Shenmue is a strange game that always fascinated me. The open-world adventure follows Ryo as he pursues his father’s killer across Japan and China, but sometimes he’s on an urgent search for sailors, and others he’s just hanging out by that old capsule-toy machine.
Much like the Dreamcast itself, Shenmue was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. An open world with a large cast of characters, tons of mini-games, and brawler-style combat might have been a little ambitious for the Dreamcast. I was late to the party on getting the console, but when I did, Shenmue was one of the first games I picked up.
A few years later I would finally get around to playing Shenmue II on the original Xbox and spent a long time feeling bad that the story would more than likely never see its conclusion. With Shenmue III aiming for a 2019 release date and remasters of the original two games on the way, it finally looks like Ryo’s tale of revenge will be concluded, but I just don’t think I care anymore.
Last year I finally took the plunge and played my first game in the Yakuza series. I started with Yakuza 0 and quickly realized it was everything I ever wanted from Shenmue and more: an open world filled with side activities, in-depth storytelling, and street brawling action. The journey of Kazuma Kiryu captured me almost immediately, and I’m kicking myself for not picking it up sooner.
For the uninitiated, Yakuza follows the horribly unlucky Kiryu, a ruthless Yakuza turned world’s greatest dad, as he does his best to live a peaceful life all while getting caught up in the politics of power struggles between organized crime syndicates in Japan.
The two series tell incredibly different stories. One is a martial arts tale of redemption, the other a gritty crime story. But Yakuza fully realizes the spirit of what Shenmue wanted to be: a game with a vast world of fleshed-out characters and its fair share of wacky bullshit.
While Yakuza‘s storytelling is top notch, it isn’t the main reason the series was able to hook me so quickly. Kamurocho, the red-light district where most of the major story beats of each game take place, is full of life and side activities to enjoy. SEGA arcades are filled with UFO catchers and real video games. I spent about four hours just sitting around playing Puyo Puyo in Yakuza 6.
Shenmue, much like Yakuza, had its share of leisurely activities to enjoy. Ryo can play darts, billiards, and in Shenmue II he can even enjoy Outrun and Space Harrier at the arcade, two games also playable in Yakuza 0. The most famous Shenmue side activity is the forklift race, a daily event Ryo can participate in once he accepts a job moving containers down at the shipping yard.
Yakuza also introduces a more intentional brand of weird than Shenmue ever managed to achieve. Any odd shit happening on Ryo’s adventure always seemed like the result of poor localization or the rough character models. Yakuza, however, pumps up the weird in most of the game’s substories, side missions that usually focus on aiding folks around the city.
One such mission in Yakuza 0 sees Kiryu help a dominatrix learn how to be good at her job while another in Yakuza 6 has him find stray cats for a local cat cafe because in between beating up street punks, Kiryu moonlights as Kamurocho’s Witcher.
Shenmue made a fantastic blueprint for what at the time seemed like the most bizarre video game imaginable. Years later, Yakuza would come along and prove that it could be done bigger and better. It had a rocky start overseas including an attempt at some pretty high-profile voice actors for the English version (Mark Hamill played Goro Majima), but recently starting with the release of Yakuza 0, the series seems to be finding a dedicated audience outside of Japan.
Weird games will always fascinate me, and Shenmue is at the top of my list. I’m sure part of that strange air is due to the localization efforts of the time, and I’ll probably keep an eye out to see if Shenmue III retains any of that weirdness — but it’s hard to get excited about the new game, or the remasters, now that the Dragon of Dojima has worked his way into my heart.
Yakuza has been everything I ever wanted out of Shenmue, and I’m sure Peter Glagowski would agree I’m an idiot for not picking up the series sooner. For now, I’m far more excited about the upcoming Yakuza remasters than a new Shenmue. I’d recommend any fan of the curious Dreamcast game who still hasn’t taken the plunge into Kamurocho make it a priority.