Shenmue 3 is a Sad Cash-in on Gaming's Pioneering Past

By Gary Cutlack on at

So the internet's decided Shenmue is the greatest thing ever, has it? So where were all these people and their shouty capital letters of amazement and money-throwing GIFs back in 2000, then, when the game first came out on Sega's Dreamcast in the UK to be met by a tsunami of indifference?

This is the same Shenmue we're talking about? The one no one bought, followed by a sequel even fewer people bought, then abandoned before it could end?

It's the benchmark for failure, the gaming world's most celebrated money-loser.

Sega and Microsoft tried to give it a new life on Xbox, letting a new generation of people... not buy it once again. It's the benchmark for failure, the gaming world's most celebrated money-loser.

Not that it was rubbish, far from it.

Shenmue, legendarily, had quite a thing for sailors.

Shenmue was all about the ponderous atmosphere and impenetrable plot. The painfully slow pace of the original worked when you were playing it on Dreamcast and not exactly in a hurry to complete it. We were younger, with more time to explore its complex world and fewer distractions, plus the Dreamcast's unfortunately short life meant its detailed universe was ripe for replaying and poring over afresh to look for new things once the other games stopped coming.

Shenmue 3 and a New Generation of Distracted Gamers

Nowadays, Shenmue is going to seem a bit strange. It's a sort-of game without any real game bits, where you're expected to be grateful for the dramatic interlude of driving a forklift around a warehouse. A generation weaned on the explosion-every-30-seconds charms of Gears of War and its brainless ilk will not be impressed.

The Kickstarter reveal video shows that's it's not moved on one bit in terms of riveting gameplay. The only action amid the puffed-up historics and faux lightbulb moments is a laborious, slow, dragged out section in which Ryo awkwardly jumps across a river after so much prompting from his companion he seems unsure if his legs still work after this 14 year layoff, or what a stone is, or how rivers work, or what jumping even means.

It looks like the sort of thing that ought to be on Android, for free, packed with adverts, developed by a man in secret on his own while at work, and marketed at the toddler demographic who can't handle on-screen buttons yet -- not something begging for millions of dollars and backed by the global brand behemoth of PlayStation 4.

More sailors.

And unlike fellow Dreamcast classic Rez, which survived the remake process and delivered a stonking Xbox 360 HD experience that played to all of its strengths, Shenmue's going to seem rather played out. The QTE events -- occasionally pressing a button when prompted to do so -- pushed the definition of gaming to its limit even 15 years ago.

To be fair, they've infected everything since so were quite revolutionary in their own "Press A to be excited now!" kind of way, but nowadays, after over a decade of QTE-like triggering of set pieces, we've had enough. If that's all Shenmue III's got, it's going to leave a lot of people really quite unimpressed.

The DNA of Dreamcast

Another part of the niche appeal of Shenmue came from its exclusivity. Yes, it was a bit weird and slow and strange, but it was our weird and slow and strange thing. I'm speaking as a former Dreamcast enthusiast here. If you owned a Dreamcast, you had to have Shenmue. You had to play it, even if you didn't really like it or enjoy it, because it was part of the DNA of Sega and one of Dreamcast's reasons to exist.

The creation of a world this big on a console as tiny as the Dreamcast all added to Shenmue's charm back in 2000.

We used to get excited about how many polygons made up someone's head and hair, or how much processor power must've been thrown at illuminating those screens-within-screens at the in-game arcade. Examining these details were often enough to pass a rainy afternoon.

shenmue 3

Gaming priorities in 2000.

New Shenmue III and its Unreal Engine 4 graphics is going to look great but, sadly, a bit less like a video game as a result. The character models, the faces, the dialogue, the creation of a world this big on a console as tiny as the Dreamcast, these all added to its charm back in 2000.

That's all gone now. We expect enormous universes, and there's nothing magical about mini games any more. And the Kickstarter campaign sees Sony using Yu Suzuki as some sort of totem for gaming purity, but who's really paying to make Shenmue III? Surely Sony, which used it to Win the Internet by announcing it at its E3 conference, is sticking some money in the pot (as it calls itself a "partner" of developer Ys Net today), so why the uncomfortable pretence that it needs money from us to make it happen?

Shenmue doesn't feel like the product of a brave underdog deserving of our interest and time and unconditional love any more, not with Suzuki begging for coins and Sony pretending it's broke and needs $5 for a cup of tea from the office canteen before it can even think about commissioning new box art.

Also, can anyone actually remember the plot of Shenmue II? It was something about a lost cat, wasn't it? Some old things are better left alone. It won't be the same.