Why is everybody so excited? WHAT'S A SHENMUE?

What is Shenmue and why should I care?

"Shenmue 3 is coming! YEAH!" So says the internet at large. But who would dare betray their ignorance and whisper the damning question that's causing tell-tale question marks to appear above so many heads: What the fuck is Shenmue? And quite rightly. Why should people know? The original Shenmue came out on Dreamcast in 2000 and the sequel was last ported to Xbox in 2003. That's 12 years ago. Assuming you'd need to have been older than the 11+ age rating to play and understand the game properly, and played both versions, you'd need to be at least 26 years old now to care at all.

Oh, but you should. Ignore what you've been told about the game. Let me answer the questions the internet has undoubtedly put in your mind. And, for the record, this isn't based on nostalgia I recently played through all of Shenmue 1 again (on a real Dreamcast, of course) and it's still gorgeous. Let's get sweaty. Erm that is a line from the game. Not trying to put you off, here.

Explain to me what the game is, in layman's terms

Shenmue is a beautiful, 3D RPG that was born from the Virtua Fighter series of fighting games. During development, its protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, was actually Akira from Virtua Fighter. It was known as 'the Virtua Fighter RPG' to the press for a long time, and it shows. But it's all wrapped up in a quest for revenge...

At the start of the first game, Ryo's father is murdered before his eyes. With Ryo floored and winded, he is unable to do anything to intervene, and the attackers led by a man named Lan Di flee in a black car, leaving Hazuki-sensei to die in his son's arms. There's even a "NOOOoooo..." as the camera ascends to the heavens, which is always welcome in any dramatic situation. Ryo awakens a few days later, sufficiently recovered from his battering, and starts asking around town to find out where that black car went. And so he sets about getting his revenge.

So it's a brawler then? Like Streets of Rage?

No. Fighting or should I say the art of fighting, is a prominent theme throughout, as Ryo can train in the dojo every day and learn new moves, which he can then take into his various battles, which involve a fully 3D scrapping system. It lacks a lot of the finesse of Virtua Fighter, but it's got a lot in common with it and some recognisable moves too. Practising moves over and over will help Ryo master them, increasing their effectiveness. It's a deep, rewarding system.

However, the fighting is just one aspect of the game and can be treated with as much attention as you wish. you don't have to master anything, if you're prepared to work hard in the story's sporadic scuffles. But the thing that sets Shenmue apart from every other game I can think of with a revenge storyline is that the game world does not outwardly appear to be designed with this story in mind...

Why is the game world so special?

Ryo's plight is a big deal to him and to the game, but to the world at large, it's marginally more than a gossip point for the town. This is just 1980s Japanese suburbia, going about its normal duties. The pace of life is slow and the people around you remember what Ryo was like as a little boy, sometimes even calling him 'little Ryo'. There's a convenience store, and bars complete with jukeboxes (playing a selection of classic Sega tunes). Oh, and you have to be home by bedtime or your housekeeper scolds you.

You'll find yourself helping an old lady to find the house of a friend. You'll get distracted by the local video game arcade. You get given an allowance every day, to fritter away on chocolate bars (trying to win promotional prizes from the wrappers). It's all totally trivial, but absolutely enthralling.

So it's not about finding sailors?

There is one section where you look for sailors. The problem with Shenmue's progression system is that you have to talk to enough people to work out where you have to go or who you have to see. But the sailors you need to talk to are in a place that's really not that easy to find, tucked away down a tiny flight of steps off the main street. So a lot of people got stuck asking one of the most ridiculous lines in the game.

If that's as far as you ever got, it's easy to poke fun at Shenmue, which is why this one line "Do you know where sailors hang out" has gone down in gaming lore as THE line from Shenmue. But after that section, the game moves on from simply asking around for information and really gets going. And that's when its scope really becomes evident.

And the forklift truck?

There is a forklift truck. You have to take on a job at one point (for reasons I won't go into) and it involves doing actual shifts in a forklift, moving crates from one warehouse to another. It is menial it's meant to be (though you do get to race them before work starts, which is kinda cool). But it's just another thing that sets Shenmue apart from other RPGs. This world is supposed to be believable.

But if you do it properly, and follow the map (like I didn't), it's over pretty quickly. You definitely don't have to do it for three whole months like it took me to trigger the next damn cut-scene. Why did I have to work out the shortest route to do the job the best I could? Why didn't I just follow the arrow on the map? (whimpers)

It was made 15 years ago surely it looks/feels ancient?

Nope, far from it. Sure, the NPCs look a bit low-poly now, but the detail in this world is still astonishing. All of the cutscenes can occur in any time of day, weather or season. When it gets dark, the street lights come on. Shops open and close according to their business hours. There are 500 NPCs and they each have their own backstory. Everything has a purpose and a reason for being there. And quite how it fits onto three 1GB discs is beyond me.

The detail goes further, too. The game takes place in late 1985 and early 1986. Well, the weather in the game is (allegedly, it's hard to check) exactly like the weather was on those days in that region in Japan. It's fully voiced and yet you can phone people and talk to anyone at any point in the story. It's like Metal Gear Solid's Codec, only with everyone.

It's still just window-dressing, though, surely?

Not as much as you'd expect. In your house, you can open all the drawers and pick out certain objects, turning them over in your hand before either pocketing them if they're useful, or placing them back, carefully. You can't go inside everyone's house, but you knock on the doors and talk through the crack if the person is home. You can go inside the majority of shops in town, all fully rendered and staffed. In Shenmue 2, there is a whole apartment block that you can explore (procedurally generated apart from key rooms, of course).

Also in Shenmue 2, there are games to play in the street (that's where Lucky Hit comes in) and you can gamble your money or try to collect sets of the capsule toys. You can buy new move scrolls in a shop.

Sorry, but where is the fun in all this?

OK, that is a good question. It isn't a game you play for five minutes because it's 'just such a blast' (though there is a secret duck race). The fun is in soaking up all this detail and really feeling like you're in this world. Walking leisurely back to your home as the night draws in, watching the shadows move under Ryo's feet feels special. It feels like a second home. A second life.

It's a game you savour, rather than '100 per cent'. You don't have to buy fish for the kitten whose mum was run over by Lan Di's car, but you will. Every. Single. Day. Finding a favourite capsule toy (I got NiGHTS!) or winning a raffle is exciting. You can win Sega Saturn games (an anachronism, but explains how Ryo can play conversions of the arcade games in his house). There's so much to see and do.

I'm not sure it's for me

Maybe it isn't. There are a lot of things a lot of people would say are 'wrong' with the game. Shenmue is at least partly to blame for the QTE craze, so those sections will probably grate. Then there's the often-dreadful voice acting. The ponderous unskippable dialogue. The clumsy character movement. The low-poly NPC models. Waiting around for a certain shop to open without being able to skip time the list goes on and on.

So I'm not saying Shenmue is perfect. But having millions of dollars' worth of development time spent on one outwardly unremarkable world has made Shenmue a very rare thing indeed - a AAA-quality game that doesn't rely on traditional spectacle. It's just extremely high quality in most of the areas that really count. So you should try it, and yes, you should be very excited for Shenmue 3.

Oh, but wait! You still haven't explained: What the fuck is a Shenmue?

It's a tree.

Justin Towell

Justin was a GamesRadar staffer for 10 years but is now a freelancer, musician and videographer. He's big on retro, Sega and racing games (especially retro Sega racing games) and currently also writes for Play Magazine, Traxion.gg, PC Gamer and TopTenReviews, as well as running his own YouTube channel. Having learned to love all platforms equally after Sega left the hardware industry (sniff), his favourite games include Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams, Zelda BotW, Sea of Thieves, Sega Rally Championship and Treasure Island Dizzy.