The Retro CriticSee all articles in this series.
Shenmue II: The Ultimate Gaming Cliffhanger?
I haven’t worshipped too many games in my life. Many games I’ve really liked, even loved but worshipped? Very few.
Off the top of my head, I can only think of a handful including Panzer Dragoon Saga on the Sega Saturn, the very first Tomb Raider on PC, Shenmue and of course its sequel, both on the Dreamcast. I was especially hooked by the latter and, like many other gamers out there, the second game’s ending not only blew me away but left me wanting more.
An explanation, a conclusion… something!
It’s now 2013 and still, fans of the game haven’t been rewarded with the ending they have been dying to play since, well, that last game ended.
The Dreamcast sunk, X-Box gave us a swanky yet underplayed version of Shenmue II and Sega lost interest. Shenmue Online did almost exist at some point, and main character Ryo popped up recently-ish on that Sonic And Sega All-Stars Racing game so it’s looking like Shenmue is slowly (REALLY slowly) coming back and with numerous fan groups demanding Shenmue 3, the possibility of a third game isn’t that far-fetched of an idea anymore. Oh it’s still science-fiction, don’t get me wrong, but we’ve taken a step down from Star Wars and we’re now in Star Trek territory in terms of believability.
For those unfamiliar with Shenmue, it’s a genre-bending third-person action adventure where you play as Japanese kid Ryo Hazuki who witnesses his father being murdered by a mysterious stranger only known as Lan Di. From then on, Ryo is determined to find his father’s killer and take him down.
Easier said than done.
Ah Lan Di, one of gaming’s greatest, sexiest (yes, I said sexiest), most intimidating villains and… he’s not even really in those games!
For the most part we’re stuck with Gollum here:
Or good old Dou Niu:
Both awesome villains, and there’s loads more in both games (including super-scary-sounding bad guy ‘Terry’) but they’re cartoonishly evil. We know very little about Lan Di, only that he’s a ruthless, powerful douche with a penchant for fancy mirrors. And that’s way scarier.
The games were very story based, so much so in fact that the first game was even re-edited into Shenmue The Movie, which was totally not a movie but made sense to the fans, anyway. A mix of cut-scenes from the game and actual gameplay, it basically served as a way to bring those unfamiliar with the first game (who may or may not have ever owned a Dreamcast) up to date without stuffing that little dead white Sega box down their throats.
In terms of gameplay, Shenmue had variety to say the least: You were free to speak to anyone in your town, walk into every store, you could free-fight, learn new moves, occasionally you had to push buttons super quick in order to survive an impromptu action sequence, you could ride a bike, get a job driving a forklift around and in the end fight about 70 guys.
As you can see, it kept you fairly busy.
Shenmue II sees Ryo travel to Hong Kong, Kowloon and Guilin in a huge game where you can gamble your butt off, get all sorts of jobs (I mean this in the least dirty way imaginable), explore entire buildings, wander around mountains and all sorts of unique locations, not pay your hotel bills…
As ever, the whole thing is impressively detailed and although now the graphics do look a bit dated at times, you can still find priceless lols all over those weird dialogs:
And strange-looking characters.
But what specifically has made Shenmue an essential franchise for so many?
I asked fellow followers and Shenmuites (not a real word) on Twitter what it was about the game that made it so special for them and what they remembered got them so hooked on it in the first place:
“It revolutionized gaming. No game went into as great detail as that game. You could pick up and examine everything”
“The game had this calm, everyday life feel to it [...] You were Joe Schmoe who went to work, got in fights and just tries to do right”
Shenmue certainly captured the feel of being in that world perfectly. For me, it wasn’t like playing real life, it was like being in a really cool Japanese martial-arts revenge movie from the 80′s! And that was… just as awesome as it sounds. Characters occasionally had a bit of an anime look to them but not distractingly so, it was all very melodramatic but genuine and the whole thing was not without a sense of humour. Every once in a while Ryo would ask an inappropriate question to some little kid, compare someone to an animal or bring his epic quest to a halt to buy Sonic capsule toys.
As you… do?
How many games do you know where you can just walk into an arcade and play a game of Afterburner, Hang-On, Space Harrier or Outrun, by the way? See, creator Yu Suzuki made sure to make Shenmue a game for gamers, and particularly those with a certain nostalgia for all things good and retro, hence the arcade, all those Virtua Fighter, Sonic The Hedgehog references and so on and so forth.
The second game included mini-games more in tune with the setting like Lucky Hit…
… or that crazy-addictive darts game you can find in random clubs and bars around the city. Not to mention slot machines etc.
“Being able to explore not only a working world. But a different culture, and that culture was so amazing.”
Indeed, for a lot of people, playing Shenmue was almost like taking a holiday! A really violent and dangerous but super fun holiday nonetheless. Since the first game was set in a relatively small town, you got to play a big game on a small scale which really helped to appreciate the culture and time period. I for one STILL have plans to one day go and check out Yokosuka not to mention Guilin, I just have to learn something called the Four Wude first.
Not sure what it is, I wasn’t really listening.
I mean, I could get a job…
Best trip ever, right?
Personally, it’s incredibly rare that I get attached to a video game character and find myself fully invested in what they’re doing. That almost never happens. I mean, I like playing Super Mario Bros. as much as the next guy but that princess means nothing to me. Sonic? Cute little animals? Really? Ryo Hazuki’s revenge mission, however, I instantly got into for some reason. I guess it’s the idea of this young, naive kid going on what is essentially a suicide mission that fascinated me. You couldn’t help but feel that no matter how badass Ryo was, he wouldn’t last a second against Lan Di so right there you had tragic undertones and a big, dark adventure completely in contrast with the peaceful town you came from and the beautiful Guilin scenery you ended on, ironically.
Which brings me to THAT infamous ending.
While the first Shenmue saw the character leave for Hong Kong to pursue Lan Di based on a really vague bunch of clues, Shenmue II suddenly brought to light something you picked up all the way back in that very first game only for something nuts to occur.
Like, crazy nuts.
It was an answer that just prompted a hundred more questions. The MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins had finally showed us its power but…
What did it all mean? Would Ryo ever find Lan Di? Is that even Ryo’s quest anymore? What’s with those mirrors? Did Ryo just win a magic sword?
What is Joy wearing right now in 1987?!
So many questions…
Will we ever know the answers? Who can say? Introducing a Shenmue 3 game at this point would mean probably re-releasing the first two games first (in tip-top quality of course) and then stalling for even longer until people have finally digested and re-digested them and everyone is ready for the third and, most likely, final game. And what if the graphics on those new consoles are so good they deny Shenmue its unique retro charm?
At this point though, I admit I’d settle for an NES-style side-scroller version of Shenmue 3. Or worse: Something resembling what the first game looked like on the Sega Saturn…
Does Shenmue II boast THE ultimate gaming cliffhanger? That might just be the case. Take the fans who were completely invested in the game’s characters and overall plot, add to that years and years of waiting and hoping and a conclusion that doesn’t even exists and you’ve got yourself a cliffhanger that is one nose hair away from pulling a Wile E. Coyote and tumbling over completely into the gaming abyss.
Wherever that is.
I invite you all to share with me YOUR favourite gaming cliffhangers in the comments below and if it turns out that Mr Hazuki’s confusing Guilin cave experience is nothing compared to countless other game cliffhangers then I shall re-tackle the subject and I will make sure to include your very own suggestions.
Until then, thanks to all those who shared their Shenmue views on Twitter and if you want to join the fight for an honourable ending to that franchise, here are a few Tweeps you can follow:
@Shenmue3Group, @ShenmueCampaign, @Shenmue_500K, @Shen500Kfeed, @ShenmueStare, @TheNextShenmue, @Shenmue_Dojo, @Shenmue_Lives, @shenmueuk, @Shenmue3_, @IWantShenmue3, @WeWantShenmue3…
I’d keep going but you get the idea.
Besides, I got me some sailors to find…