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Shenmue is a strange, gently plodding beast of a game that we'll never see the likes of again. Even when Shenmue 3 comes out, it will likely focus on different things, different aspects of gameplay. Shenmue is currently gaming's one and only kung-fu small town life simulator, and that's commendable.

This makes the fourth time in my life I've finished Shenmue 1 and every time I've played it I've seen different scenes, talked to people and discovered what to do next in different ways. I've gotten different toys out of the capsule machines and won different prizes in the lucky-dip draws in the stores. The plot of Shenmue is the same every time, the way you work through that plot is different and organic.

Shenmue came with a disc on the Dreamcast called the Shenmue Passport. (Which sadly is not replicated in the Steam release.) The Shenmue Passport had every NPC in Ryo's hometown. Name, age, blood type, Zodiac signs. Every NPC follows schedules that make every one of them seem something more like a real person. You'll never know the name of that one blonde girl in the coat, but she'll happily tell you to stop asking her so many questions, because she's busy.

In other games, NPCs materialize from the ether whenever you're not looking in a particular direction. Those NPC do not have a story behind them. They're a random collection of assets: Hair, facial features, clothing, body type, that was generated ten minutes ago. They may be doing things but they were created two minutes ago when you swung the camera around and the game needed to populate the street.

The NPCs in other games are exactly as functional as Shenmue's NPCs. Doing all that work for Shenmue was, perhaps, unimportant and wasteful. Whether you think so or not kind of defines how you'll feel about Shenmue in total.

Shenmue is about drawers full of clutter you can pick up and look at. Shenmue is about hours standing in a vacant lot punching the air to rank up your kung fu moves, because Ryo is a martial artist and needs to practice his moves to get good at them. It's about playing Hang-On and Space Harrier in an arcade because those were arcade games around in 1986, which is when Shenmue takes place. It's about forklift racing every morning and Ryo being memeticly emotionally dead towards people he actually likes.

Shenmue is about Ryo taking one last walk down the street before leaving his hometown, before his adventure even truly begins, and the dull aching realization that you know every face he passes. Maybe not the names (or the blood types or where they live) but you know those people and it's time to say goodbye to them, just like Ryo is.

It's Shenmue, and there's never been anything like it since. I'm about to move on to Shenmue 2, which is Ryo as a fish out of water in Hong Kong. I've never actually played it before.

There may not be anything like that out there either.

I'll let you guys know.

[EDIT] - This Eurogamer article says the same thing I did, but better.


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