Shenmue is old, but it’s not the boogeyman. Though the franchise can only be accessed on Dreamcast (and Xbox, in North America), it’s an extremely important franchise, and definitely worth going back to play today. But not for the reason you may think. Though there are people who credit the series with being among the first modern open-world games that led to the runaway success of Grand Theft Auto (and the two have been historically compared), I think there’s another important comparison to make that’s been well overlooked.
At their heart, the Shenmue games are adventure games. Although you can run around, do whatever with your day, and follow the plot as much or as little as you want, the basic components of the franchise are: talking to people, gathering information, solving puzzles, fighting people, and getting through QTE (Quick Time Event) segments. The main goal is finding the mysterious man who killed Ryo Hazuki’s dad and getting revenge. Everything else in the game is just the distractions of everyday life you can partake in on the way to that goal (or not).
Imagine all of that was cut down. Instead of wandering around cities and slums looking for clues and people to talk to, you were taken as a player from point, to point, to point, to point. No more fighting system – just all QTE’s. And sometimes they might not matter all that much. Neither will all the choices you make.
Essentially what I’m describing here is a Telltale game. Say The Wolf Among Us, for example. You follow Sheriff Bigby as he investigates the mysterious deaths of prostitutes in Fabletown, hoping to bring justice to the perp. You accomplish this by talking to people and engaging in QTE events, often proceeding as fast or as slow as the game wants. As written, the story is so taut, that there wouldn’t even be time to engage in open-world activities, lest crucial pieces of evidence and testimony disappear forever.
It’s an interesting comparison. There are key differences to be sure, but Shenmue and Telltale games like Wolf seem to operate on opposite sides of the same spectrum. For those who miss the style of storytelling in Shenmue, they may want to play a Telltale game, though it will feel stripped down and different in its execution. Fans of Telltale who might be getting tired of all of their franchises feeling similar might appreciate a blown-out adventure with more to do and an incredible, intricate world to experience.
This is a generalization. But, let’s assume you’re a fan looking to expand, and can withstand the weird voice acting in Shenmue or the jank that sometimes accompanies Telltale games. Where is the big leap in logic? It makes much more sense than comparing Shenmue to GTA.
It’s been my belief that, in choosing to compare Shenmue to games that took the open-world formula further, like Grand Theft Auto, we’re ignoring what the franchise is really about. Sure, GTA has more action and Yakuza, as another example, isn’t afraid to get wacky. Both of those franchises have had considerably more time to build themselves up and introduce more modern mechanics. Their approach to open-world is that they want the player to explore everything, to find all the minigames, and collect all the packages and other collectibles scattered across the world.
Shenmue, meanwhile, is more ambivalent about its environment. You can collect capsule toys. You canplay arcade games or pachinko all day. It never asks you to do these things, there’s no in-game achievement or checklist tied to them. It is more measured with its gameplay, and on getting the player to do what the game wants to continue the story.
For example, in the first Shenmue, Ryo gets a job as a forklift driver. Each new in-game day, players must complete the 9-to-5 shift before they can do anything else. The open-world doesn’t matter as much during these segments; it’s instead more of a tool. You use it to find the next plot thread, or to unlock special events and cutscenes. Shenmue II takes this even further by forcing you to move locations at the end of each chapter of the game, forcing you to leave the non-plot relevant stuff you were doing behind.
Like an episode of The Wolf Among Us, the creators of Shenmue are concerned with ultimately getting you through the plot, they just give you a lot of leeway. I can see why the comparison to other open-world games exists but, to me, what Telltale has done with their games is much closer to what the spirit of Shenmue is supposed to be, just minus an open world.
How can that be, when part of Shenmue’s reputation is staked on its immersive world? Well, taking the way the games are played into account, if you give Wolf an immersive world with sidequests and activities to blow off steam with, you’ll wind up with something akin to Shenmue. Strip Shenmue to its basics, you wind up with something similar to Wolf. They both have an important focus on stories, and both feel crafted for the player to make choices that appeal to them, in their own ways. That makes the comparisons here easier.
To compare GTA and Shenmue as open-world games is much more difficult. Yes, they both allow the player to roam about an open-world choosing to engage in various tasks, but that’s where the similarities end. Beyond that, what the games aim to do is fundamentally different. In Shenmue, a sidequest is helping a random dude hang a sign for his store correctly. In GTA games, you have protection missions, gang affiliations, and heists to pull off, among other things. Across both Shenmue games, Ryo Hazuki gets his hands on a weapon once, and doesn’t even have the chance to use it in combat. In GTA, robbing and shooting people has been a core element since the beginning of the franchise.
In the first place, I think it’s vital for people to go back to Shenmue now to reassess both games in today’s landscape. Are they just the prototype for the open-world games that came after, or are they adventure games pretty wildly ahead of their time even now, in comparison to Telltale games? Though some might want to argue that it’s both, I think what GTA does and what Shenmue does are so different at their core, that comparing the two only works on a superficial level. To me, Shenmue is what Telltale could make, had they more time, budget, and the right license to work with to justify a larger scope.
Soon Shenmue III will be upon us, and it will be interesting to see which direction the developers will take it. Will it turn out to be like its predecessors, with their defined pace and combination of QTEs and talking to people? Or will it act more like a modern open-world game, taking cues from Yakuza and GTA? While there might be some quality of life modern updates, I ultimately see Shenmue III sticking to the core of what makes that franchise special, as basically an open-world adventure game.
Swing by the old games if you can, I encourage you. But by the time the third one comes out, I believe the Telltale comparison will be more apparent, and the franchise can be reclassified once and for all. Hopefully, this will inspire more people to see what the fuss is about.
Contact me on Twitter if you want. You can also email me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com. It would be great to talk to you!
A version of this article can be found here.