Before the likes of Grand Theft Auto 3, Skyrim and the Assassin's Creed series, Sega's Shenmue presented a different look at what an open-world game could be. In between fighting groups of thugs there are long stretches of walking, waiting for the bus, or standing in a park to kill some time. A fascinating game and interesting revenge story hampered by its strange pacing.
Recently re-released in a collection that includes the first two Dreamcast-era games, we take the original adventure for a spin.
From acclaimed Sega designer Yu Suzuki, the creator of arcade classics like Out Run and Virtua Fighter, Shenmue was to be his magnum opus. A multi-chapter epic, spinning a tale of revenge, myth, history, martial arts, fantasy, and realism across both mainland China and Japan. A story that would require several games. Ambition at this level, although not always attainable or feasible, is certainly admirable. In the end we only got two Shenmue games covering about a third or less of the planned narrative. With a third Shenmue, surprisingly, on its way next year.
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Outside of its staggering scope Shenmue was always destined for fame and infamy. The first game, which covers only the first chapter of a supposed fifteen-chapter story, presents the idea of an open-world in a way that is fascinating for just how different it is to the genre’s later highlights like Grand Theft Auto 3. Games that favoured action, spectacle, experimentation, relentless pacing, and giving the player the choice of seemingly countless things to see and do. In Shenmue the goal is often to simply exist, to move from one location to the next.