Sunday, May 12, 2013

Shenmue and the ambition of an awkward age of growing pains


Today, I got an e-mail from that had Shenmue 2 as a 'new arrival' at the top of it. It had been a while since I'd seen Shenmue mentioned anywhere, (and this is quite a feat, since, if you know me, you know that I spend a goodly bit of my time concentrating on retro games) let alone Shenmue 2. Each time I encounter it anymore, Shenmue always reminds me of two things right away: that oddly nostalgic feeling of, back then, thinking of how this was, "The start of the future." How - when it actually took time to get info on games, monthly print magazines were still pervasive, and gaming sites were not nearly as numerous and competitive and were only updated a few times a day - every little bit of information built up into this world of sorts, and in a day where there was no such thing as a "developer diary", seeing things come along like that was a rarity.

The other thing was, still is and always has been, that I remember an early article in which it was stated that Shenmue was intended to have something like 26 chapters, which I was blown away by. Especially in light of the fact that over 10 years later there have only been 2 entries in the series released (so far). Even more surprising is the fact that this is a Japanese game and nothing else has been done in nearly 12 years. Japanese creators have always had a knack for continuing their work in other mediums: OAVs, manga, anime, live action... Shenmue even flirted with this, with something that'd take hypnosis by space aliens in the west, to happen. (And remember, this was in the time before computer animated movies were a viable, mainstream, popular art form with anyone other than kids) They released, into actual Japanese theaters, a cut-together version of all of the cut scenes and QuickTime events as played by expert players, as a movie. This footage was released on a DVD with the Xbox version of Shenmue 2 in the west, as the first game was never released on anything but the Dreamcast, and I guess they wanted players who hadn't played the first game to be able to get up to speed without having to have a whole other system.

I remember how ridiculous I was about games back in the day. I actually bought a Japanese Dreamcast 3 months before the US release because I wanted to play Marvel Vs Capcom at home so badly. Then, I bought the US version when it came out. And again, I was so rabid for Shenmue that when the Japanese version released, I jumped online to an importer and bought the limited edition, and then the US version when it came out. I also remember clumsily trying to parse through the Japanese in the game back then when my skills weren't quiiiiiiiite as good as they are today. But then I remember hating the dubbing and localization of the western version, and going back to the J-version.

But I also remember that Shenmue was about the first game that I'd seen that had that much hype that the end product looked as good as what was shown at trade shows, the still-very-young E3, Tokyo Game Show when it was still relevant, etc. I miss that era that you now only hear about in talk about the past - usually with Japanese developers - like Iwata Asks on Nintendo's website, or sites like Did You Know Gaming. That ambition and experimental nature that companies risked before giant teams worked on, and pervasive committee thinking and focus group mentality dictated things due to necessity of profits

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