With a Better Hero, Shenmue Could’ve Been a Great Series

With Shenmue III, the series about hyper-reality and mundane tasks is complete. If only Ryo could say the same.

It has been two decades since Shenmue roundhoused its way onto the Dreamcast in Japan. From its early stages, when masterful director Yu Suzuki aimed to make a role-playing game set in the Virtua Fighter universe for the doomed Sega Saturn, to the game being touted as a Sega Dreamcast “system seller” with numerous planned sequels, Shenmue was unprecedented in its ambition and budget. It cost $47 million to produce, crushing the record for most expensive game at the time. 

It also tanked real bad. You could find the game for $9.99 in bargain bins just six months after its release. Still, the series developed a cult following even after the poor commercial performance of 2001’s Shenmue II, one so rabid that Suzuki himself announced a Kickstarter funding the development of the long-awaited third title at the 2015 E3 conference. The campaign reached its $2 million goal in under seven hours and when all was said and done, amassed more than $6 million. For all its momentum, the recent release of Shenmue III doesn’t seem important to anyone but the series’ original fans. 

Here’s a quick recap of the first two games: teenager Ryo Hazuki witnesses the murder of his father by impeccably-dressed mob boss Lan Di. The gangster is after a stone artifact in the Hazuki family’s possession called the Dragon Mirror (along with its twin, the Phoenix Mirror); its purpose is obfuscated from the player for most of the series. Having witnessed his father’s death, Ryo seeks revenge. Toss in destiny and a mysterious woman named Shenhua and that’s about as exciting as the series ever gets. 

The Shenmue series aimed for realism, an area in which it inarguably succeeded. The games capture so much of the ebb and flow, chores and errands, financial woes and philosophical wonders of life. In doing so, it shows us how boring life really is. The problem isn’t that mundane tasks are necessarily grating: there’s a whole genre of “cozy” games and task simulators that many people find endlessly compelling.

shenmue cutscene

No, Shenmue’s problem is that it fails to construct a hero worthy of its hyper-detailed world.

Superhyperrealism

Shenmue’s environment is detailed and believable in a way that few games achieve, inside and out. Its day/night cycle defines what activities are available to Ryo at any given moment. Most of the game’s hurdles involve a lack of money and not being in the right place at the right time. You spend countless hours just working everyday jobs to push the story forward. 

In the first game, Ryo’s investigation skills amount to running around his hometown of Yokosuka asking everyone where sailors hang out. It’s even a meme. No matter the topic, the question is always the same: broad and obvious. Ryo has so many questions. He’s learning, a high school senior growing into a hardened warrior. But that’s just it: Ryo Hazuki doesn’t grow into a mature adult. His pursuit of revenge stunts his growth as a person and character, freezing him as the same naïve, way-too-serious kid obsessed with revenge throughout the entire series. 

He is also, and I mean this with all respect, totally self-obsessed. He’s not invested in bonding with anybody he encounters, from his peers in his childhood town to the magnetic Shenhua herself. She’s the one that actually asks Ryo about himself, not his path of violence. Ryo’s never met a party he hasn’t sucked the life from. He’s the Colin Robinson of What We Do in the Shadows to any social gathering. Love the guy, but yikes.

There’s a moment in Shenmue when he finds out about a tattoo parlor where a pivotal lead, a loose-lipped gang member, gets inked. In most games, this would happen within the expanse of a single cutscene, but not this series.
 shenmue letter

Ryo goes to the parlor only to find it’s closed for the day and he must wait an entire 24-hour cycle to return. The game stalls out there, leaving you to your own devices. How do you fill time? You could go shopping. You could go to the arcade. Maybe spar in your home dojo. The choice is yours but, as in life, the choices you have are always less interesting than the ones just out of reach. If you had some money beyond your paltry daily allowance… oh who knows, maybe you’d end up wasting time on the same distractions and errands. 

The Forklift Part

Maybe you’re like me and would rather just go home and sleep the day away. Well, Ryo is a character of strict routine. Just look at his perfectly starched shirt, pressed jeans, and immaculate jacket. You can’t sleep until reaching the appointed hour of 8pm which means if you don’t want to do anything else…you basically don’t do anything. You can stand staring at a wall Blair Witch Project style until the time passes on your Timex watch. You could leave the game running and run a few errands of your own. The next day, you find out the person Ryo was looking for won’t push the needle forward on the plot and tells you to meet up with him tomorrow. Another whole day to waste. It’s a perfect example of Shenmue’s dogged dedication as a “life simulator.” 

shenmue forklift

It may have worked, too, if Ryo was perhaps a more interesting person to spend this time with. It’s not an easy trick, but I can certainly think of a few fictional characters who could make long stretches of time go by in an instant. One easy (and almost certainly Shenmue-inspired) example is Detective Francis York Morgan from Deadly Premonition, with his little film history soliloquies while driving around Greenvale.

But Ryo is definitely not Francis.

Fast forward past questions asked and avoidable fights endured (seriously, Ryo walks into so many impossible fights, it’s mind-boggling), Ryo makes it to the harbor where he finds his true calling in life: forklift driver. The job? Pick up boxes from one warehouse and move them to another. Keep doing that until you meet quota. After a hard day’s work, you get some beer money and Ryo is left to his own devices (interrogations, fights, gashapon, etc).

As soon as Ryo finds out about Lan Di’s whereabouts, the goal shifts to saving up money to leave Japan for Hong Kong; he finds out more about the mirrors and their untold mystical power. As soon as things start soaring above the mundanity of everyday life, Shenmue II starts with Ryo’s arrival in Hong Kong and immediate mugging. No money. Shit’s real. Ryo’s far away from home.

Ryo will get his bag back by asking questions and punching goons. The goons have spent the money, though, so you know what that means? Yup, time for a job. Sadly, Ryo doesn’t get to drive a forklift. Instead, Ryo helps move heavy boxes from one area to another, using his boss’ grunts as audio cues. The repetitive monotony of Ryo’s Hong Kong job is a non-so-subtle analog to life’s job struggles.

shenmue block

Ryo makes a few connections, “befriending” a tough, street-smart character named Joy and a poseur punk who just wants to make it big named Ren of Heavens (again, poseur). He even gets to brawl in some legitimate street fights in Kowloon. 

If Shenmue represents the soft pop rock of youth, Shenmue II represents Ryo’s punk rock days, getting incrementally tougher and wiser. He rebels a little, living life on the edge. By the end of the second game, we’re leaving Hong Kong and Kowloon for the secluded Bailu Village; where Ryo meets Shenhua. There, Ryo discovers a cave of secrets that begins to unravel the mysteries of the mirrors and his own ultimate fate. And then it stops. 

Eighteen years ago, we were given reason to believe Ryo’s life might get a little more surreal, only to wait. 

Chopping Wood and Catching Chickens

And we waited. And waited. With Shenmue III out, plenty of fans are now finishing the game, and sadly, not much has changed. Ryo is still alive and seeking revenge. He still asks a lot of questions and gets into dumb fights. There’s still a lot of stuff to buy, most of which do nothing to advance your quest. There are random jobs like fishing (but you can’t ever buy your own rod, only rent it), catching chickens (yup), and chopping wood. 

As best expressed by the hotel owner that goads you every morning about not having enough money to pay your bill: “Chop some wood and pay your tab.” Ryo chops wood, a lot of wood. It pays poorly, but chopped wood is in high demand. 

Shenhua is on her own journey and — though she accompanies Ryo for many of the game’s events — she lives out her own existence behind the scenes. In many ways, it resembles the people we meet but keep us at a manageable distance. There are so many people that walk in and out of our lives without leaving a mark on your life, or theirs. Ryo is too consumed by revenge to relate to others beyond the surface level. 

Ryo remains aloof, an island unto himself. Life plods forward with constant financial hurdles and danger. Any love interests remain neglected.

While Ryo himself remains as wooden as ever, Shenmue III does make some quality of life improvements to the series formula. For one, waiting around for time to lapse until the next event is, for the most part, a thing of the past. There’s a blessed skip time option. QTE events are more forgiving than they were in the previous two games. If you mess up, the game drops you a few button presses away so you can conquer them without too much stress. That doesn’t change the fact that the QTE, as a game mechanic, might have been more a chore than anything else. Yet again, Shenmue is not subtle. So much of the game is what we “have to do” rather than what we “want to do.” Ambitions, dreams, goals? Go chop wood and pay your way.

shen mue 3 punch

Later in the game, Ryo recovers his true love: the forklift. There’s another harbor job that you can work to make money to — yup — drive  events forward. The game, as always, grinds to a halt when life’s little nuisances and necessities come calling. On that note, there’s something that Shenmue III introduced that did not exist in the previous entries: continuously depleting stamina. Stamina is attached to health and with every. Single. Step. Ryo takes, his health wears down. This means he needs to eat and work out (read: martial arts training) to boost it. To eat, he needs money. If he wants money, he needs to work.

It’s a game mechanic that didn’t need to exist, yet there it is. Another stressor, another to-do item. Like, I know I’m supposed to eat food to stay alive. It’s annoying and gets expensive and you can’t just eat free apples left out by hotel management or else you won’t survive, but Shenmue III doesn’t need to remind me of my poor eating habits, not working out enough, etc.

And if it did, the game could’ve found a more charming or interesting approach here.

Sisyphus III

Shenmue captures the realism of a working world, and in doing so, its flaws ironically showcase many of life’s incongruencies. Philosophically speaking, the series is every bit as absurd as it is hyper-realistic. It’s a modern Myth of Sisyphus. Instead of Sisyphus rolling the rock up a hill only to have it roll back down again for eternity, we have Ryo running around asking questions that only lead to more questions. When he reaches the proverbial hilltop, a game event, he goes back to asking more questions.

shenmue 3 landscape

If Ryo were more interesting, this could be a loop we can get behind. The proverbial thirty seconds of fun.

But instead, Ryo gets lost in life’s various necessities. When the rock rolls back down, we’re left with the understanding that there’s yet another game-day you need to wait out, another box-moving, wood-chopping, forklift-driving shift to work as you get one step closer to earning enough to achieve your current objective. You’ll get there. If 18 years and Shenmue III’s existence means anything, it’s proof that if you keep at it, eventually you’ll reach the top of the hill.

Let’s just, for a moment, bask in the view from that hill. Don’t remind me that I’ll have to go back to chopping more kindling, with a wooden hero, ad infinitum. I know I’ll have to, but not right now. Not in this moment or the next. Let’s just, breathe for a moment. Man, life can be so goddamn boring.

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