As of this writing, Shenmue III holds a Metascore of 71 on Metacritic, with a User Score of 8.2. The general consensus among critics is that the game looks and plays like it should’ve come out 20 years ago…but fans of the series will love it. And they’re Goddamn right. Shemue III, released for PlayStation 4 and PC a few weeks ago on November 19, 2019, is a game that shouldn’t exist, but it does only because of its fans. And this game is only for its fans.
To be clear: this isn’t a review or a rundown of the game series’ history. You can go search any clickbaity piece of shit article or video made by some YouTube douchebag right now trying to capitalize on the resurgence of the game’s popularity for a “history lesson”. No, this is about what Shenmue means to me and how its struggle for creative freedom in an industry over-saturated with too many “me too” games resonates with my own journey as an independent filmmaker.
Shenmue III and series creator (and all-around video game legend) Yu Suzuki make no apologies. This is THE GAME that fans of the series have waited almost 20 years for (the previous entry in the series, Shenmue II, was released in 2001-2002 for the Sega Dreamcast and XBox). While the original game was revolutionary at the time, being seen as the precursor to the “open-world” video game genre, Shenmue III…is not so much. And that’s okay.
Shenmue is a series of slow, mundane Japanese “life simulator” video games. You take on the role of main character Ryo Hazuki, an 18 year old martial artist. Throughout the games, you take Ryo from 1980’s Japan to Hong Kong and then onward to rural China, where Shenmue III picks up.
Really. It LITERALLY picks up right after the previous game, gameplay and all. The graphics look like a natural next-generation evolution of the original Dreamcast’s look, for better or worse. The stilted and corny dialogue, delivered in both English and Japanese, is just as stilted and corny as it was back in 2001. Shenmue III is still a slow, mundane Japanese “life simulator”. And in a day and age where photo-realism and/or the ability to do anything and go anywhere is practically a guaranteed way to make a successful video game, Shenmue is still as humble and earnest as ever.
Sure, the fact that this entry into the series is a (relatively) low-budget title, and it only exists because it was crowd-funded through Kickstarter may make it seem like many corners were cut in order to deliver the game in the cheapest way possible. But as a die-hard fan of the series, I see it differently.
Yeah, the combat system, graphics, and overall presentation lack the polish of the original games, and yeah, I do wish a bit more was put into all of that. But I also see a creator absolutely sticking to his vision. Even when he had an almost unlimited budget to create the first game, he chose to make a game that was in actuality, pretty decisive. The original games were criticized for their slow pacing and (even for the time) old fashion gameplay mechanics.
Fast-forward 20 years to the third in the series, and instead of adapting and “selling-out” to today’s gaming trends, Yu Suzuki stuck to his vision. Despite knowing very well that this low budget, crowd-funded game may be his absolute last chance to make another game in the series he created, Yu Suzuki stuck to his vision.
The historic and surprise announcement about the game’s development made at E3 2015 caused a massive resurgence in the popularity of the series, even if seen as a novelty to the mainstream audience (which, by the way, FUCK THEM). And yet, despite all of the media attention, all of the interest from those who didn’t even know what the fuck Shenmue was, instead of using that opportunity to create a game that would appeal to everyone to generate as much profit as possible, Yu Suzuki stuck to his vision. And for that, I truly admire him.
And I fucking love this game.
I’m not telling anyone to give this game a chance. Because chances are, if you don’t know Shenmue, then you won’t know Shenmue.
If you’d like to give it a shot, then start with the original two games, both of which were re-released last year for the PlayStation 4 and PC. Play those first, and then see if you’re down. That’s really the only way. As mentioned above, this game makes no apologies. It’s wonderfully old fashioned, embarrassingly low-tech, and 100% the vision of a single artist.
In a world where the word “content” is being used more and more frequently and often getting confused with actual art, where anyone with a fucking iPhone or DSLR camera can become a filmmaker, where the wretched and down-right LAZY genre called the “fan-film” actually exists (and you’re welcome to click here and watch mine), it’s incredibly exciting, refreshing, and inspiring to see someone stick to their guns and make something both original and authentic, no matter how much smarter it would be for them to sell-out like everyone else.
These opinions may not win me any friends or help me further my career as a filmmaker, but like Shenmue and Yu Suzuki, I guess I make no apologies either.
Fuck the general audience.