steam boxes and the like coming to living rooms, but in those days running a DSL cable out of your console and playing online sounded like wizardry… and I wanted to be a part of it!

The console would have set me back maybe a week’s salary. I was only working on weekends so in a part-timer terms that was basically equivalent to a month’s salary. But I wanted it so bad I had the assistant manager save one for me, along with a keyboard, and I was ready to pick it up the next time I came by. I would work out the games soon after, since there was no rush on that as no new consoles were being sold. Maybe Typing of the Dead, Samba De Amigo and special maracas from eBay – and Shenmue, that hyped RPG every gaming mag had been talking about.

Lo and behold, on the day I would have been united with my true gaming love, a devil whispered on my shoulder in the form of my mother. I was actually walking up to the store, while she was whispering into my ear: “Don’t buy this, don’t waste your money”, “Don’t buy a new console”, “You already have a Playstation, why do you need another one?”. I had already decided to get it, and had it specially set aside for me, and here she is, brainwashing me at the last minute, right outside the store. Having no real defense for mom-talk, I lost my willpower and submitted. “I guess maybe it’s a bit expensive”, I said to myself, still feeling the sting of being fired. I walked home dejected and empty-handed.

Samba-De-Amigo-Dreamcast

I can still hear them shaking now (via thocp.net)

I spent my time playing with phantom maracas I didn’t have and googling all the pics of that cute sombero-ed, square-headed monkey that I could find. For many years, I still wondered, “What is Shenmue?”. Like a remnant of a lover you only met once, or a crush you never really knew, it just lingered, cropping up in my thoughts every now and then. Eventually, I just had to let go of ever thinking I could ever make it happen.

However, fate had another opinion. One day, fourteen years later, I was talking to my friend Kalle and he casually mentioned that he started playing Shenmue on his Dreamcast.

“You have a Dreamcast?” I gasped, as if having discovered Atlantis. “You really have Shenmue? I’ve been meaning to play that for years!”

“Yes, I think I’m half way into disc one”, Kalle replied.

“Oh my god, the next time you play, I’m there!”

shenmue-booted

Ahhh finally (pic by Reina)

We booted up Shenmue on the tiny grey box. It was smaller than I remembered, like a GameCube but lighter. For some reason, the graphics were comforting, very 90s/00s. We booted up the save file and I found myself in a Japanese style house. It is the late 80s. Our protagonist has jet-black spikey hair and a leather jacket with a tiger on the backside (kinda like an earlier version of Ryan Gosling in Drive). I start to rummage through the drawers of all the rooms in the house, picking up the odd candle, photograph, matchbox, battery and paper amulets showing martial arts move, while looking for clues on what my father left behind. The main premise is that there are two artifacts that shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. One is already gone and it’s my duty to get it back while protecting the other one.

asking-stuff
Where are those old sea dogs? (via lparchive.org)

You play each day in real-time, where each second is about a minute of time in the game world. Ryo has a curfew; you can stay out late, but as he’s a 17-year-old he needs to get home at 23:30 to make sure his aunt isn’t having a heart-attack worrying about where he is or what kind of trouble he’s getting into. The days go by while I talk to people in town, investigate my house and occasionally, work too.

workiBringing in the moolah, one crate a a time… (pic by Reina)

You start to realise there is a lot of asking in this game: you basically spend most of your time going around asking people things. Some people will ask you to leave you alone, some people will flirt with you, and some will give some information and some will not. In terms of realism, in behaviour and dialogue, Shenmue is as real as it gets. Heck, sometimes it feels almost like Sega went round and interviewed some random people in this town and literally transliterated what they said (the town Dobuita, where most of the NPCs are standing, is based on a real town in Japan). From the blunt rejections of a teenage girl you talk to on the street: “If you are trying to pick me up, just give up and try someone else”, to the sobering realities of a middle-aged man working at the docks: “I was let go from my previous work, and I have a wife and kid. That’s how I ended up here at the harbour. The job market is rough right now, so I intend to stay here indefinitely”, these people sure don’t sugarcoat anything.

After quite many in-game days and weeks, suddenly I find it’s New Year’s Eve, 1986. Instead of having fun and watching fireworks with friends (or my elusive, quasi-girlfriend who pops up now and then), I end up in a battle with the a guy who looks so terribly like Gollum that you’d think Peter Jackson has played this game for sure. I get the daylights knocked out of me and end up home sleeping through the whole New Year’s evening. The next day, I go out into the streets outside my house and the neighbours are all dressed up in their New Year kimonos and we are wishing each other a nice new year. I suck it in and act normal, like it’s just another New Year’s morning, and not like I’m trying to get myself killed everyday by engaging with gangs and asking where they are fighting and fighting a multitude of ruffians on a biweekly basis. “No my highschool friends, I am not like that at all”, and I bid them farewell. I go over to check on my adopted cat, who sleeps in a cardboard box next to the shrine at night. Like any good Tamagotchi or pet simulation, the game allows me to pet, talk, or simply look at my adorable kitten. The soft purrs are calming after another day of getting bruised all over, and I feed her some dried fish snacks I found from our kitchen bench. Later I go shopping for tuna and milk, and even some sashimi – it’s pricey, but the best for my cat. I win 3rd prize in a raffle (a cassette tape) and throw some darts on a dart machine to pass my time during a workbreak… This is my life in Shenmue. But even seemingly endless working must come to an end one day.

How do I feel after finally finishing Shenmue? I feel like I’ve completed a piece of myself. This vast jigsaw puzzle of videogame history inside my soul was missing an important part and now it has somehow been healed. Was the game satisfying? Yes. Was it frustrating? Yes, sometimes. I won’t lie, you have to do some work in this game. You have to run around and ask people things, even people you don’t want to ask. The monotony of having to do real work actually adds to the game’s realism: you actually feel like you were working. Talking to your co-workers during a break feels like a relief: the people in Shenmue empathise with you, and you empathise with them. You’re a seventeen year old kid who shouldn’t be messing around with things that are way out of your league – but you do it anyway.  People in the game, even people you just get to know, start to care about you, even when they are dealing with their own problems and it’s very humbling.

Maybe it was good to play this 14 years late. Somehow, I can probably identify with the struggles more than I could have when I was a teenager. Maybe moms are right sometimes. Maybe having this videogame banned from me for fourteen years just made me look forward to it more. Shenmue opens a time capsule to what game development was aiming at as it’s pinnacle, and what a shining example it still is now.  Sometimes people talk about old games as if nostalgia makes them seem better than they are, but Shenmue is a confident reminder that even old games I haven’t played before are as good as they claim to be.

Seriously, if a game can cause me to stand at a virtual kiosk long enough to seriously deliberate whether to get dried fish or canned tuna for my virtual cat, it must be a great game indeed.

My Kitteh! (via superadventuresingaming.blogspot.fi)