Hey guys. It’s 1999-Christopher here, reporting from the end of the millennium, or as we like to call it, the Willennium. That’s still a thing, right? Will Smith completely changed how we refer to time? No? Maybe? Anyway, I’m here to talk about the world of the past. It’s 1999. Bill Clinton is the president of the United States of America. The Y2k bug is a pretty big fear for a lot of people. And me? I’m 17, and I’ve just moved into my first apartment outside of my parents’ house. I’ve talked about this apartment before, and it really does resonate with me as one of the most important periods of my life. In many ways, it’s where I learned how to adult.
It’s also where I played through Shenmue I.
Hey guys. It’s 2005-Christopher here, reporting from the mid-oughts. George W. Bush is now president. The nation has entered a war on terror, which I suspect we’ll wrap up fairly quickly. I mean, the President gave a speech in front of a banner that said “Mission Accomplished”! That’s pretty clear. Personally, I’m living in my first apartment post-college. I’ve graduated with a degree in Journalism, and I’m working as a reporter and producer for a local TV station. My apartment is sparse: a bed to sleep on, a folding chair, and places for my video games and PC. I’m a bit lost. I have an idea of what I want to do for a living, but I don’t know for sure. In this apartment, I sleep, wake up, go to work, come home, make some dinner, and play video games.
It’s also where I played through Shenmue II.
TIME WARP!! AGAIN!!
Hi. It’s me. 2020-Christopher. Man, we’ve had a crazy ride through time, right? The president is … well, who he is, and that war on terror thing didn’t really work out, I guess. But we got a new Shenmue game, so let’s talk about that!
That’s what I love about Shenmue games, man. I get older, they stay the same age.
Let me get this out of the way, rip this Band-Aid right off. Shenmue III is not a good game by any objective measure I use. The controls are clunky. The graphics don’t look great. The voice acting is incredibly stilted and rough. The story is really simple, and there’s no real satisfying conclusion to the story we all started 20 years ago. For all of the issues I had with The Last of Us, going from that game into this one was a major culture shock and incredibly reflective of how far video games have come in such a short time. Even TLOU, a game originally released six years ago, looks, sounds, and feels leaps and bounds ahead of Shenmue III.
The one area that I can safely say Shenmue III excels is this: It is a great Shenmue game.
What I mean by that is, Shenmue III plays exactly like time stood still in 1999. There’s something to be said for that, really. Any time a game company chooses to release a new entry in a series that has not been touched in a while, they take a risk. Sometimes, like 2016’s DOOM, the risk pays off. While I haven’t played it yet, both critics and fans agreed it was a great update to the original series. To hear it described, it was as if Jon Carmack et al. reached through a time portal and developed the original game with today’s standards. For Shenmue III, Yu Suzuki seemed to have taken the opposite approach. Aside from some graphics upgrades, Shenmue III is a modern game developed with the standards of the early 2000s.
It is a risk all its own, but it’s also possible that it’s exactly what fans wanted, and therefore, it’s exactly what Suzuki should have done. After all, Shenmue III would not have happened without major fan involvement.
Because I could not stop for Shenmue III, it kindly stopped for me.
It’s impossible to talk about Shenmue III without also talking about its storied history. The first two games failed to recoup their legendary development costs, leading to a slim chance of a third entry in the series. For those of us who played the first two games, this was really sad, because Shenmue II ended on a bit of a cliffhanger. Jump ahead to 2015, when Suzuki suddenly appeared during Sony’s E3 press conference to announce that he would start a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of Shenmue III.
The Internet broke. That campaign was successfully funded within seven hours of Suzuki’s appearance and eventually raised over $6 million, which is still the largest amount ever raised on Kickstarter for an individual video game. While Suzuki almost assuredly received funding from other sources at some point, the fact remains: Shenmue III wouldn’t have happened without the fans.
With that in mind, can Suzuki be faulted for developing a game that is essentially what fans paid for? As long as Suzuki’s vision and the fan’s desires line up, I’d say it’s okay. We’ve yet to really see if that’s what’s happened, but a quick glance at Metacritic user reviews shows that most people who funded the game got exactly what they wanted, with only a few rating the game low, and even then, primarily because of the Epic Game Store exclusivity.
So, if almost everyone is happy, who am I to fault that? As a critic, how can I criticize a game which doesn’t even ask to be criticized? You always hear about auteurs telling critics that a particular piece of media “wasn’t made for them,” but in the case of Shenmue III, that’s actually true. Shenmue III was made for the fans that funded it.
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
I want to talk about my own experience with Shenmue III. As mentioned above, I loved Shenmue I and II. I played both games during incredibly important moments in my life, and it’s impossible for me to view them in any other way. During the first game, I was trying to figure out my own place in the world, separate from being the son of my parents. For what it’s worth, the world of Shenmue I gave me a wonderful escape from a larger world that felt kind of scary. I was learning to make rent every month, while walking down to a nearby convenience store to stand in the beer cooler during a remarkably hot summer, because we couldn’t afford to run the air conditioner. And, when I felt lost after graduating from college, Shenmue II gave me somewhere to go where the world made sense, and if I wanted, I could just play some Lucky Hit after my shift at the docks. Both games gave me exactly what I needed at their respective points in my life, and I will always be thankful for that.
With Shenmue III, though, I don’t really feel the same way. I enjoyed the game for what it was. But, ultimately, I got really bored about halfway through. Once the shine of nostalgia wore off, what I was left with was a series of fetch quests that took me from one side of the map to the other over and over again, only briefly broken up by some fighting parts, some work parts, and some capsule-collecting parts. And true to form, that is exactly the same as the older Shenmue games.
Here’s the thing, though. The games may be the same, but I’m not. I’m different. And I think that’s where my issue lies.
I don’t want mundanity in my video games. I like my life, and I don’t feel the need to escape it. The diversions in Shenmue III are plentiful, but I don’t really want diversions in my games anymore. I have so many things in my life vying for attention, spending hours upon hours collecting all of the capsule toys in a given series ultimately feels like a waste of time, and while all video games can be a good waste of time, I’d prefer that my time be wasted in a less overt fashion. For example, I’m currently playing Hollow Knight, and I like it a lot. But, I know that Hollow Knight wastes my time quite a bit. A lot of time spent wandering around the map, looking for new paths that have been opened by the last ability I obtained, or by dying over and over to a boss until I learn enough to beat it. I’m aware that this is ultimately wasted time, but it doesn’t feel like the same as hitting the left button on my D-Pad over and over to see if I get that little limousine toy I need to complete the Cars 2 set.
By the time I finished Shenmue III, I was just ready for it to be done. I can appreciate the game for sticking to its formula, but I don’t know that that’s enough, especially considering that, as previously mentioned, the technical aspects of game itself feel extremely dated and frustrating.
I have a lot of respect for Yu Suzuki for a lot of reasons. He has kept his vision for Shenmue alive for a very long time. He’s done what he has had to do to get another entry in the series made. And, while he could have copped out on the story and wrapped things up with this game, he chose not to, instead writing a heartfelt thank you to the fans in the final credits and expressing his hope that he can continue the story in Shenmue IV. Only time will tell whether that’s the case. I do hope it does go on. Because, while it may not have resonated with me, I think it has resonated with a lot of people. And if that’s the case, then Suzuki deserves to finish telling his story, and Shenmue fans deserve to see the end.