^ This was a lot funnier in my head, I promise. But then most things are.
Hi kids. Consider this line a public service announcement. If you have absolutely no interest in gaming, this rant is going to be about as enjoyable as spending New Year’s Eve with Piers Morgan.
‘Shenmue’ and its sequel (the enigmatically titled ‘Shenmue II’) are two genre defining action / role-playing games that arguably have yet to be matched in terms of their scope and ambition. Forget GTA III – Shenmue invented the open sandbox feature for gaming and did it to such a ridiculously high standard that it only now just feels that other developers seem to be catching up to it.
Starting like an ill-thought out kung-fu flick, the games chronicled the story of a young man, Ryo Hazuki, witnessing the death of his father at the hands of a swankily dressed villain named Lan Di. For a game released in 1999, the level of realism in your adventure was unparalleled and the game’s incredibly non-linear progression was liberating. You were presented with a litany of bizarre, but oddly deep characters fleshing out the plot (which made up for the relative one-dimensional nature of Ryo himself, a quiet chap who just said "I see” a lot whilst searching for sailors). It was one of the most engrossing game experiences of all time.
And then it happened. January 31st 2001 – the day the Dreamcast / my childhood died. Sega announced they were pulling out of the hardware game and their latest console would be discontinued in the coming months. Shenmue II was in development at this time and, initially, only got European and Japanese releases. But the Shenmue saga had always been envisioned as a long, sprawling tale that would span several large and extensive chapters. The original game had only been the first of these chapters, and II began by skipping an arguably unimportant chapter and cutting down a couple of the subsequent ones to advance the plot in the series’ increasingly unclear future. Despite the edits, Shenmue II was as grand as its predecessor - the entirety of the time spent in Kowloon in the game being one of the greatest sections of modern media I’ve experienced. The perfect swansong for a criminally misunderstood console, the game ended on a note of intrigue, almost as if to ensure Sega still had a real epic of a series on its hands as it moved in to software-only development.
But since then, it’s been tough for Shenmue fans. Sega have fluctuated wildly as both a business and a quality creative company. Times are dark. Sonic the Hedgehog has to sell his property rights out to any title he can, latching on to the success of others so that Sega execs are still able to put dinner on the table (I’m looking at you, 'Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games'). Shenmue fans all own Xboxes or Playstations now, hell maybe even Wii Us. But, over the years, there have been small bouts of activity post-Shenmue II. A couple of projects were even announced, the most infamous of these being Shenmue Online – an MMORPG that died before it even got started. There was even talk of releasing the remaining story as a graphic novel. Still, nothing's actually happened. At this point, it’s obvious we’ll never get a fully-fledged sequel, thanks to the abject failure of the console that bore Shenmue also rending it a financial disaster.
But I need to know. Does Ryo ever catch up to Lan Di after he escapes on the helicopter? Does he ever avenge his father’s death? What was all that weird stuff about the cherry blossom tree when you reach that remote village in China at the end of Shenmue II? It keeps me awake at night. I’ve never felt such contempt for a game villain like I do Lan Di. And, although as wooden an actor as a 2x4, I’ve never felt such empathy for a protagonist like Ryo (you can take your Cloud Strife and naff off). This is a man who watched his father get murdered in their own dojo for reasons that have yet to be made clear. His first reaction is to unwaveringly travel across Asia to uncover the mystery behind Lan Di and his murderous motives. Ryo still needs answers and god damn it people, so do I.