This year I bought Shenmue for the third time. I bought it despite knowing, having played it and its sequel three times, that in many ways it is a trial to play. But it’s special to me anyway, as it is to probably millions of others. It’s a relatively new phenomenon, games following you through your life like this. Before, they were tied to one console and one point in time. Now they have the chance to become anachronisms.
As a teenager in 2002, I managed to pick up a Dreamcast and a bunch of games for a ludicrously tiny price from my local game store, shortly after they’d been discontinued. The console itself cost me £30 ($54.83) and each game was only a fiver.
My new Dreamcast collection was slim, but exciting: Jet Set Radio, Space Channel 5, Skies of Arcadia, Crazy Taxi, and both Shenmue games. At that time I’d only ever played on Nintendo platforms, and Halo on my household’s new Xbox. Sega’s offbeat, stylish approach was new to me.
I loved all those games, but Shenmue was the one I called friends round to play. I couldn’t understand how it was possible, this capsule world on a disc. Even driving a forklift round and round a warehouse complex seemed interesting when it was so detailed. A friend became obsessed with examining the gashapon figures; as Nintendo kids, these were our first introduction to Virtua Fighter and NiGHTS.
Years later, while I was at university, I actually went to live in Japan. Walking around my new home, a suburb of Nagoya, a medium-sized city on the coast, I often experienced a strange and disorienting sensation of intense recognition for a place I had never been. This wasn’t the Japan I’d seen in films and anime, neither a neon urban sprawl nor picturesque countryside: this was the Japan I’d seen in Shenmue, with its small houses, little shops, raccoon statues outside doors, shrines nestled away on narrow, nondescript streets. Even the way the power-lines criss-crossed above me felt familiar.
It took me a couple of weeks to pin down why I felt this way, and when I realised it was because of Shenmue, I felt ridiculous. But that game had such a strong sense of place. Shenmue was so interesting not because it was much fun, not because it told a good story, but because the small town of Yokosuka was so realistic.
No other game I had played at that time was portraying normal places like this. It was all fantasy worlds, or space, or fictional cities. You could walk around wherever you wanted, doing mundane things; visiting the arcade, the convenience store, the park, a part-time job. These daily rituals slowly deepened my familiarity with Yokosuka until it felt not like a fictional place I’d visited, but an actual place I’d lived.
If you’re generous towards Shenmue’s intentions and strengths, you could say it is a game about being somewhere. In my memory, though, it had been this amazing cinematic adventure. I next finished Shenmue in 2009, shortly after I returned from Japan, with a newish boyfriend. (Nearly ten years later, we’re still together and have a two-year-old son.) We’d bonded pretty intensely over games, he’d visited me in my little Japanese suburb a couple of times over the past year, and Shenmue felt like an important piece of my personal history to share.
When we dug out the Dreamcast and spun it out, I was devastated by how stiff and awkward it was — how dreadful the voice acting, the characters, a story that was at once melodramatic and absurdly thin, obscure design that left us wandering aimlessly about with no idea how to progress.
I’d played Shenmue at such a formative time that odd details would just arrive unbidden at the forefront of my mind whenever we couldn’t figure out what to do. I’d recognise a side-street, or remember that we had to go see someone called Charlie, without being able to remember why the street was important or who Charlie actually was. We ended up playing all the way through Shenmue 2 as well, on the Xbox.
I’d forgotten all about Ryu’s endearingly homoerotic friendship with Ren, and about the interminable hours walking through forests near the end, but somehow remembered which floor we needed to get to in a Hong Kong skyscraper to nudge the story forwards. By then Shenmue wasn’t a good game. Even when it came out it was hard to argue it was a good game; it was an interesting one.
Almost twenty years on, with these remasters, all that context about what Shenmue was trying to do and how technically marvellous it was has been lost. My 13-year-old stepson now knows it as the game about the sailor meme. He lost interest after about half an hour when we tried to play it together one evening, and I could hardly blame him. I’ve seen multiple YouTube videos of people barely out of their teens laughing at its risible animation and voicing, tearing it apart for being so boring and slow.
They’re right, I suppose, but I don’t think Shenmue deserved this. Whenever a game gets remastered, there’s a danger that it will turn out to have been better in the memory. Sometimes, like this year’s Shadow of the Colossus remake, the core of the thing turns out to be timeless. In Shenmue’s case, though, no amount of effort could have made it anything other than what it was in the first place: rigid, mundane, overwrought, and strangely fascinating.
I am not the same person I was when I first played Shenmue, or when I played it 10 years ago with the person who’d later be the father of my child. We change, but games stay the same. Perhaps there’s something comforting about that, but also something limiting: sometimes, perhaps, it’s better when they remain in their own time.