Shenmue, a martial arts adventure created by Sega legend Yu Suzuki, is old. It first launched for the Dreamcast back in 1999—yet, remarkably, it still does some things better than modern games released over 20 years later. At the turn of the millennium it was the most expensive video game ever made, costing $70 million to develop—which would be around $110 million today. But when you consider that Red Dead Redemption 2 reportedly cost Rockstar a staggering $540 million, that doesn't seem like much at all. It's a primitive game in many ways, from a period when console developers were still getting to grips with the possibilities of 3D. But it was also way ahead of its time, particularly in how it simulated its world.
Shenmue is set in Yokosuka, a Japanese city located about 30 miles south of Tokyo. I was lucky enough to visit the real place in 2019, which you can read about here. It's a tiny world by modern standards, consisting entirely of a couple of small residential areas, a port, and a shopping district. But the magic of Shenmue is that, while it may be small, this authentic slice of 1980s Japan is incredibly detailed. The level of visual fidelity is low, but the exquisite art direction and palpable atmosphere transcend its technical shortcomings. It's one of the most evocative, transporting settings in video game history, brilliantly capturing the minutiae of everyday life in Japan. Whenever I play it, I completely lose myself in it.
I could say the same about Red Dead Redemption 2, which is just as good at drawing you into its world through painstaking world-building and attention to detail. But there's something Shenmue does to make its world feel real that I've never seen in another game—not even a lavish, expensive Rockstar one. Whenever you see someone on the street in Yokosuka, they're not just a randomly generated NPC placed there to create the illusion that this is a bustling, populated city: they're a person. Every character in Shenmue, no matter how minor, has a unique backstory and a daily routine. You can even follow them all day and watch them go about their business, if you don't mind making hero Ryo act like a creep.
Early in the morning, shop owners will walk from their homes, or the bus stop if they live out of town, to their businesses on Dobuita Street and lift the shutters to start the day's trading. In the evening, they pull them back down and go home. You'll see your neighbours strolling in the park, shopping, and chatting at set times. You'll find the same people eating lunch at their favourite restaurants each day at noon. A shady biker will take a break from working on his motorcycle to while away the afternoon in the arcade, then hit the seedy bars when night falls. Ryo's housekeeper prays at the shrine in the Hazuki dojo every evening. In the rain, people will shelter indoors or walk quickly under umbrellas.
The original Dreamcast release of Shenmue came bundled with a fourth disc called the Shenmue Passport. Here, you'd find biographies for every single character in the game—even NPCs you only briefly catch a glimpse of. Some of them are absolutely tragic too, like the background of the salaryman you see wandering up and down Dobuita Street every day. He looks like a regular working stiff, but the Shenmue Passport reveals that he's just been made redundant and is too ashamed to tell his wife and child. Shenmue is a deeply melancholy game, which is another part of its strange, beguiling charm. Even animals like Megumi's kitten have a backstory. Hers is actually longer than some of the human characters.
Deep down, it's a very simple simulation. There's nothing technically complex about it. But the illusion of life it creates is immensely powerful. You feel like this is a world that exists and functions whether you're there or not. As you play, you start picking up on people's routines without consciously realising it. You know Nozomi will always be working at the flower shop during weekdays, or that Ryuji from the Water Dragon thrift store will be chowing down at Funny Bear Burger each lunchtime. This brings a sense of cosy familiarity to the setting—and a charming feeling of community that I've never encountered in any other video game. Yokosuka is a place, not just a cardboard, place-shaped box.
This makes the moment when you have to leave it behind at the end of the game, embarking on a long journey to Hong Kong, absolutely devastating. You've spent 30 hours here, getting to know these people, and now you have to say goodbye. This mirrors Ryo's emotional journey, who's leaving his hometown, friends, and family to hunt the man who killed his father. Even after several playthroughs, it still hits me hard. Modern games may be infinitely more complex and intricate than Shenmue, but sharing a world with people who are people, not just faceless automatons, elevates it above pretty much all of them in terms of feeling like a real place. It's amazing how ahead of the curve Shenmue still is.
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