Why Shenmue for the Dreamcast is a Cult Classic

Shenmue“Shenmue” for the Sega Dreamcast is a game that not many people had the chance to play when it was originally released. I am a part of that group that considers Shenmue an amazing experience and cult classic. Unfortunately, it debuted in the year 2000 on the Sega Dreamcast, a system that wasn’t able to compete with the Playstation 2. I want to talk about why I consider it a truly immersive game that had a profound effect on how I viewed video games and Japan.

Being Introduced to Shenmue

I was in middle school and the Dreamcast was the hot gaming system at the time. The Playstation 2 had just released, but there were no major games that caught my attention. I would go home after school and read about what new games were coming out or in development.


I remember buying the Official Dreamcast Magazine because it came with a demo disc. I don’t remember what games were on that disc, but only one stayed etched into my memory: Shenmue. There was a rather long video preview of it, but no game demo. I hit the play button and had no idea what I was about to experience. What I saw blew me away. I saw an entire world with realistic characters, everything to scale. There were no dragons, no magic fireballs, and no ice levels. It was like watching a video game recreation of a Japanese movie.This was before open-world games such as Grand Theft Auto III became popular.

The demo video that came with Dreamcast Magazine:

After watching this video preview, I couldn’t shake the image of this fantasy world from my mind. I knew that I had to buy this game. Roughly a year had passed between the time I saw the preview and the game’s official launch in North America. When I put the real game in my Dreamcast, I knew I was in for something special.

[Ryo talking to his father]Shenmue starts you off after an in-game cutscene involving the murder of the main hero’s (Ryu Hazuki) father by an unknown man. The game starts you off in your room in a house. You are then given free-reign to wander throughout a steroetypical Japanese family house in the 80s.

For someone that grew up in a small town in the southern part of the US, being able to experience what living in a house could be like in Japan was mind-blowing. Shenmue is an incredibly detailed game that even some modern games today cannot rival. It’s obvious a lot of love and thought went into the design.

You can walk around in the Hazuki house and open drawers, look in cabinets in the kitchen, and more. Inside the drawers are various items one might find in a typical household from this time period. Most of the drawers and closets serve no purpose for advancing in the game, but they are there for the player to explore. Keep in mind, this was the beginning of the game and I hadn’t even left my own house yet! I was so excited imagining what lay ahead for me beyond the front door of the house.[The main character's house]

As you continue your quest, you go through villages, other neighorhoods, and even a port. All of these were designed from real locations in Japan, which is why everything is so detailed. It’s almost as if the developers were creating a kind of virtual reality for visitors to experience 80s Japan. You have to play it to understand the true depth of the design in this game.
[Ryo at the entrance of his house]
Great design can only get you so far. Is Shenmue fun? When it comes to this game, you either love it or hate it. Just what is it that turns people off about it? I’ve heard complaints that the pace is too slow compared to other games. You’re made to wait for certain events to trigger or having to work a job driving forklifts to earn money. Most people work in real life, so I imagine the last thing they want to do is play a forklift simulator. Another complaint has been the voice acting. There is a lot of spoken dialogue in this game, but the delivery of some of the lines lead to situations becoming awkward or cheesy when they weren’t with the original Japanese audio. That’s unfortunate, but I think many Shenmue fans will argue that the strange English voice acting has a certain charm to it. (not to mention the interesting quotable moments from this game)

I agree that the game has its slow moments, but the whole purpose is to absorb the atmosphere and enjoy wandering around in this world. I don’t think the creators intended for players to rush to beat the game without enjoying all the little things. The developers did listen to players’ complaints and these issues were addressed in Shenmue II, where you can fast forward time if you don’t want to wait for events to happen.

[Ryo on a motocycle]

Why is Shenmue so beloved by fans?

A big reason that fans of Shenmue are so vocal about their love for the game is the story is not over. That’s right, the game’s story was originally meant to be told over a series of games. However, only two games were released, leaving gamers with a cliff-hanger in Shenmue II. It is the charm, the story, and depth of the world of Shenmue that keeps players hopeful that one day the story of Shenmue will be complete, be it through games or other mediums. Shenmue was an ambitious project for SEGA that unfortunately didn’t recoup the initial investment. This has led to fans from all over the world constantly writing to SEGA or its creator, Yuu Suzuki, to continue the Shenmue series on a modern gaming console.

In closing, I strongly recommend anyone with an interest in Japan or the Dreamcast to try playing Shenmue. It’s a wonderful game that is sure to pull you into its world with heart-warming characters. Unfortunately, the game can only be played on a Dreamcast and has yet to be re-released for other systems. If playing it on a Dreamcast is not an option for you, footage of the story and gameplay can be found on YouTube. Check it out if you can!

Do you have any memories of playing Shenmue? If you do, let me know in the comments!

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