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Best of the Decade: Shenmue


Platform: Dreamcast

Release Date: November 6, 2000

Publisher: Sega

Developer: Sega AM2

Technically speaking, Shenmue shouldn’t have quite made this list. I value honesty, so I’ll put that out there before anyone calls me on it. Some people celebrated their best of the decade at the end of 2009. Fair enough. I like round numbers, so I did mine at the end of 2010, where the year ends with a nice zero. 

The downside to this is that the year 2000 was 11 years ago. Eleven years is more than a decade. Well, screw it I say, because I’m not going to let a puny couple of months keep me from celebrating this under-appreciated and influential title.

See, some people would have put Grand Theft Auto III in this spot. Truly it would be deserving, as I can’t think of a single game more influential over the last ten years than Rockstar’s first open-world opus. Hell, half the games on this list wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Grand Theft Auto III.

But this list isn’t the most important or influential games of the past ten years, it’s those that I consider my favorites. My criteria may be subjective, but I happen to think that makes the list more personal and more interesting. 

So I’m choosing Shenmue. This forgotten Dreamcast classic did “open-world” before it was cool and paired it with a story that was gripping and epic to boot. It’s a story that was never finished because of poor sales and skyrocketing budgets, and that’s a damn shame, but I don’t think that should overshadow what Shenmue accomplished. 

Shenmue was a game before its time. Only later would technology and economics make games of this scale and depth successful on a broader scale, but Sega tried it anyway and forged a path for all to come. More than just its size was ahead of its time, though. When you examine the world players explored in this game and compare it to those that came after, Shenmue’s design is closer to modern titles than those that immediately followed Grand Theft Auto III in one important respect: level of detail.

Look at where open-world games have gone over the past ten years. We started with GTA III and moved to San Andreas and Oblivion, getting bigger and bigger until suddenly we realized that these huge worlds were seeming empty, lifeless, and tedious. Now we’re getting games like Fallout 3 and GTA IV that are on a smaller scale in terms of sheer size but feature far greater detail in their worlds, making them feel more believable.

Shenmue was not the barren, expansive wasteland of the PS2 Grand Theft Auto era. It skipped that step entirely, realizing bigger wasn’t necessarily better before the rest of the industry even knew what open-world was. Talk about forward-thinking. 

I still remember being blown away by simply exploring Shenmue’s world. You could walk into every building, read every sign, and open every drawer. Each character had their own daily routine. You could waste time playing games in the arcade. You even got an awesome job driving a forklift at one point. Few games manage this level of detail even today. Its presentation may be dated by modern standards, but that doesn’t make what it achieved any less incredible.

It’s no wonder Shenmue cost Sega a fortune. That the game was actually released in Japan in 1999 is simply mind-blowing. 

I spent $80 or so, a ton of money to me at the time, to buy a European copy of Shenmue II for the Dreamcast. The game never made it to the U.S. on its home console, which is cause for much sadness. I would have been even more sad if I had realized at the time that the series would never be finished at all. Fate is cruel that way.

I don’t regret the purchase though. Shenmue II was even more epic than the original. Its release date? Only one month after Grand Theft Auto III, the game that would eventually steal the spotlight of history away from Shenmue. In the time it had taken Rockstar to develop the first entry in its winning formula of open-world chaos, Sega had released two titles that were so far ahead of their time that it would take nearly ten years for me to realize why they were better than GTA III. Now that’s amazing.

As long as we’re on the theme of Shenmue being before its time, it’s worth noting that the game introduced the modern version of Quick Time Events. God of War always gets the credit for this, but it was released nearly five years later. Once again, proper credit isn’t given to Sega’s series where it’s due. Not only was Shenmue the first modern game to implement these contextual button presses, it actually coined the term “Quick Time Event”. I realize this isn’t an entirely positive development, but it sure as hell was influential. Also, consider that, at the time, even I loved the QTEs in Shenmue. The idea may have worn thin, but it wasn’t a bad concept back then, it has just been horribly abused since. In any case, the record deserves to be set straight.

When I think back over my time with Shenmue, I don’t remember the blemishes. I don’t dwell on the fact that the story was never finished. What always comes to mind first is the sheer glee I got from being immersed in this incredible foreign culture, this detailed representation of a land far away and inaccessible to me. No game since has honestly matched the feeling. I long for the day when something else revolutionary will come along and make that feeling possible again, though I fear I may never get the chance, as bold experiments like Shenmue simply aren’t seen anymore these days. I say puny little GTA III can go sit on its pedestal and enjoy the praise lavished upon it by every other gaming outlet out there. My pick for open-world opus, for establisher of trends and king of immersive detail, is Shenmue. 

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