['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we take a look at the epic, and lamentably unfinished Shenmue series.]

shenmue.jpgWe had been hearing about Shenmue for years before it was released. First there were rumors that Yu Suzuki was working on a Virtua Fighter RPG for the Saturn. As the director of Sega’s AM2 division, Suzuki had been responsible for some of the company’s most exciting arcade titles. Space Harrier, Hang-On, Out Run, Virtua Cop, and the epochal Virtua Fighter series were all the work of Suzuki and his AM2 team, so the idea of a new title for home consoles was very intriguing.

As more information trickled out of Japan, VF RPG became known as Project Berkley and development moved to Sega’s new generation of hardware. No one knew what Project Berkley was except that it would big, different, and amazing. As Katana became Dreamcast, Project Berkley was given the official title of Shenmue. Suzuki called the game a F.R.E.E. RPG, which stood for Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment and it would feature Q.T.E. or Quick Timer Events. No one could figure out what he meant by that either. After years of development and a budget estimated at 20 million, possibly as high as 70 million, the first chapter of Shenmue was released for the Dreamcast in 2000 to critical acclaim and consumer indifference.

Chapter 1: Yokosuka

shenmuescreen.jpgShenmue started off full of drama and intrigue, a sort of kung-fu revenge tale crossed with a Hardy Boys mystery. However, once the narrative was set up, you found yourself strangely free, wandering the back streets of urban Japan with little pressure to accomplish anything except to slowly settle into the game’s minutely detailed world.

At first, Shenmue’s open ended structure was startling, so different from most other goal oriented video games. The casual pace of Shenmue allowed you the time to linger over trivialities and follow whatever whim came along. You could spend all day at the arcade playing Hang-On or map the locations of every vending machine, sampling each flavor of soda as you drifted about. The designers sweated the details as much as was technically possible and constructed a solid environment textured with the patina of life. The Japan depicted in Shenmue was working class, a landscape of cheap fluorescent lights, water stained ceiling tiles, and chipped concrete. Not the high tech wonderland of Western imagination, but a Japan that was closer to the way it really is; old and slightly rundown, worn at the edges by the shuffle of people going about their lives.

However, pushing against the walls of the game you began to understand the limits of its artificial world. Along with the freedom that Shenmue seemed to promise, came the creeping realization that you were an actor in its drama and that you must eventually take the stage and play your part.

As a game Shenmue largely succeeded. The fighting was satisfying, with many opportunities to teach bullies the values of humility and respect. How you fought was up to you, whether you wanted to go deep into fancy combo moves or just button mash your way to victory, either approach was valid. Shenmue’s climactic running battle will always be one of my most pleasurable video game memories.

Other aspects of the game could be tedious, particularly in the second half when you were required to go work everyday. It was certainly a strange experience to come home from my real job and then punch the clock in Shenmue. The Simon Says/Dragon’s Lair-like Quick Timer Events were sometimes frustrating. Still, I was always surprised by the game’s ability to reengage me with some interesting twist just as my attention began to flag.

Shenmue was released in America in November of 2000. It shipped with two booklets and four GD-ROMs and included a supplemental Passport disc. It can still be acquired new from Game Quest Direct for $29.99. Sega also released a limited edition of Shenmue that added a music CD of jukebox tunes from the game. The LE version goes for around $35 at online auctions. Collectors might also want to seek out the 1998 Japanese release of Virtua Fighter 3tb which included a second disc called Project Berkley that had an interview with Yu Suzuki along with a teaser for Shenmue.

Chapter 2: Hong Kong

shenmue2screen.jpgSega of America broke my heart with Shenmue II. The game was set to be released in the Fall of 2001 and my calendar was marked. I couldn’t wait to return to its world. Then Sega abruptly walked away from the Dreamcast and made the last minute decision to cancel Shenmue II’s U.S. release. The game was shuffled back into development to create an Xbox version that wouldn’t be ready for another year.

Sega had done a lot to alienate its fans over the years but pulling Shenmue II was more than I could take. I could not understand how Sega came to its decision to publish the sequel on a different system whose user base would likely have no prior awareness or interest in Shenmue. My only comfort was the thrill of schadenfreude when I later saw massive quantities of Sega’s Xbox efforts (including Shenmue II) end up in deeply discounted bargain bins.

shenmue2.jpgThe Xbox version of Shenmue II finally made it to America in the Fall of 2002. It had slightly enhanced graphics and an English dub as well as a few other tweaks and add-ons. It also included a 90 minute DVD version of Shenmue that was produced using cut-scenes and in-game footage. Shenmue II for Xbox can still be purchased new from Game Quest Direct for $14.99. The game has also been recently added to the Xbox 360 backwards compatibility list.

Although Shenmue II was canceled for U.S. Dreamcast market, Europe squeaked by, getting the game late in 2001. The European version retained the original Japanese language voice-overs and provided English subtitles. It shipped in an impressive looking package of two double disc Euro style jewel cases along with four duplicate manuals and a slipcover. The European version can be found at auction for around $45.

Chapter 3....

The Shenmue story was supposed to be told over 16 chapters but so far little has come of it. A multiplayer online version of Shenmue was announced for Asia in 2004 but the partnership between Sega and the game’s Korean developer JC Entertainment dissolved in a lawsuit. Supposedly work continues on the MMORPG but no English version is planned.

Many of Shenmue’s advancements have become part of the established vocabulary of game design. Quick Timer Events were seamlessly incorporated into Resident Evil 4 and Tomb Raider: Legend and the idea provides the game play foundation of Indigo Prophecy. Some have described Sega’s Yakuza as Shenmue without a humorless eunuch as its main character.

There are rumors that a completed version of the Shenmue saga which condenses the later chapters is being developed for one of the new generation of consoles but considering the series’ low sales, I don’t have much confidence in Sega’s commitment to finishing it.

[Jeffrey Fleming is an East Bay writer. To read more, please visit Tales of the Future.]