"I walk the streets of Japan 'til I get lost," sang Audioslaves's Chris Cornell, "because it doesn't remind me of anything."
Obviously, Cornell has never played Shenmue, because if he had, he would have been instantly reminded of quests for sailors and high-pitched little girls talking about their kitty.
When I first arrived in Japan several years ago, some things felt strangely familiar. The blinding white of the convenience store; the cozy, box-sized bars piping jazz played on a My First Casio keyboard; the curving streets that mixed concrete jungle with temples. It felt in some ways like I was revisiting an old haunt, but I had never been there - except in Shenmue.
Shenmue is a stunning testament to videogames' power to draw players into their world. Eight years after its release, Shenmue remains the most ambitious game ever created. It recalls the greatest excesses of Hollywood, in its ludicrous ambition and budget, which is said to have run anything from $20 million to $70 million. It divided gamers and critics, sold poorly, and still has a rabid fan base calling for creator Yu Suzuki to finish the story.
Yet there are no signs that he will. Shenmue 3 languishes in pre-development, and six years on, Ryo and Shenhua are still stuck in that cave.
After Shenmue flopped so famously, it took a brave company to return to something so superficially similar. But in Yakuza (Ryu ga Gotoku in Japanese), Sega returned to the streets of Japan.
Where Shenmue painted a friendly world of kindly surrogate mothers and innocent schoolgirls, Yakuza showed a seedier side of Japan. Replacing arcades with porno stores and martial arts training with stabbing your opponent in the ribs with a broken bottle, Yakuza's Kamuro-cho was Yokosuka's evil twin. Put together, the two games represent a greater push for immersion and authenticity than any other developer has attempted.
Shenmue is something you either love or hate. The haters have any number of reasons: Some deride its interminably slow pace, some its fetch-quest gameplay, others its substandard plot and voice acting.
But those who love it share one common passion: the way it sucked the player into its world and did not let him go. Like a hypnotist's spell, it put you under, and just like hypnosis, it only seems to work for a certain percentage of the population.
In some ways, Shenmue is gaming's Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's classic also featured wretched expositional dialogue, endless uneventful traveling and ambiguous homoerotic subtexts, but none of these could stop Tolkien's world from seeping into your brain. Both sold poorly when first released, and like LOTR before Peter Jackson, Shenmue is a perennial fan favorite, but has little commercial appeal.
Tolkien captured the imaginations of millions because of his ability to submerge the player in his world. His anal attention to detail, millennia of created history, continents and languages, created something the reader had no choice but to believe in. This is also the key to Shenmue's success. Its plot was second-rate and the gameplay often dull, but those who were able to suspend their disbelief were taken to a new world.
Just as Shenmue's protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, is destined to journey to the new land of China, so too do we journey to a different world, a stunning recreation of 1980s Japan. A case example of Shenmue's self-indulgence is the new genre Suzuki declared for his game: FREE (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment). Every character you saw could be talked to; almost every building could be entered, every floor of it explored: In Ryo's home, you could open every drawer and closet, see what's in the fridge.